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Cablegate: Tibet: Climate Change, Green Energy, Mining, Poaching, And

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R 060247Z NOV 09




E.O. 12958: N/A


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1. (SBU) Summary: Climate change is moving faster in Tibet than
in other areas of China, and fastest at the highest elevations,
leading the State Council to pass an ambitious plan for
ecological protection earlier this year, Tibetan Autonomous
Region (TAR) officials told us October 22 in Lhasa. Glaciers
are retreating and the climate is becoming drier in most areas.
Yields of Tibetan medicinal plants are declining as a result.
The TAR is pushing solar technology for disconnected "island"
electric grids and portable cooking solutions for herders, and
is searching for bacteria that can produce methane for fuel
above 5,100 meters. Hydro and geothermal remain areas of great
potential for TAR alternative energy sources. Officials
emphasized strict controls on mining in the TAR, and claimed
poaching of endangered species was not a problem. Numerous
greenhouses now provide abundant produce, but this may be of
more benefit to Han than Tibetans in the TAR. End Summary.

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Plans for Protecting Earth's "Third Pole"


2. (SBU) The TAR, sometimes called Earth's "third pole" for its
vast freshwater ice reserves, encompasses an area of 1.25
million square kilometers -- of which 34.4 percent is included
in 45 protected environmental areas, Dr. Zhang Yongze, Director
General of the TAR Environmental Protection Bureau told Consul
General and PolEconOffs October 22 in Lhasa. Earlier this year,
the State Council passed the Tibet Ecological Security Barrier
Protection and Construction Program, budgeting RMB 15.5 billion
(USD 2.26 billion) for its implementation over the next 25
years. This year, the TAR will allocate RMB 200 million in
grassland ecological conservation and launch pilot projects in
five counties, he said.

3. (SBU) Air pollution in TAR cities is very low and they enjoy
excellent air quality 350 days per year, Zhang continued, though
sand and dust are sometimes problems. The number of sandstorms
in TAR cities has decreased thanks to tree planting programs,
with 34 fewer "sandstorm days" per year in Shigatse and 32 days
fewer in Lhasa than 30 years ago. The TAR is also making
advances in sewage treatment using biochemical methods and a
treatment plant is planned for Lhasa. CG recommended TAR
officials consider U.S. firms already doing work in SW China,
such as Western Water Group (reftel).

Climate Change: Glaciers, Rainfall, Tibetan Medicine

--------------------------------------------- -------

4. (SBU) "Global warming is controversial and difficult to
grasp, but it is real," Zhang declared. The TAR is affected
more by global warming and the melting of glaciers than other
part of China, especially in the high Himalayas. Glaciers in
the Mt. Qomolangma (Everest) area are retreating by 10-15 meters
per year, and Tibet's glaciers in general have receded 196
square km over the past 40 years. The climate is getting drier
in general, although in some places it is actually becoming more
moist. Lhasa's rainfall, for example, has been increasing in
recent years. Over the long term, however, global warming will
reduce fresh water availability as glaciers melt, though in the
short term most lakes in the TAR are getting bigger as water
levels rise from melt-off, Zhang said.

5. (SBU) In a subsequent meeting, Director of the TAR Science
and Technology (S&T) Bureau Ma Shengjie said climate change is
of special concern for Tibetan medicine, as many of the 200
varieties of plants used in traditional Tibetan medicine grow at
high altitudes where climate change is reducing crops yields.
Plentiful rains in 2008 also led to an abundance of caterpillar
grass (chongcao), which is collected for use in traditional

CHENGDU 00000247 002.2 OF 004

medicine by rural Tibetans, and a precipitous drop in the price
as supply outran demand. The TAR government is cooperating with
the Chinese Weather Bureau and the Chinese Academy of Sciences
to conduct research on how to reduce effects of climate change
on the plateau, he said.

Desertification, Soil Erosion


6. (SBU) Desertification is occurring mainly in the TAR in the
"one big river, two small rivers" area (yijiang lianghe), where
the Yarlung Tsangpo, Lhasa, and Nanchu Rivers run near one
another, Zhang said. Tree planting programs began in the late
1980s. (Note: ConOffs noted numerous sand dunes piling up on
hills between Lhasa and the airport 28 miles away. An ethnic
Tibetan Foreign Affairs Office (FAO) official accompanying us,
however, said she remembered encountering these sands in 1995
while mountain climbing. End Note.)

7. (SBU) Soil erosion is also quite serious in the TAR, Zhang
continued, particularly in the eastern and southeastern areas of
the TAR and along the upper reaches of the Yangtze River, where
clear cutting of forests was previously allowed. Illegal
logging was stopped and forests are starting to grow back
nicely. Ma added that building earthen dams along major rivers
is part of the first phase of an anti-erosion program included
under the State Council's environmental plan for the TAR.

Solar Power: "Island" Arrays and Foldable Cookers

--------------------------------------------- ----

8. (SBU) Since 2007 the TAR has spent RMB 5.43 million (USD
795,000) on clean energy development in rural areas, Zhang
reported, including promoting solar cookers, solar water
heaters, and wind power generation facilities. Ma added
considerable detail, explaining that alternative energy sources
are important in the TAR due to its large territory and
relatively sparse population. Some of the electric power grids
are not interconnected and alternative energy systems are
important for these "island" grids. Zhang claimed the TAR has
greater strength and consistency in solar illumination than
anywhere but the Sahara Desert, and has great expanses of unused
land that have potential to be exploited as solar farms.
Particularly in remote rural areas, solar arrays of 30-100
panels can make separate grids economically viable and avoid
high interconnection costs, Ma said.

