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The Climate Crisis in Tibet & China

Tibet/Nepal Himalayas from International Space Station. Foreground: S.Tibetan plateau.

The Chinese water crisis
Expanding water use was the key factor in tripling the world's grain harvest between 1950 and 2000. Yet as water demand tripled over the last 50 years, we have been accumulating a dangerous water-deficit. It is still largely invisible, because most of it results from over-pumping aquifers—undergound water reservoirs.

China and India, with their huge populations, are the biggest grain producers in the world. In both counties, millions of new irrigation wells have exceeded the replenishment rate of the aquifers. Fossil aquifers, like the one under the North China Plain, are not replenishable—when those become depleted, agriculture in the region concerned simply ceases, permanently. The groundwater tables are rapidly depleting in both countries, which are home to most of the world's population. Both have also been diverting water from agriculture to industrialization and urbanization. We have to keep in mind that the production of every ton of grain takes 1000 tons of water. The loss of agricultural production on this scale can only be made up by importing grain.

China's disappearing rivers and lakes


China's largest freshwater lake, Poyang (pictured above in winter 2007) lies in the south-eastern province of Jiangxi. It is the winter home of 98% of the world's Siberian crane population. The famous lake fluctuates between a winter dry period and summer flood season, and its hydrology depends on the Yangtse River. In 2007, it provided a disturbing example of synergy between climate warming and groundwater depletion. Its surface area shrank from over 3,000 square kilometres (summer) to 50 square kilometres (winter). This was 10 times worse than the previous year's figures. Xinhua reported that 100,000 people were suffering drinking-water shortages around the lake. One village could use only 4 of its 56 wells. The government did not however amend regulations on the industrial use of water by factories near the lake. This kind of grave environmental problem, aggravated by years of stubbornly pursuing economic growth, is commonplace and Poyang is a poster-child for China's multiple water crises. In 2008 the State Council admitted that by 2030, China will have exploited all its available water supplies to the limit.

“Who will feed China?”
China’s route to development differed from that of the West, because the country was densely populated before its industrial revolution. Under Mao, the great famine of 1959-1961 claimed 30 million lives. In 1995, the eminent environmental scientist Lester Brown published Who Will Feed China? (Environmental Alert Series, Worldwatch Institute) urging a coherent response to the convergence of high population, shrinking cropland, and water scarcity.

The pressure of industrialization displaced essential cropland, leading to a net decline in food production, despite rising agricultural productivity. China diverted irrigation water to non-farm uses extensively, although some 80% of its grain harvest comes from irrigated land. Shrinking resources were compounded by rising grain consumption. As incomes rose, people added meat, poultry, dairy, and even beer to their diet, high-end products demanding even more grain. Although China has a relatively stringent demographic policy, its population is rising by 12 million per year. These factors have combined to produce a “food bubble economy” where the harvest is inflated by unsustainable water-use. A serious future fall in Chinese food production looks inevitable. This context defines the interdependence of Tibet, China, India and Asia as a whole—in terms of climate warming, carbon gas emissions, agriculture, water use and mutual survival.

Tibetan glaciers and Asian civilization
The Tibetan plateau with 46,000 glaciers at an average height of 13,000 ft above sea level, is the Earth’s third largest ice mass. This “Third Pole” is less well-known than the Arctic and Antarctic, but like them, is an integral part of the planet’s cryosphere. Climate warming is causing deglaciation up to 7% a year. The average temperature on the plateau is rising 7 times as fast as in China proper.

Southeast Asia is a global hotspot for black carbon (BC)—after global warming, this is the second most important cause of glacier retreat on the plateau. BC emissions originate from coal-fired power stations, diesel engines, and traditional cooking (with wood, dung, and crop residues). BC particulates remain in the atmosphere for a few weeks, as opposed to carbon dioxide which remains in the atmosphere for more than one hundred years. When they precipitate onto snow and ice, they reduce its ability to reflect sunlight. Hence, reducing black carbon emissions would be an effective short-term way to slow down glacier loss.

BC particle EM.jpg

Electron microscope image of a particle of Black Carbon soot

The great Tibetan glaciers have been taken for granted since long before agriculture began in Asia. Yet they have always been an essential pre-condition for it, since Asia’s major rivers—the Yangtse, Yellow, Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Salween and Mekong—derive the balancing factor for year-round flow from glacial melt water. As the glaciers retreat, the volume of water in the great rivers will increase at first, causing widespread flooding. Then it will go into rapid decline, reducing volume and flow, until they become merely seasonal. It is therefore incumbent on both Chinese and Indian governments to make radical, science-based policy changes as soon as possible and move to low-carbon economies. Unless they do so, devastating water shortages will result within decades for billions of their citizens.

Climate warming is already causing widespread ecological decline at the headwaters of the Yellow River, threatening water supplies to 120 million people in China. Melting glaciers and permafrost are breaking up and drying out the land, turning grasslands into desert and leaving lakes and rivers without water. The headwater region plays the major role in supplying the whole Yellow river basin, and provides 55% of the water for its first 550km:

From here it is a domino effect that harms the flora, fauna, landscape and people of the Yellow River source region, and ultimately the river itself....Water shortage and reduced run-off at the source will have far-reaching impacts on the economy, society and people - not only in the source region but in the middle and low reaches of the Yellow River. -Prof. Liu Shiyin, Team Leader

Avoiding collapse
Many Tibetan glaciers could disappear entirely by mid-century, unless current trends of business-as-usual and carbon gas emissions are reversed. When the shrinkage of underground water is combined with that of the great glaciers, “permanent famine conditions” could arise. World food prices recently climbed to record highs, and China is likely to hold down domestic food prices by using its massive dollar holdings to import grain from the United States. Economists who projected ‘ascendant world power' status for China have demonstrated little or no understanding of real-world limitations such as hydrology, agriculture, plant biology or climate change. Therefore the real challenge is to re-design national energy policies in Asia, to save the glaciers upon which Tibet, China, India, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Burma, Thailand and Laos all depend. If Asia pursues economic competition based on fossil fuels, the outcome will amount to “mutually assured destruction”. China and India both need to cut carbon emissions as deeply and rapidly as possible by 2030.

Ironically, these two countries are building most of the new coal-fired power plants, though their food security is gravely threatened by the carbon emitted from burning coal. It is now in their interest to try and save their mountain glaciers by shifting energy investment from coal-fired power plants into energy efficiency and into wind farms, solar power plants and geothermal power plants. China, for example, could double its current electrical generating capacity from wind alone. -Lester Brown

Coal or renewable energy: a fateful choice for Asia
Only one of China's two “energy futures” is survivable. Its government’s economic policies have created the world's worst air pollution problems, and propelled the country to overtake the U.S as the world’s largest source of CO2 emissions.

Chinese society strongly emphasizes reputation and social standing—these are felt to be enhanced by consumption and electricity usage. The government practices “making face”' with the world by solving showcase pollution problems while constructing hundreds more pulverized-coal fired power plants. Chinese coal mining, burning and imports have probably already peaked (2017) but thus far, employment has trumped environmental protection at almost every turn.


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