Aug. 09, 2022

Searching for China’s Water (17) Scientific Exploration and Protection: A Shared Responsibility

Searching for China’s Water (17)—
Scientific exploration and protection of the Tibetan Plateau Is A Shared Responsibility And Duty

Reported by: Wang Yongchen

On the morning of July 4, 2009, Yang Yong and I came back to the Tongtian River Bridge, under which the Tuotuo River, the source of the Yangtze River, flows. In 1986, he landed here while part of China’s first team to drift down the Yangtze River. And in September, 1998, I set off here along with the country’s first female “drift team” and returned here from the Jianggudiru Glacier a month later.    
The Tuotuo River is an elemental force year after year
The first bridge at the headwaters of the Yangtze River
The Tuotuo River Bridge in July, 2008
The Tuotuo River in July, 2008
The bridge in 1998

    Looking at the picture of the bridge taken eleven years ago, I find that the sediment load of the river has much higher than before, and the water level is lower. However, it was even lower when I arrived here in July, 2008. At that time, the water was nearly replaced by yellow sand despite being “high water” season.  

    “The river is larger this year. According to river monitoring station measurements, the water level is higher than that of corresponding periods in the past,” said Yang Yong. “It’s the highest I’ve seen in recent years.”

     Though the causes for the rise in water level were complicated, Yang Yong emphasized that the change was not a purely blissful occurrence. If glaciers melt at this rate, what will happen in the end? As a reservoir of fresh water, glaciers have a great influence on climate change. The glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau are not only a key to unraveling the mysteries of the earth, but are also one of the areas most sensitive to global climate change. The number of melting glaciers in China over the last thirty years is ten times larger than that of 300 years ago, as we have said previously.     

River Monitoring Station on the Tuotuo River
  Hydrological maps of the Tuotuo River (1955-2004)

    The hydrological map of 1995 does not reflect much influence from global climate change in the headwater region, but why? Yang Yong explained, the hydrological stations here had long been few and far between, and that made continuous monitoring impossible. We only have the river monitoring station on the Tuotuo River in this area of approximately 100.000 square kilometers. What’s more, it merely monitors the water continuously during flood season; measurements are only taken by periodic patrols at Buqu, a place also in the source area; the Dangqu River and the Chumaer River have never been monitored. The next station is far away in Zhimenda by the Tongtian River.  

    When Liu Yiman, a reporter with Outlook Weekly, and I interviewed Ye Hulin, head of river monitoring station of the Tuotuo River, we asked him, “According to your station’s measurements, how have Tuotuo River conditions reflected global climate change?”

    Ye said, “Our job is just recording rather than analyzing data, so we have no idea whether there is any change. Even that hydrological map on the wall was issued by the higher authorities.”    
 The Tuotuo River was like this in 2008
Gazing at the Yangtze River
    I told Ye that when I came here to conduct an interview last year, there was almost no water going under the Tuotuo River Bridge. Going up along the river, I found the riverbed had degraded into a saline-alkali land. So I proceeded to ask him, “Do you have any record of that?” Ye said their only vehicle was an Ivica. Since 2005 when he came to work here, he had not been to any place beyond ten kilometers, so he knew nothing about the situation on the upper reaches. 

   Then I asked, “who could know the situation?” Ye told me to ask the hydrological station at Zhimenda. With his help, I got through to that station but got the same responsethey only observed, recorded but did not analyze things, so they could not answer our question.

   “These conditions result in a lack of evidence to base efforts to research and understand the regular patterns of hydrological changes. The increasingly serious water shortage conditions are not suitable for developing the Western Route of China’s South-to-North Water Diversion Project or for increasing hydroelectric development on the upper reaches of the Jinsha River,” said Yang Yong.   

   The world is paying attention to the Tibetan Plateau as a sensitive area about which many scientific problems should be solved. But lagging hydrological analysis will certainly make this effort difficult.