9. (SBU) Foldable solar cookers that can be carried on the back
of a yak are provided free to TAR farmers and herders, he
continued, and solar water heaters are widely used in the TAR.
(Note: The S&T Bureau building itself had a large solar array
by the entrance and a solar thermal heating system on the roof.
End Note.) Wind power is less reliable in the TAR, although
tests are being conducted on small wind turbines that adjust to
the direction of the wind, Ma added.

Methane: Seeking High-Altitude Bacteria


10. (SBU) The TAR plans to add service to 20,000 households from
stand-alone methane gas systems. A single system that requires
only eight square meter of space can replace two truckloads of
wood fuel per year, Ma reported. The systems cost some RMB
3,000 (USD 440) for materials, of which RMB 2,800 (USD 410) is

CHENGDU 00000247 003.2 OF 004

subsidized by the government. The bacteria on which these
systems rely, however, do not work well above an altitude of
5,100 meters, so the S&T Bureau is researching new varieties of
bacteria that can operate at these heights. Preliminary results
are positive, he said.

Potential Power Sources: Hydro and Geothermal


11. (SBU) The TAR has rich hydropower potential, but it will be
costly and time consuming to develop. Russia has many
hydropower stations, Ma said, but "no environmental damage."
The TAR also has a plan to implement a program called "sending
Tibetan electric power outside the region" (Zang dian wai song),
and while he did not elaborate further, a recent press report
suggests that power produced on the plateau could be sent to
Yunnan and Sichuan.

12. (SBU) Geothermal power is another area of great potential
due to the TAR's active geology, but is yet to be exploited, Ma
said. The TAR has many hot springs and even hot rivers, some of
which have been developed for tourism. 75 miles east of Lhasa
is a hot spring excellent for tourism, Ma said, even better than
Japan's famed Sanko, which he has visited. (Note: China's
official media published a story last year saying that a thermal
power plant in Yangba, 54 miles north of Lhasa, had already
begun producing power for transmission to the city. End Note.)

Mining: "Strictly Controlled" in the TAR


13. (SBU) Restrictions on mining and prospecting in the TAR are
stricter than in other parts of the PRC, Zhang stated. TAR
regulations prevent smaller companies from operating there,
though larger mining operations are allowed. In recent years,
however, fewer permits have been granted for new mining
projects. Permission is required for prospecting in the TAR,
although not in other parts of the PRC. Gold mining was stopped
in the TAR in 2006 due to environmental concerns, he said, and
river panning for gold was stopped in 2008. (Note: Post
believes the Xizang Tianlu company still conducts gold mining in
the TAR, while a May 2009 Radio Free Asia report described a
confrontation at the site of a recently authorized gold mine
near Lhasa. A 2005 PRC press report on gold mining in the TAR
described large areas of grassland damaged by trucks and open
pit mining, trash, and pollution of the local water supply (URL
tinyurl.com/goldmining-tibet). Local people were not
benefitting, and large numbers of outsiders at gold mines was
seen as a source of social disorder and resentment. End Note.)

CITES: Poaching? What Poaching?


14. (SBU) Asked about the status of efforts to stop poaching of
chiru or Tibetan antelope, prized for their fur used to make
shahtoosh (the world's priciest wool), Zhang said the TAR
government had imposed a hunting ban. Joint inter-provincial
enforcement patrols between the TAR and Qinghai Province have
been so successful, he continued, that there have been no
arrests for illegal hunting in recent years. We asked why if
there is no poaching can shawls woven from shahtoosh -- banned
under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered
Species (CITES), to which China is a party -- still be found for
sale illegally in India? Further, what of news reports
(including in the Hong Kong press) that negotiations between
India and China over efforts to protect India's tigers had

CHENGDU 00000247 004.2 OF 004

broken down when PRC officials demanded a quid pro quo on sale
of shahtoosh in India? Zhang reiterated China's "strong
protections" for the chiru and other endangered animals,
claiming no knowledge of such negotiations.

Sinicization Side Effect: Fresh Veggies


15. (SBU) The TAR is now self-sufficient in vegetable production
thanks to greenhouses, Ma said proudly. Before 1990, no
vegetables were grown except for carrots, potatoes, and lettuce.
The S&T Bureau is now training some greenhouse farmers to grow
to organic produce standards, and the prospects for the TAR to
become a source of organic vegetables for all of China via the
Qinghai-Tibet railway are excellent, Ma said. Separately, Zhang
said 860,000 square meters of vegetable greenhouses had been set
up with an annual output more than 3400 metric tons. (Comment:
Post's ethnic Tibetan LES said the diet of Lhasa's Tibetans has
not changed substantially with the advent of fresh produce;
rather, these vegetables feed the city's burgeoning Han
population. Post also finds Ma's comments on the TAR providing
organic produced for all of China optimistic given long
transport distances. End Comment.)

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