Tag Archives: China environment

Mining Rubble: Tibet’s Mineral Resources and Fragile Ecology

jaima mine tibet. Image from China Daily

The ecology of the Tibetan plateau, noted the Ministry of Land and Resources two years ago, is “extremely fragile”. Any damage, it warned, would be difficult or impossible to reverse. But, it went on, the China National Gold Group, a state-owned company, had achieved “astonishing results” in working to protect the environment around its mine near the region’s capital, Lhasa. On March 29th at least 83 of the mine’s workers lay buried under a colossal landslide. Its cause is not yet certain, but critics of Tibet’s mining frenzy feel vindicated.

The disaster at the Jiama copper and gold mine, about 70km (45 miles) north-west of Lhasa, has clearly embarrassed the government in Beijing. According to China Digital Times, a California-based media-monitoring website, the Communist Party ordered newspapers to stick to reports issued by the government and the state-owned news agency, Xinhua.

Foreign reporters are rarely allowed into Tibet, least of all to cover sensitive incidents. The official media have avoided speculation about any possible link between the landslide and mining activities in the area. They say the landslide covered a large area with 2m cubic metres of rubble. By the time The Economist went to press, 66 bodies had been pulled out by teams of rescuers with sniffer dogs. The high altitude and lack of oxygen made rescue work hard. A deputy minister of land and resources, Xu Deming, said preliminary investigations had shown that the landslide was caused by a “natural geological disaster”. Fragments of rock left behind by receding glaciers are being blamed, though officials do not explain why the workers’ camp was set up so close to such an apparent hazard.

The Tibetan government-in-exile based in India says it fears the disaster was caused by work related to the mine, which appears to have grown rapidly since construction began in 2008. It was formally opened two years later, at a ceremony attended by Tibet’s most senior officials. The $520m investment was described at the time as the biggest in Tibet’s mining industry by a firm belonging to the central government. The mine is owned by China Gold International Resources, a company listed in Hong Kong and Toronto. China National Gold Group is the controlling shareholder.

Tibet has been trying hard in recent years to encourage such companies to dig up the plateau’s metals and minerals. It has a lot of them to offer: China’s biggest reserves of copper and chromite (used in steel production), among the world’s biggest of lithium (used to make batteries), as well as abundant reserves of uranium, gold, borax (a component of ceramics and glass) and oil. Extracting these, however, often involves boring into a landscape considered sacred by Tibetans.

The Jiama mine, in a valley known to Tibetans as Gyama and revered as the birthplace of a seventh-century Tibetan king, has been the focus of protests by locals angered by environmental and other issues. Water from the valley flows into the Lhasa river. Woeser, a Tibetan activist based in Beijing, has blogged about locals’ fear that their water supplies will be polluted.

Tibetan resentment has been fuelled by the mining industry’s failure to provide much direct employment.

Excerpts, Mining in Tibet: The price of gold, Economist, April 6, 2013, at 54

Water Experiments: water diversion and drought

In the past year alone, say Chinese officials, levels in nine lakes on the Yunnan-Guizhou plateau (South China) have dropped by 70cm, marking a total loss of 300m cubic metres of water. The regional drought is now in its third year, and in that time 270-odd rivers and 410 small reservoirs have dried up in Yunnan alone. Residents at lower elevations are better able to tap into groundwater, and have so far been able to carry on as before.

Even so, not only hilltop farmers are affected. Residents in Yunnan’s capital, Kunming, suffer periodic stoppages in supplies of tap water. West of the city, dry conditions are causing forest fires. The region’s growers of such valuable crops as tea and medicinal herbs have suffered, causing prices of those commodities to soar. Hydropower production has also fallen with water levels. Officials report that last year nationwide output rose by 9% year-on-year, but in the southern provinces of Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangdong, Guangxi and Hainan drought caused a 47% fall in reserve power capacity.

