the third pole- china's water tower

A Tibetan monk watches the horse racing at the Qumalai horse festival in Yushu prefecture. The horse festivals were historically a test of skill and manhood and have experienced a resurgence in recent years, encouraged by the Chinese government keen to promote a harmonious society.

“Education will ruin our culture” laments Dorje, a local Tibetan teacher describing how compulsory education is driving the resettlement of nomads. “These lifestyles are endangered. You rarely see people on horse back nowadays. To improve the living standard depends on education but to save [culture] more depends on the people”

The Tibetan plateau is the world’s third pole and its waters influence the lives of 40% of the global population downstream. Sanjiangyuan or ‘The Three rivers headwaters’ reserve is China’s water tower, in the eastern plateau and home to the last Tibetan nomads. “The waters from Sanjiangyuan sustains life for 600 million people downstream but in recent years this vast water tower is under threat,” says Dr Marc Foggin, a conservation biologist who has studied life on the plateau for 15 years, “and what affects China affects the world.”

In 2000, Chinese officials reacted at the sight of dried-up lake beds and grasslands turning to desert near the Yellow river source in Guoluo county. China’s so-called mother river and the nearby Yangtze, function as the nation’s two major arteries flowing through its industrial heartland. The third source rising in the vicinity, the Mekong, flows through Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The future of the nation and surrounding region depends on how this water tower is conserved.

Climate change is thought to be the main cause of rangeland degradation with the plateau warming at twice the world average with China overtaking the USA as the world’s largest polluter in 2007 .  Officials also blamed a burrowing mammal called a ‘pika’ and the overgrazing  of nomadic herd for the erosion. China created a major new reserve encompassing the three rivers headwaters in Qinghai province covering an area the size of England and Wales at an average elevation of 4000m.  

The aim was to halt erosion and protect human life downstream but at the cost of removing one of the world’s last nomadic populations.    While outside the official Tibet Autonomous region, the majority of the residents are Tibetans with few Han Chinese.   Areas of Tibetan majority covers the official TAR but also includes large swathes of Qinghai, Sichuan and Gansu provinces. 

By 2014, over 530,000 nomads in Qinghai province are to be resettled under the Ecological Resettlement’ programme, though the trend towards sedenterisation of nomads begun much earlier in the 1960s. as part of the ‘Great leap forward’. Ecological resettlement is the latest and possibly last phase of the process  threatening the end for this ancient way of life. 

 The Tibetan identity is rooted in the land and the herding of yak.  Traditionally this would be moving a tent but this today is almost exclusively from a permanent winter home into a summer tent. Nomadic pastoralism, refers to people who undertake seasonal migrations to graze their herds.    Now, ecological resettlement is producing a generation of educated but rurally-illiterate Tibetans in search of a new identity.  

“The yak is intimately associated with whole of religion and culture of this region.”, says Gerald Weiner, a UK-based animal geneticist who co-authored the book ‘The Yak’ for the UN. “Yak are the most wonderful animals for sustaining life in the region- they provide milk for butter, yoghurt and cheese, are a source of meat, hair for weaving into tents and rope with the finer fabric made into clothing. “  

The late Cai Li, a Chinese professor and yak history expert from Chengdu in Sichuan province, was of the opinion that without yak dung, the only fuel available, no people or civilisation could have colonised these vast mountainous regions.  

Today, motorbikes and smart phones are essential tools for the modern nomad but yak herding remains at the heart of Tibetan identity.  The resettlement of nearly all of Qinghai’s nomads will fundamentally redefine the Tibetan cultural identity forever. 

”Nomads have started thinking the grass in greener in the city! “ explains former nomad and conservationist Tsera. “Grassland life is a lot of hard work . But here [in town] they have no job, no money and they have an identity crisis.  They always ask me “what shall I do?”. At first people think its a good choice but after a while they realise they have to buy meat and yak dung, pay to build a toilet and don’t have enough money to move back.”  

Children begin their first term at a rural school in Qinghai with military exercises on nearby grasslands but many will graduate unable or unwilling to return to these ancestoral pasturelands. Families are provided with a new home and living subsidy to bring their children to town for education, few return to the old ways. 

