Dr Lobsang Yangtso. Photo: TPI

Environment and Health
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Dharamshala – In an interview with Dr Lobsang Yangtso, the climate activist of Tibet said, “Tibet is not just politically important but environmentally as well. Tibet is the main source of fresh drinking water for its neighbouring nations. Almost 1.5 billion people depend on the water of Tibet. Maybe after 50 or 100 years on, the sources of drinking water from Tibetan glaciers will vanish and slowly the rest of the world will face water shortage problems.”

Tibet Post International (TPI) had an exclusive interview with Dr Lobsang Yangtso, Asia Regional Coordinator of the Tibet International Network. She talks to TPI about the importance of the environment in Tibet, the major Tibetan rivers for Asian countries and the melting glaciers in the Himalayas. The environmental problems, the water crisis and the climate crisis will not be solved unless the issue of Tibet is first resolved with China.

TPI: Can you introduce yourself and what you do currently?

Interviewee: I am Lobsang Yangtso. I was born in Karze county, Kham Province of Tibet. I am Asia regional coordinator among many campaigns at International Tibet Network.

TPI: What is the attitude of general public for this environmental drive for a better world at large?

Dr Yangtso: I think people who think that working for the environment is not political are wrong. As long as the Tibetan political problems are not solved, the language and environmental problems will not be solved either. The Indian and international public has a very limited understanding of environmental issues and the crisis in Tibet.

In 2015, at the 16th Corps meeting, while we were talking about the climate crisis in Tibet, many of the audience did not even know where Tibet is, let alone the idea of a climate crisis in Tibet. So we had to start by introducing the history of Tibet and the Chinese occupation of Tibet first. People don't have time and we don't have enough time to talk about climate issues. That is why the political understanding of Tibet is very important. The general public still has a very limited view of Tibet: when they hear about Tibet, it is either Buddhism or His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet. Yes, many people don't know about the climate crisis in Tibet and its implications for other countries in the future, but that has never discouraged our enthusiasm to work for Tibet; rather, we think we need to do more to make people around the world understand a little bit more. We need to focus more.

TPI: Why do you think it is critical for the world to focus on Tibet’s environmental issue?

Dr Yangtso: The most important are the neighboring countries. Tibet is the main source of drinking water for the neighboring countries. Nearly 1.5 billion people depend on water from Tibet. 10 Tibetan rivers flow into 11 neighboring countries, including India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Cambodia and Laos.

Tibet is not only important from a political point of view, but also from an environmental point of view. These countries should consider Tibet as important. Nowadays, with climate change, the weather is getting hotter and hotter. Compared to the rest of the world, Tibet is twice as exposed to heat. 40% of Tibetan water depends on glaciers. The increase in heat has caused the glaciers to melt faster than before. Maybe in 50 or 100 years, the sources of drinking water from Tibetan glaciers may disappear and the rest of the world will gradually face water shortage problems.

For now, people don't see or feel many problems because there is still water. There is no shortage of water, even though the glaciers are melting. You have to know that because of global warming, snow is melting fast nowadays. Previously, snow fell, accumulated, turned into ice, permafrost and finally glaciers. This process takes time. Recently, the snow falls and melts quickly, which does not give it time to turn into ice. From another point of view, almost 70% of the Tibetan areas are grassland and pasture. There is a lot of permafrost that melts quickly. The ice needs at least two years under the ground to turn into permafrost. But with the heat, the ice melts and can no longer hold the permafrost. The carbon dioxide cannot be contained and it becomes weak, and their ability to hold carbon dioxide will diminish. So it is high time that the international community recognizes the importance of the environment in Tibet.

Many of Tibet's waters are polluted because of mining by the Chinese government. The danger of building many dams is to prevent the natural flow of water. The Tibetan regions and the Himalayan belt include Tibet, Nepal, India and Bhutan. With the construction of dams, the Himalayan belt is prone to earthquakes, which naturally affects all nations in the Himalayan belt that will be seismically active areas. With the earthquakes, the dams will be destroyed, which will lead to flooding in the Himalayan belt.

TPI: Any message for the public?

Dr Yangtso: It will definitely be wonderful for youngsters to have specializations specifically in environmental studies and further studies. Working and further researches in environment is scarce. If there are students willing to do further studies in environment, It will be helpful to support and provide special scholarship for them from our government. It would be helpful for the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) to sign memoranda of understanding and collaborate with higher education institutions abroad where environmental studies are well known.

The general public is considered backward and lacking in modern education. Indigenous people may not know modern technology, but by living in a place for a long time, they naturally know how the water and soil work. In Tibet, our elders know what time it is, when the rain and snow will come by observing the direction of the sun and moon. This is our traditional knowledge. Today it is rare. There are elders who are still alive in exile who have all this knowledge. We need to pass on this knowledge to them through interviews and recordings. We will lose the opportunity to know and learn this unique traditional knowledge for the younger generations. We must preserve these ideas of traditional knowledge in the archives.