   Yang Yong maintains the idea that the Tibetan Plateau is the nerve center of the earth and it is necessary to look for the key to global climate change here. “The phenomena we see during visits, such as the disappearance of glaciers, shrinkage of wetlands and desertification of grasslands, directly reflects the shrinking survival space for human beings, leading herdsmen to enter new areas,” said Yang. “They are moving towards some places previously considered unfit for human habitation, including wetlands.” 
An Ecological Protection Monument at the source of the Yangtze River
A train running across the source area
    Yang says that right now people are mostly focusing on reducing emissions in the face of global climate change, but have had practically no reaction whatsoever to the effects of global warming on one of the world’s most sensitive areas: the Tibetan Plateau. In the township of Suojia, a 1.5 million RMB piece of monitoring equipment provided by the local government has been left unused for six years since nobody knew how to operate it. And this example of neglected monitoring equipment is not unique to Suojia.        

We raised money on the spot to treat this sick child.
The township hospital after an earthquake
    Human beings could not live and multiply without rivers, but now problems are occurring in river headwater regions. One reason is that the local residents in the source region have to enter new natural habitats due to contraction of habitable areas. Another reason is the growing conflicts between humans and nature due to lower water levels in the middle and lower reaches, as well as frequent disasters.    
Wild animals in an area turned into desert
The changing homeland of antelopes
The flowers on the riverside dune serve as a sand anchor.
   Yang Yong kept emphasizing his “breaking point” theory all the way. He said it would be dangerous if the environment reached a breaking point due to irrational humans actions and traditional societal development.

    Faced with present ecological conditions, he thought, human beings should take a new line in their activities. If we do not make any changes, we will have increasingly limited room for development at a much higher cost.

    Yang said, “Traditional thinking on many subjects, including technical standards, strategic planning, laws and regulations, natural ecosystems and ethics, all these must be renewed.   

    Now what is truly tragic is that the people who concern themselves with these problems can only play word games because they lack primary materials.

   Those scholars who disagree with theories of anthropomorphic global climate change still neglect to the facts and phenomena we discovered on the Tibetan Plateau.  

A once-mighty river
Riverbeds like this one have become common in the source area.
Clouds, sand and grass
    On this subject, Yang Yong believes that human development up to today may also be at an inflection point. And the situation could become more and more complicated if we do not make any improvement.

    Admittedly, his opinion has very limited force and perhaps appears ridiculous to many people. However, it has become an unarguable truth that submitting the future and fate of humans to the slogan of “development” is perilous.       

    Yang Yong said that when he first started his water exploration project, he was looking for water for the Western Route of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project. I was not so much finding water as finding out about the crisis of the headwaters, so that I might make it known to policy makers and the public. 

    The expedition coincided with global discussions on climate change, and this gave new meaning to our activity. The public can get extra information on global climate change from our personal experiences on the plateau. 

    It can be said that the area of our expedition is one of the most susceptible to climate change. We hope our expedition can provide more facts and evidence for the heated discussions and debates.      
A train running across the source area

Volunteers for Green Earth and lots of people caring about the Yangtze River came here. 

Yang Yong said he came to realize two points during the expedition:

    First, our capability was limited compared to this huge environmental issue and we could not solve many problems by ourselves. But our concerns, the data we collected and the facts we found out in the source area were not valued. The efforts of the state and the international community have not yet been put into an area that deserves their attention.

    Second, why didn’t officials and experts in climate change discussions come to seek answers on the Tibetan Plateau? They did not undertake expeditions and make use of their superior academic resources, leaving only a few laymen like us to do the work.

    The UN Conference on World Climate in Copenhagen will take place in half a year, determining humanity’s fate. We, as some nobodies worrying about the changes taking place in the headwaters, are sparing no effort to disclose all this information to the public. 

Monkey-pole tire jack 

Wooden planks
    “Our expedition focuses on the huge issue of global climate change, but we are only equipped with a few tire jacks and wooden planks.” Yang Yong said humorously, “Our four cars have been badly scarred, and our domestically-made SUV could break apart at any time. One of them makes horribly strange noises if driven in fourth gear, but it still takes us down the road from sunrise to sunset.”     

     Those difficulties, of course, did not hinder us from researching and recording the problems on the plateau. Because we understand our efforts are not made merely for today. We also understand that all those who care about the environment and nature share the responsibility for scientific expeditions to the Tibetan Plateau and for its protection. We hope through our efforts, the effects the Tibetan Plateau has on global climate change can draw the attention of people who should be paying attention.

On the Tuotuo River

The sun shone through the dark clouds, casting a red thread of light on the river.   .

Translator: Tong Jun
Proofreader: Andrew Scheineson

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