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Trouble in Tibet

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Rapid changes in Tibetan grasslands are threatening Asia's main water supply and the livelihood of nomads.

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In the northern reaches of the Tibetan Plateau, dozens of yaks graze on grasslands that look like a threadbare carpet. The pasture has been munched down to bare soil in places, and deep cracks run across the snow-dusted landscape. The animals' owner, a herder named Dodra, emerges from his home wearing a black robe, a cowboy hat and a gentle smile tinged with worry.

“The pastures are in a bad state and lack the kind of plants that make livestock strong and grow fat,” says Dodra. “The yaks are skinny and produce little milk.”

His family of eight relies on the yaks for most of its livelihood — milk, butter, meat and fuel. Dodra was forced to give up half of his animals a decade ago, when the Chinese government imposed strict limits on livestock numbers. Although his family receives financial compensation, nobody knows how long it will last.

“We barely survive these days,” he says. “It's a hand-to-mouth existence.” If the grasslands continue to deteriorate, he says, “we will lose our only lifeline”.

The challenges that face Dodra and other Tibetan herders are at odds with glowing reports from Chinese state media about the health of Tibetan grasslands — an area of 1.5 million square kilometres — and the experiences of the millions of nomads there. Since the 1990s, the government has carried out a series of policies that moved once-mobile herders into settlements and sharply limited livestock grazing. According to the official account, these policies have helped to restore the grasslands and to improve standards of living for the nomads.

But many researchers argue that available evidence shows the opposite: that the policies are harming the environment and the herders. “Tibetan grasslands are far from safe,” says Wang Shiping, an ecologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' (CAS) Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research (ITPR) in Beijing. “A big part of the problem is that the policies are not guided by science, and fail to take account of climate change and regional variations.”

The implications of that argument stretch far beyond the Tibetan Plateau, which spans 2.5 million square kilometres — an area bigger than Greenland — and is mostly controlled by China. The grasslands, which make up nearly two-thirds of the plateau, store water that feeds into Asia's largest rivers. Those same pastures also serve as a gigantic reservoir of carbon, some of which could escape into the atmosphere if current trends continue. Degradation of the grasslands “will exacerbate global warming, threaten water resources for over 1.4 billion people and affect Asian monsoons”, says David Molden, director general of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Such concerns propelled me to make a 4,700-kilometre journey last year from Xining, on the northeastern fringe of the plateau, to Lhasa in the Tibetan heartland (see 'Trek across Tibet'). Meeting with herders and scientists along the way, I traversed diverse landscapes and traced the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers to their sources. The trip revealed that Tibetan grasslands are far less healthy than official government reports suggest, and scientists are struggling to understand how and why the pastures are changing.

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