The environmental group Greenpeace has warned that the melting of Tibet's glaciers could close-off water supplies to large parts of China. For example, Sichuan Province, in south-western China, relies on water from the Tibetan peninsular. The Qinghai-Tibet highland spans most of western China, and global-warming is driving the retreat of glaciers there, forcing the evaporation of glacial and snow run-off, and leaving rivers short of water and clogged with the silt that is usually dispersed under conditions of normal flow. At Kanding, which is several hundred kilometers from Jiuzhaigou, the evidence of climate change and rising temperatures is clear, in its effect on the glaciers. Research shows that the Tibetan plateau is melting at around 7% per year, an alarming statistic since its glaciers provide almost half (47%) of total glacial coverage in China, and its melt-waters feed the Yellow, Yangtze and many other rivers that supply water to hundreds of millions among its 1.4 billion total population.
These are rivers that are in some parts already under considerable environmental pressure from industrial pollution. "Cancer clusters" have been identified, that are thought to be related to the discharge of arsenic, mercury and other noxious materials into rivers without due care and regard to environmental laws. Water too, is an essential resource for coal-liquefaction technologies, which the Chinese intend to expand to meet the massive fuel needs of their expanding economy, with another 20 million cars expected on its roads by 2020.
A report by Greenpeace claims that: "Climate change is the major factor leading to the overall ecological degradation in the region while localised human activities such as industry and agriculture, have aggravated the situation." The Qinghai-Tibet plateau covers an area of 2.5 million kilometers (ten times the area of the UK mainland) - roughly a quarter of China's land surface; the latter being equivalent to the area covered by the arable land of North America - at an altitude of 4,000 m above sea-level. Greenpeace have cited one forecast (probably the worst) that Tibet and its environs could experience the disappearance of 80% its glacial coverage by 2035.
Conservationists working in the region point out that climate change can mean global warming but cooling in some areas too, and that each can influence rainfall and snowfall dramatically. The accumulation of waters from melting glaciers can build-up into huge "dams" that then "burst" so endangering the lives of those living down-stream. Researchers from Greenpeace who made a survey of the slopes of Mount Everest during the past two years noted that local herders were not seeing a greater abundance of water from the melting glaciers. Rather, the increased evaporation and accumulation of water in unstable glacial lakes appear to be making rivers less predictable and more dangerous.
According to a Tibetan monk who has lived on the lower slopes of Everest for many years: "Now winter is as hot as summer. The weather change is obvious."
"China's water supply could be cut off as Tibet's glaciers melt," by Clifford Coonan, The Independent, 31 May 2007.