Environmental Protection Along the Qinghai-Tibet Railway
An April 2003 report from Embassy Beijing.
The Chinese media have reported extensively on numerous environmental protection measures planned as part of the construction of the 1,142-kilometer Golmud to Lhasa railway. A first-hand look shows that measures taken to address anticipated problems such as permafrost damage and poaching have (so far at least) basically succeeded.
But other unforeseen problems have arisen, including simple matters like garbage disposal. These problems may remain unanswered unless the authorities assign clearer responsibility for dealing with them. In the long run, once the railway is completed, the key to protecting the region's fragile environment from direct human damage will be tightly controlling the number of eco-tourists allowed off the trains.
Meanwhile, the railway's construction has the potential to introduce HIV/AIDS to the hitherto unaffected Tibet Autonomous Region.
Scrutinizing Ecosystem Protection on the High Plateau
Critics of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway have condemned the project for a number of reasons, arguing, inter alia, that it is expensive and perhaps uneconomical; that it will constitute a threat to the Tibetan way of life by promoting greater commerce and migration from China's interior; and that it is a strategically-motivated power move to strengthen China's military position with respect to India and Nepal. One other frequently-heard criticism is that the railway's construction itself threatens pristine environmental conditions on the immense, unpopulated Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.
Even prior to the start of construction in late 2001, Chinese authorities promised to spend over $100 million on measures to protect the environment during and after the railway's construction. Planners expected that the key environmental protection challenges would include protecting the region's fragile ground cover and underlying permafrost, preventing wildlife poaching, and avoiding disruption to the migratory patterns of the endangered Tibetan antelope (the "chiru"). How well are the railway builders faring in addressing these concerns? An Embassy officer visited the construction site to get a first-hand look at the situation.
Protecting the Tundra
According to railway construction planners and the Qinghai Environmental Protection Bureau, the area affected by the rail bed's construction is to be returned to its original condition. Specifically, detailed plans (written by lowlanders) call for the replanting of any and all vegetation that is destroyed in the course of construction. The most grandiose schemes involve "rolling up" turf for replacement after construction activity has progressed farther down the line -- in theory a nice idea.
In reality, however, we saw no evidence of turf being "rolled up" or otherwise transplanted. It is in fact quite doubtful that any such schemes will be carried out. The tundra of Qinghai's 15,000-foot-high plateau is not composed of "turf" in the golf course sense, but rather short-rooted grass plants growing in isolated tufts. Using seed to plant new grass in the dry, sandy soil will also be exceptionally difficult -- even if sufficient quantities of the right kind of grass seed could be found.
On the other hand, it is clear that the swathe of tundra disrupted by railway construction is really quite narrow. Taking only a short stroll out across the grasslands from the construction site can be quite reassuring, since within a hundred meters of the rail bed it is quite impossible to find any trace of human impact.Perhaps the most worrisome sites are the intermittent staging areas and sand quarries located off to the side of the railway construction site, roughly every ten kilometers.
Our strong impression, in fact, is that the simultaneous repair work being done on the 50-year-old highway that runs parallel to the railroad has probably done more to damage the plateau's environment than the railway construction. We noted that the railway companies are being noticeably more careful than the highway reconstruction firms in how they quarry for gravel, minimizing their impact on the tundra. The railway construction firms are much better-equipped, with modern loaders, trucks and drilling rigs, many of them imported. The highway reconstruction firms, by contrast, largely do pick and shovel work, although the final resurfacing uses modern equipment and is quite professional.
The Golmud-Lhasa road itself has degraded horribly under the daily weight of hundreds of heavily-laden trucks. Desperate efforts to reconstruct the roadbed have created huge traffic jams, where trucks can sit idle for many hours at a time waiting for road crews to finish their work. This appalling traffic situation is compounded by the fact that -- in order to take advantage of the high plateau's short summer work season -- initial grading and foundation work for the rail bed is taking place virtually simultaneously along much of the lengthy route, greatly increasing road traffic. (The final stages of laying ties and tracks and cementing embankments, by contrast, will take place consecutively from north to south, as special trains operating on the rail line itself are used to convey the heaviest materials.)
Construction work on the rail bed and tracks appears, at least to an amateur observer, to be of high quality. Other promised "environmental protection" aspects of the railway's construction -- such as building bridges rather than causeways when traversing lakes and wetland -- seem to be happening according to plan.
