Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

Meltdown in Tibet: China's Reckless Destruction of Ecosystems from the Highlands of Tibet to the Deltas of Asia
  • Alternative view 1 of Meltdown in Tibet: China's Reckless Destruction of Ecosystems from the Highlands of Tibet to the Deltas of Asia
  • Alternative view 2 of Meltdown in Tibet: China's Reckless Destruction of Ecosystems from the Highlands of Tibet to the Deltas of Asia
  • Alternative view 3 of Meltdown in Tibet: China's Reckless Destruction of Ecosystems from the Highlands of Tibet to the Deltas of Asia
<Previous >Next

Meltdown in Tibet: China's Reckless Destruction of Ecosystems from the Highlands of Tibet to the Deltas of Asia

by Michael Buckley

See All Formats & Editions

Tibetans have experienced waves of genocide since the 1950s. Now they are facing ecocide. The Himalayan snowcaps are in meltdown mode, due to climate change—accelerated by a rain of black soot from massive burning of coal and other fuels in both China and India. The mighty rivers of Tibet are being dammed by Chinese engineering consortiums to feed the mainland


Tibetans have experienced waves of genocide since the 1950s. Now they are facing ecocide. The Himalayan snowcaps are in meltdown mode, due to climate change—accelerated by a rain of black soot from massive burning of coal and other fuels in both China and India. The mighty rivers of Tibet are being dammed by Chinese engineering consortiums to feed the mainland's thirst for power, and the land is being relentlessly mined in search of minerals to feed China's industrial complex. On the drawing board are plans for a massive engineering project to divert water from Eastern Tibet to water-starved Northern China. Ruthless Chinese repression leaves Tibetans powerless to stop the reckless destruction of their sacred land, but they are not the only victims of this campaign: the nations downstream from Tibet rely heavily on rivers sourced in Tibet for water supply, and for rich silt used in agriculture. This destruction of the region's environment has been happening with little scrutiny until now. In Meltdown in Tibet, Michael Buckley turns the spotlight on the darkest side of China's emergence as a global super power.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Reports of worldwide environmental degradation rarely mention the remote Tibetan plateau, but journalist and travel writer Buckley rectifies this omission with his detailed, dismal account of the damage there. For decades after its 1950 invasion of the region, China concentrated on suppressing traditional Tibetan culture, social structure, and religion (most visibly by destroying temples). But during the country’s market revolution in the 1980s, the Chinese turned their focus to the area’s material resources. Although the sources of most great Asian waterways are found in Tibet, Chinese-built mega-dams have caused rivers to dry up and deltas to shrink, while extensive mining operations have polluted other channels. The Chinese government banned logging virgin forest around the Yangtze’s Tibetan headwaters after “massive soil erosion” produced a disastrous flood in 1998. Observers praised China for simultaneously designating an astounding 33% of the Tibetan region as nature reserves, though Buckley demonstrates that such actions have proven to be entirely for show; the creation of these nature reserves is a legal fiction that allows authorities to displace native Tibetans so that mining, logging, and dam building can proceed. Objections from the United Nations, other international organizations, and even Chinese citizens have had little effect, and Buckley’s obligatory solution in the concluding chapter will encourage only the most optimistic reader. (Nov.)
From the Publisher

“Buckley renders an important service in this outspoken book by…[documenting] the calamitous consequences of China's unsparing usurpation of Tibet's natural resources.…arriving at a time when many Western authors are acquiescing in censorship for the tawdry privilege of being published in China, Meltdown in Tibet is made indispensable by the mere fact of its existence.” —The Washington Post

“An intrepid environmentalist and travel writer…Buckley provides in his latest book an impassioned and angry account of… [how] China has penetrated Tibet's ground waters, and its deep-lying minerals, and violated its mighty rivers and grasslands.” —Jonathan Mirsky, High Peaks Pure Earth

“[Buckley] makes a compelling case that China's Tibet policies are noxious…Meltdown in Tibet is hard to put down as Buckley's passion and outrage swell, like the Mekong, from a trickle to a thunderous torrent at every twist and turn of his narrative.” —South China Morning Post