The repercussions threaten to affect an ambitious central-government project, imperial in scale, to transfer vast amounts of water from the south to the parched north of the country. China has already invested 137 billion yuan ($22 billion) in what it calls the South-North Water Diversion Project, and is set to invest another 64 billion yuan this year. The idea is to pump water from the Yangzi river northward through pipes and canals along three separate routes. Priority is given to the eastern route, which by 2014 is expected to bring 1 billion cubic metres of water a year to Beijing—a quarter of the capital’s annual supply.  From its inception, the vast scheme has suffered both delays and criticism. One concern has been the cost, both of the initial construction and of the expense of pumping so much water over such distances. The project has also required that at least 330,000 residents along its course accept being relocated.

The river systems of Yunnan and Guizhou figure only modestly in the planned supply chain of the South-North Water Diversion Project. But if the causes of the drought in these provinces have to do with changing global climate patterns, the main assumption underlying the project—that of permanent water abundance in the south—may not hold up.  Liu Xiaokang of the Yunnan Green Environment Development Foundation, an NGO in Kunming, believes the causes are mixed. Global climate may be affecting patterns of precipitation, he says. But his group also notes that the parts of Yunnan that are hardest hit are those where development has been fastest and deforestation most extensive.  Marco Gemmer of China’s National Climate Centre says droughts across southern China are linked to changing patterns in other parts of the world, such as anomalies in the Arctic oscillation or in the ocean current La Niña. Short-term droughts have occurred in the region for all of recorded history, but they may now occur with far greater frequency.  His colleague, Professor Jiang Tong, warns of problems with the transfer project if both south and north suffer drought at the same time. The situation, he adds, is complicated by the Yangzi’s Three Gorges dam. It provides massive amounts of hydroelectricity to the Yangzi basin. He is concerned about what will happen should Shanghai need more power at the same time that Beijing needs more water.

Water Shortages: Ms Fang’s parched patch, Economist, April 14, 2012, at 56

Democracy against Pollution, how to shutdown a polluting factory

Municipal leaders in a northeastern Chinese port city quickly announced plans to shut down a chemical plant on August 14, 2011 after thousands of protesters confronted riot police officers and demanded that it be closed because of safety concerns, state news media reported. The decision in the port city of Dalian, in Liaoning Province, represents an uncommonly rapid response by the authorities to public anger. Local officials elsewhere in China have typically avoided announcing decisions during demonstrations out of fear that it would only encourage more protests…..The chemical is widely known in China because protesters in Xiamen succeeded four years ago in persuading the municipal government there to move a planned paraxylene factory to a less densely populated area, in an early success for activists using cellphones and the Web to mobilize a community.

The chemical factory in Dalian sits just about 50 yards behind a sea wall. A tropical storm pushed ocean waves, some of them topping 60 feet, against the wall a week ago, breaching the barrier and raising worries that chemicals might leak from the factory. Panicked residents reportedly fled the area, only to return later and begin demanding the closing of the factory.

Xinhua, the state-run news agency, said Wednesday that Mayor Li Wancai of Dalian had announced that the sea wall had been repaired and that the chemical factory had not leaked, but would be relocated anyway. But Mr. Li gave no timetable then for the relocation.  The state-run China Central Television said the municipal government had decided Sunday afternoon {Aug. 14, 2011] to shut the factory down immediately.

The prompt announcement in Dalian may reflect the growing influence of the Internet. It has become much easier for people to communicate and to rally opposition to govment policies through the use of microblogging sites like Sina Weibo, although heavy censorship was imposed by Sunday evening[Aug. 14, 2011], with postings disappearing and some search terms related to the Dalian protest not working within China…The official newspaper China Daily reported Saturday that residents of Qianxi County in the southern province of Guizhou had injured “more than 10 police officers and security workers” and had smashed or set on fire 15 cars during a protest against urban inspectors.

KEITH BRADSHER, China Moves Swiftly to Close Chemical Plant After Protests, Reuters, Aug. 14, 2011