Earth’s Best Barometer

The world’s rollercoaster ride through tumultuous upheavals in economy and finance, international security and politics has largely bypassed the mountainous fortress of Tibet. But a quake reminds us why the alpine nation shouldn’t be so easily forgotten.

One of the many solar panels seen in Tibet. Tibet has abundant solar energy resources, with an average of 3,000 hours of solar radiation annually, or about 6,000 to 8,000 megajoules per square meter.

Hours into the early September 18, 2011 morning after I boarded my flight from Kunming, Yunnan province’s biggest city in southwest China, the earth started to rumble. A magnitude 6.9 earthquake was about to strike the northeastern Indian state of Sikkim, with tremors rippling across neighbouring Nepal, Tibet and Bangladesh. My flight from Kunming was a conclusion to a week-long vacation to the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). It was delayed for three hours and no clear explanation was offered by the airline. I only knew what happened after arriving back in Singapore and receiving text messages from friends asking if I was safe and saying an earthquake had occurred around the Himalayan region near the time of my departure.

My initial sense of relief from the close shave was soon overtaken by worry.

My affinity with South Asia is a relatively short but meaningful one. I bagpacked in Pakistan with a friend two years ago. I had been to Bangladesh thrice, mostly for a reporting stint. I lived in Nepal for close to half a year back when I was a student, interning for a local newspaper based in Kathmandu. Both curiosity and work frequently took me out of the capital, and these trips into rural Nepal which could last weeks at a time, greatly humbled me and brought me an appreciation for a race, culture and environment so vastly different from mine.

Then, there were already worries that a major earthquake was due to happen.

According to the National Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET) in Nepal, the last largest earthquake with a magnitude of 8.1 occurred in 1934, resulting in a death toll of almost 8,500 people. Local media quoted a 2010 NSET estimation that if an earthquake of the same magnitude that struck Haiti in January last year were to hit densely populated Kathmandu, it would cause some 200,000 deaths, severely injure around than 200,000 people, render some 1.5 million homeless, and damage almost 60 percent of the architecture.

While the initial death count for September 18’s quake remains relatively low as compared to other recent major earthquakes, people remain guardedly optimistic.

Far from the end of story, it is a warning, a Nepalese friend said, to “the next big one”.

I’ve been to the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) for less than a week, and can hardly claim to be an expert. But it doesn’t take an expert to realize our climate is changing gradually but certainly, in varying degrees across the world. Standing at an average altitude of 4,500 metres, the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau is widely known as the “roof of the world”. That entails great environmental sensitivity and possibly the greatest exposure to fluctuations in the earth’s natural cycle. The slightest fluctuations in this delicate equilibrium may translate to dramatic impacts to Tibet’s natural environment.

It is easy to fall for the stunning beauty of Tibet’s landscape. After all, there are few places in the world where everywhere you turn is a mountain range, where you could spot more than 10 different tones and shades in the rock formations of these never ending mountain passes, where the sky always seems brilliantly blue, and where you could transit from lonely snow capped terrain to green pastures spotted with sheep and yak – all within a day.

A snow covered landscaped is seen on an early morning through a train window covered with melting icicles while travelling on the Qinghai-Tibet railway.

Sheep and yak graze on a grassland in Tibet.

A tourist takes pictures at Namtso lake, which at an altitude of close to 4,800 metres, is the highest and second largest salt water lakes in the world. Regarded as one of the holiest waterways in Tibet, the lake maintains its levels from precipitation and melted snow flowing from the surrounding Tangula mountain ranges.

A sand covered mountain pass is pictured on the outskirts of Lhasa through a bus window.

Tourists are seen on the banks of the Yamdrotso lake, near Shigatse.

The Potala Palace, one of Lhasa’s most significant landmarks, is pictured behind a field of gerberas in bloom. It is possible to experience four seasons in a day during spring and autumn.

A young couple prepares for their wedding photo shoot at a park across the Potala Palace in Lhasa.

But in the same breath, it is equally easy to overlook Tibet’s important reminder towards global conservation efforts, given its relative obscurity.

Tears are beginning to shred this vibrant tapestry. Travelling across the highway, we spotted mountain ranges covered partially by sand. Locals explained the phenomenon as a result of desertification. When rivers dry up or change their courses, river beds are exposed. Overtime, these sediments are carried along by wind during sandstorms and deposited onto the surfaces of mountains nearby.

Authorities have attempted to remedy the situation by growing vegetation on these bare riverbeds for better anchorage. We were told by our guide in the worst case scenario, these ranges could possibly be covered completely by veils of sand and sediment in 20 years time if no preventive measures were taken.

Moreover, there had been discussions of Tibet warming about three times the global average, causing melting of almost 20 percent of glaciers in the past 40 years, on the sidelines of the 15th session of UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on 27 September. (http://www.tew.org/archived/2010/06102010.html)

Even my guide, a Nanjing native who has been living in Tibet for close to 14 years, felt the change.

Rainfall patterns during the midyear wet season used to be so predictable and regular to the point of locals knowing the precise timing and duration of rain each day. But in recent times, rain could come suddenly without notice even in supposedly drier months.

The only certainty about the weather now is ironically its uncertainty.

For all we know, Tibet is bearing the brunt of all the environmental damage our relentless drive towards industrialization has wreaked.  It is our barometer to the pressures and stress our earth is facing, as well as the ultimate litmus test to our victories and failures in strengthening conservation and scaling back on further damage.

To simply label Tibet’s scenery as “exotic” or play up on its “exoticism”, is to turn away from the pressing environmental issues our world is facing.

Yet, part of the source of Tibet’s environmental struggles is local. On the outskirts of Lhasa, construction work to extend the Qinghai-Tibet railway from Lhasa to southwestern Shigatse, the second largest city in the TAR, is steadily in progress. Slated to be complete in about two to three years time, it would bring increased trade and commerce, as well as human traffic in terms of migration and tourism to the region. All of which demands greater thought and enforcement about sustainable economic  and social development .

It was a brief trip, but I took home with me not just memories and pictures but a deep, resounding feeling: that there are still lots to be done for our world.

Dancers of the “Himalayan” theatre troupe perform a musical at a cultural center in Lhasa.

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