Protecting the Antelope
The Qinghai-Tibet railway runs along the eastern boundary of the Kekexili Wildlife Protection Reserve, which protects some 17,000 square miles of grasslands tucked on the south side of the 20,000-foot Kunlun Mountains. All human activity has been banned in the reserve, which is roughly the size of the states of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. Prior to construction of the railway, the Kekexili Reserve was the exclusive domain of wildlife, occasional (illegal but winked-at) Tibetan herders, and poachers and the enforcement officers who chased them across the open territory.
The Tibetan antelope, or chiru, is an endangered species unique to the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau and threatened by illegal poaching by hunters seeking its abdominal fur. This fur is used in South Asia to manufacture "shahtoosh" shawls that can sell for as much as $10,000 in fashion centers such as New York or Paris. Railway construction planners have tried to avoid criticism about further endangering the species by incorporating some "chiru protection" measures into the railway's design.
Many "passageways" -- trestle bridges, mostly -- have been incorporated into the railway's design at key points along the route where the antelopes are believed to cross during their seasonal migration to grazing grounds. At these locations, the antelopes could theoretically use underpasses to traverse the rail route without risking crossing over the tracks. But wildlife experts doubt that the antelope will actually use the underpasses, since their instincts may instead prompt them to climb up to the high ground of the rail bed and have a wary look around before proceeding. Still, it seems unlikely that significant numbers of antelope will be struck by passing trains, since the noise and vibration of the trains will undoubtedly scare the skittish creatures off the tracks well before a train arrives.
As for poaching, officials claim that there have been no cases of illegal antelope hunting by construction workers or truck drivers. Wildlife protection activists, meanwhile, believe that their educational efforts are succeeding in keeping workers from harassing the animals.
Thirty ethnic Tibetan wildlife enforcement officials employed by the Qinghai provincial government work at five wildlife protection stations located along the highway and railway construction site. Their job is to patrol the construction sites, stop traffic when herds of antelope cross the road and randomly search trucks for contraband pelts. Although based on only a brief visit, our assessment is that these enforcement officers have managed to strike the right tone in their relationship with the powerful construction companies -- cooperating in sharing information but maintaining credible independence of action.
In June 2002, construction work on the plateau section of the railway was halted for four days to allow migrating antelopes to cross the site. Construction workers and machines were evacuated, and marker flags that frighten antelopes when they flap in the breeze were also removed for that period. Again in August 2002, construction work was halted at night for the antelopes. Every June, female Tibetan antelope migrate northwestward in large numbers to give birth to their young along the banks of the Zhounai and Taiyang Lakes in the Kekexili Reserve. They then make the return trip south with their offspring a couple of months later.
The Sichuan-based grassroots Chinese NGO "Green River" is also making an important contribution to protecting the antelope by maintaining Suonandajie Station, which is located adjacent to the railway construction, as a permanent site for scientific research and public education activities aimed at protecting the "chiru." The Station's educational outreach efforts originally targeted local Tibetan herders as well as passing tourists (who are rare). During the past eighteen months, however, the Station's efforts have focused on the thousands of truck drivers and construction workers working adjacent to the Kekexili Reserve.
Anecdotal evidence collected over the past 2-3 years points to declining poaching and increased numbers of Tibetan antelope, although it is impossible to discuss herd numbers with any real certainty due to the lack of scientific population studies.
Unexpected (and Unanswered) Problems
Although the Qinghai-Tibet railway builders seem to be doing a respectable job of protecting the surface of the plateau tundra, along with its most famous four-legged citizens, little forethought appears to have gone into the rather obvious question of how to remove the refuse that inevitably collects wherever modern man sets up shop (even temporarily). The railway construction firms will perhaps remove their own equipment upon completion, but it seems unlikely that they will assume responsibility for the informal shantytowns that have sprung up at intervals along the highway, generally near fueling stations, selling meals and other services for construction workers and truck drivers. These small settlements will have no economic raison d'etre once the railroad is completed, and it will require a huge effort to remove all the garbage, broken equipment, dilapidated buildings and miscellaneous debris (including used oil drums) piled near these villages.
Post-construction clean-up along portions of the railway closer to Golmud, where construction is now finished, looks fairly good. There were no truckstops in that area due to the proximity to Golmud.