Meltdown in Tibet is full of evidence of ethnocide and ecocide, brutal repression, human rights violations, wide corruption and profiteering at the highest levels…it is the huge dams that most worry Buckley. Widely travelled, with deep knowledge of terrain and peoples, he… neatly encapsulates the mainstream Chinese view by quoting a hydrologist who says such rivers are ‘an awful waste of water leaving China.' …Highly readable.” —NewScientist

“Meltdown in Tibet is an instructive book on the roof of the world. Its documentation is impeccable, and it deals with Tibet seen from a rarely tackled angle: its role in world climate.” —Forbes.com

“A passionately committed environmental activist unearths China's criminal, ongoing policy of resource extraction.” —Kirkus

“The question of river and water management in Tibet transcends mere political concerns because of its far-reaching impact in this part of the world. This book, therefore, should be part of a wake-up call to the international community and China to seriously assess ecological and environmental conditions on the Tibetan plateau and take remedial measures before it is too late.” —From the Preface by His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Meltdown in Tibet draws attention to the critical importance of Tibet's environment to the sustainability of development of Asia and even to the survival of the continent's billions who live downstream. Buckley's argument is that Asia can ignore what China is doing in Tibet at its own peril.” —Thupten Samphel, director of Tibet Policy Institute, and author of Falling Through the Roof

“In Meltdown in Tibet, Michael Buckley has bravely chronicled China's human rights abuses against Tibetans, forcibly removed from their lands to make way for large-scale mining and hydro power projects. Buckley, a Tibet expert, has traced the deleterious effects of controlled water distribution from the Tibetan plateau to the thirsty countries along its perimeter. It's a scary read. I am afraid. We should all be afraid.” —Pat Morrow, mountaineer, author of Everest: High Expectations

“An engrossing look at the devastation wrought in Tibet by the Chinese government, and the cascading environmental problems that follow. Meltdown in Tibet is a primer on how quickly a country can go from a pristine state to an environmental horror story when outside forces disregard the value of a natural environment.” —Lester R. Brown, President, Earth Policy Institute and author of Full Planet, Empty Plates

“I cannot praise this excellent book highly enough, a gripping and moving read, a lively chronicle of the author's adventures and journey of discovery, as well as a globally urgent expose of the disastrous exploitation inflicted by the Chinese government and its colonialist state corporations on the whole of the Tibetan plateau. The book reports in solid and yet expressive detail this genocidal ecocide and its devastating impact on the whole of Asia, including its suicidal effect on China itself. I read it through without being able to put it down, swept up in its epic scope. Though it moves one toward despair, the mere fact that such a horrific reality is so well confronted and communicated by the author gives rise to a saving hope, and a strong determination to do what one can to change such a natural and human catastrophe. One thing one can do is know what is going on, and this book shines a bright light upon the situation. If one cares about the present and future of this planet, this book is a must read!” —Professor Robert Thurman, President of Tibet House US and author of Why The Dalai Lama Matters

Kirkus Reviews
A grim, relentless exposé of the plundering of Tibet's natural resources by China. A Canadian journalist who has found his way into the secret workings of an oppressed country via trekking, kayaking and documenting the issues, Buckley (co-author of Lonely Planet's first guidebook to Tibet in 1986) sounds the alarm on what he calls China's eco-cide of fragile, high-altitude Tibet. He notes all of the devastation that is taking place with impunity and in secret: deforestation (to the tune of 50 percent of Tibet's forests since China moved into the country in 1950; this has represented $50 billion for construction and manufacturing); damming of important rivers whose waters have sustained populations in the deltas of India, Nepal, Pakistan and others yet are now diverted to thirsty Chinese cities; tunnel boring through sacred mountains for mineral extraction via railroads and the conveying of a huge influx of Chinese Han settlers that beleaguer the scant 6 million Tibetan Buddhist natives; and the sad, silent disappearance of wildlife such as the Tibetan gazelle and black-necked crane. The Tibetan Plateau is called the "Third Pole" due to the significance of its glaciers, which are melting at an alarming rate thanks to climate change. Since 2006, China has the dubious distinction of being the world's biggest emitter of carbon dioxide and other gases, largely due to coal. China has also engaged in a dam-building frenzy, harnessing hydropower not for the Tibetans, who are scarcely consulted, but for the needs of the billions of Chinese. Unlike in India, public protests are circumvented by authoritarian speed and secrecy; moreover, the Tibetan nomads are removed forcibly from their ancestral grasslands and rendered ecological migrants. Buckley's concluding tribute to idyllic Bhutan is eye-opening and provides a stark contrast to the bleak picture of Tibet. A passionately committed environmental activist unearths China's criminal, ongoing policy of resource extraction.

