Tibet's Railway and environment


Apprehensions about the railway’s adverse effects on the environment and wildlife have proved exaggerated, if not entirely baseless. An unprecedented 1.5 billion yuan package of environment protection measures, including systems to store garbage and wastewater and treat them in designated stations, and 33 special passageways for antelopes and other wildlife, has been put in place. Technologies of heat preservation, slope protection, and roadbed ventilation have reportedly come to the aid of the plateau’s frozen tundra. Scientists have set up a long-term monitoring system for water, air, noise, and ecology. Further, greening the 700-km Tibet section of the railway – planting 26,000 hectares of trees over the next five years – is under way.

The real threat to Tibet’s environment comes not from the railway but from global warming. A leading climate change scientist, Dong Guangrong of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has been quoted in the Chinese media as estimating that the ‘roof of the world’ glacier, which constitutes 47 per cent of China’s total glacier coverage, is shrinking at the rate of 7 per cent a year. He and other scientists have warned that the melting glacier will trigger droughts, expand desertification, and worsen sandstorms.

Aside from the railway, the development of a new kind of physical infrastructure – highways, paved roads, bridges, power lines, telecommunications, irrigation channels, modern housing, and so forth – is there for all to see. The plan is to build, by 2010, ‘high-class highways’ to connect 100 per cent of Tibet’s townships and 80 per cent of its administrative villages; and to convert 80 per cent of the roads into blacktops. Expressways, however, are considered unsuitable for a region that has only 2.3 persons per square km.

As you speed along the highway from Lhasa to Xigaze for five hours or more, you are offered rapid frame alternations of the new and the old, the modern and the traditional, in a heady mixture of sensory experiences. A surprise is how easily you can connect to the outside world: the gprs on your mobile phone works along much of the Lhasa-Xigaze highway. While browsing the internet for news of the outside world or answering your email, you can catch a glimpse of how the bulk of Tibetans live: in mud and stone houses; cultivating small plots and tending livestock; prayer flags fluttering; primitive farming and nomadic practices; basic living conditions; colourful long skirts, striped aprons, beads, and incongruous cowboy hats; people squatting road-side; and children in school uniform on their way home.

Transforming the conditions of life and work of these simple folk is the basic challenge before the central and regional governments.

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