“Life is perfect” says a father-of-five taxi driver, resettled last year.  Superficially his new home resembles a idyllic suburbia except for running water or power for street lights. His village is used for official visits to showcase the success of Ecological resettlement and is more attractive than the most common concrete grids.    “I like the government. I never went to school but I hope they [my children] may go to university one day”.  The resettlement villages are branded “thief schools” or “ghettos on the grasslands” by critics.  

Despite their high aims of improving education and healthcare, they bring inner-city problems to the rural landscape.  A few find new opportunities but 70% of resettled Tibetans remain unemployed relying on government handouts, feeling hopeless and even suffering culture shock.  This sense of frustration and despair has been used to account for spate of self immolations since 2009 by Tibetans living in China that have dominated western media news of the region.  During the recent Party congress [Dec 2012], 6 nomads took their lives with even more in recent weeks. 

In 2010 an earthquake destroyed Yushu town, the largest in the Three Rivers reserve, with the loss of over 2600 lives lost.  While most buildings crumbled, a statue of Tibet’s mythic leader and hero King Gesar remained standing in the centre of the city, a symbol of the people’s enduring spirit even in the midst of tragedy and the tectonic shifts in culture. Beijing pledged to rebuild Yushu, as an ecological city centered on King Gesar square and the re-built hill top monastery- twin totems of indigenous Tibetan culture.    An airport and 800km of dual carriageway the provincial capital will bring tourists from home and abroad seeking an authentic cultural experience.   Horse festivals on the plains near Yushu town are resurgent in popularity, despite government restricting large gatherings in the province.  Nearby resettlement villages have their own regulars races between locals, perhaps a reaction to their new settled life. 

“No culture is a museum piece,” says conservationist Dr Marc Foggin of NGO Plateau perspectives who work with nomads to sustain livelihoods and conserve local wildlife  “Tibetan pastoralism will continue to create and recreate itself .  There is a creativity in us that has allowed humans to survive in harsh habitats.” 

Ancient lifestyles become ancient, Foggin reasons, by surviving and evolving to a changeable environment. For millennia the nomads have looked for their survival to the wildlife and so too today.  

The Three Rivers reserve is a haven for rare wildlife including snow leopard, Tibetan antelope and black-necked cranes. Government-funded roads can allow herding cooperatives to get their product to the lucrative eastern markets while bringing in ecotourists seeking a wilderness experience, epitomized by the nomadic Tibetans. Of the world’s snow leopards,  half live on the Tibetan plateau and China wants to protect them.  Nomads, working as wildlife monitors can gather scientific data and deter poachers while remaining on the land. In November 2012, authorities announced  paid positions for nearly 10,000 ‘keepers of the grassland‘, an official endorsement of the value of herders.  The wild yak and plateau wildlife now offer a means for the continued survival of the Tibetan culture in this harsh landscape. 

Pastoralism may be a fringe lifestyle but it always has been, clinging to life in the harshest livable environment on earth.  Under the torrent flow of China’s economy, drive for urbanization and the policy of compulsory education, the end of Tibet’s nomads appears inevitable. But herding remains the plateau’s most sustainable lifestyle and nomads are best placed to conserve the wildlife and land, offering a slender hope of survival against overwhelming odds.   

In Dorje’s classroom the children settle down to read English and Tibetan. Outside, the sounds of drills and trucks remind us that the school is a work in progress as the authorities desperately try to make space for the flood of new pupils.  Tibetan motifs adorn freshly painted walls while children shriek through unfinished corridors due to chronic understaffing- a living metaphor of the new society being forged here. 

“There is no need to be nostalgic for a past time,”says Dorje, himself a product of voluntary settlement. “Whether the culture survives depends on the people.  Every individual has ability to do something to save traditional culture.  “I think it will change, yes. There will be less people in 5 years and even less pastoralism in 10 years but the earth needs people to take care of it, it can’t be deserted.” (Names changed and exact locations withheld)  

Published in The South China Morning Post Magazine 9 Jan 2013.
© kieran dodds 2013

subjects: stories

Tags: china  conservation  essay  tibet  wildlife