Plain old garbage is a particularly nettlesome problem. The environmental volunteers at Suonandajie Station are trying to draw attention to the issue through pick-up campaigns and other education efforts. In fact, when "Green River" volunteer Feng Yong froze to death last December near the railway construction site (Ref A), in a case that received considerable media attention around China, he had ventured away from the highway in order to pick up "white garbage" (plastic bags and Styrofoam bowls and the like) which was fouling the waters of a lake visited by migratory cranes. But combatting litter is an uphill battle, and the shantytowns along the Golmud-Lhasa highway are currently surrounded by open fields of trash and human waste. The railway operation plan calls for "special measures to ensure that garbage along the route is transported away," once the trains are running, but responsibility for peripheral construction-related human waste remains unclear. Another matter for clean-up is abandoned vehicles, many of them destroyed after having been driven off the road's steep, unfenced embankments by exhausted drivers operating their vehicles at night.
Key Environmental Problems Mostly in the Long Term
The most serious environmental repercussions of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway will probably only become apparent in the long run. The railroad is intended to spur economic development in the populated south-central region of the Tibet Autonomous Region, without having much impact on the unpopulated high plateau. One key variable, of course, will be whether any significant exploitable natural resources are discovered south of the Kunlun Mountains on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. To date there have been no such discoveries, beyond an oil field in the Lumpola Basin that is probably too small and remote for commercial exploitation. Mineral exploitation may be a greater worry. Qinghai authorities pledge that if such resources are discovered, environmental protection will remain a top priority. But enforcement could prove difficult depending on the size and shape of any mining operations.
Another worry is ecotourism. The railway's operating plan calls for high-speed express trains, with cars pressurized to prevent altitude sickness among the passengers, speeding across the tundra with few intermediate stops. The Chinese media has also trumpeted planned strict controls on waste discharge from trains and railway stations, as well as the use of clean energy sources such as solar power, wind power and other non-fossil sources of electric power for railway stations built along the route. But some degree of ecotourism development based on railway access is probably inevitable, and appropriate measures such as guides and walkways will need to be developed. The railroad could also consider charging relatively high fees for tourists who want to disembark from the train. At a minimum, local authorities will need to build water treatment facilities or septic systems, capable of surviving the winter, at places like the Yangtze River crossing at Tuotuohe where tourism development can be anticipated.
The risk of difficult-to-reverse desertification becomes real if livestock herding activity were to increase significantly on higher altitude plateau lands. It is uncertain, however, whether the construction of the railroad will create any new incentive for Tibetan herders to expand grazing on the high plateau, most of which is national reserve land. There is already a road in place from Golmud to Lhasa, and herding remains limited due to the poor economics of grazing at higher altitudes. So it seems possible that the new railway may not have much impact on local pastoral activity.
Could the Railway Bring HIV/AIDS to Tibet?
Finally, unrelated to environmental protection concerns, there is the possibility that the process of constructing the Qinghai-Tibet Railway could have a big impact on the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Although quality health surveillance data are scarce, all indications are that the TAR has thus far been spared significant HIV infection despite relatively high prevalence in neighboring Yunnan Province and the Xinjiang Autonomous Region.
This is the risk scenario: Much of the highway reconstruction work is being handled by Lhasa-based firms employing Tibetan workers. But the workers employed at the railway construction sites stretching from Golmud to the south are primarily Han Chinese brought in for their special skills. Most of the truck drivers also hail from other parts of China, with license plates coming from as far away as Gansu, Sichuan and even Henan, in addition to Qinghai. Meanwhile, Golmud City -- as one might expect in a frontier town with a swelling population of transplanted workers -- has an obviously thriving sex industry. Finally, Golmud and Xining, which many truck drivers also frequent, are located uncomfortably close to the Yunnan-Sichuan-Gansu-Xinjiang illegal drug transportation route that has been documented to be an important vector for HIV transmission in China.
The risk is that HIV will cross from injecting drug users (IDU's) in Qinghai into the Qinghai commercial sex worker population, and thence to truck drivers and construction workers involved in the railway project. As construction worksites shift southward, increasing numbers of workers may visit Lhasa on furlough, instead of Golmud, eventually leading to significant transmission of HIV/AIDS into the TAR population. Given the poor public health infrastructure in the TAR, this could prove disastrous.
If this happens, fighting HIV/AIDS in Golmud City may be the most effective way to keep the virus out of Tibetan regions further south. Policy options include education campaigns and voluntary counseling and testing among railway workers. Golmud was included in a list of 51 districts recently designated by the Ministry of Health as priority locations for HIV/AIDS prevention efforts. But overall funding scarcity means that this designation may only net the district about $25,000 to supplement any ongoing local HIV/AIDS prevention efforts.
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