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
9.30(w) x 6.40(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Meltdown in Tibet

China's Reckless Destruction of Ecosystems from the Highlands of Tibet to the Deltas of Asia

By Michael Buckley

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2014 Michael Buckley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-137-47472-8


Rafting the Drigung

What on Earth Are China's Engineers Getting Up To?

There are things you take for granted in Tibet: magnificent snowcaps, powerful gushing rivers, hearty nomads, yaks grazing the grasslands under vast open skies. I never imagined I would have to write the following lines: Tibetans have experienced waves of genocide since the 1950s. Now they are facing ecocide—the reckless destruction of their fragile high-altitude environment.

The Himalayan snowcaps are in meltdown mode due to climate change—accelerated by a rain of black soot from massive burning of coal and other fossil fuels in both China and India. The mighty rivers of Tibet are being dammed by Chinese engineering consortiums to feed the mainland's relentless quest for power. There are plans to divert water from some major rivers sourced in Tibet to feed China's desperate thirst for clean water. The grasslands of Tibet are being usurped by desert—partly due to climate change, but mostly due to the shortsighted Chinese policy of forcibly removing Tibetan nomads from the grasslands and settling them in concrete hovels. Even yaks—the iconic creatures of Tibet—are vanishing from central Tibet: the yaks are sent to slaughterhouses when nomads are settled. There is high demand for yak meat among wealthy Chinese.

When I first reached Tibet in 1985, little of this was apparent—at least, not at the sites where foreign "big-noses" were allowed to go and sniff around. This has all come to pass in a few short decades, unfolding right before my eyes. After Tibet opened up to individual travelers, I entered overland with an assignment to write a guidebook. It was published in 1986 by Lonely Planet—the first-ever English guidebook to modern Tibet. In the 1980s, 1990s, and the 2000s, I traveled all over the Tibetan world—and central Tibet itself—in the course of gathering research material, later for the British publisher Bradt Travel Guides.

In 2005, I traveled to Tibet not only to update the Bradt guidebook, but also to work on a story about the new railway arriving in Lhasa and its potential impact on Tibetans. I did some firsthand railway research, taking pictures of the new line and its bridges and tunnels. But I fell into a much bigger story—a black hole of a story—about dam building in Tibet. In fact, I stumbled into a story about impending disaster for Tibet and beyond.

So let me be your guide on a very different journey in Meltdown in Tibet, as we take in the glaciers, moraines, grasslands, sacred mountains, and lakes of Tibet—and roll on past railway tracks, dams, and mining sites. Meltdown in Tibet is an alternative guide—a guide to disaster, a personal take on environmental issues in Tibet based on my observations on the ground and on a mountain of research.

This book is about looming water crisis in Asia—and about looming environmental chaos in Tibet, India, and Asia. I believe looming will almost certainly translate to real because absolutely nothing is being done to stop China's wholesale destruction of the rivers, forests, mountains, and grasslands of Tibet.

China's official response to environmental degradation in Tibet repeatedly blames everything on climate change (which, it should be pointed out, is largely sparked by humans). For Tibetans, this is not about climate change, it's about the climate of fear that prevails—ruthless Chinese repression that renders Tibetans powerless to do anything to stop the reckless destruction of their sacred land. At the time of this writing, there have been more than 130 self-immolations by Tibetans since 2009—with over 100 deaths resulting. Tibetans have set themselves on fire in the ultimate act of desperation to protest what is happening to their land and their culture.

* * *

August 2005: my introduction to the tremendous power of the rivers of Tibet comes via a rafting ride on the Drigung River, a few hours' drive from Lhasa. This is a baptism fueled by pure adrenaline, a baptism that raises lots of questions—and gets me going on research.

Feeling rather ridiculous—decked out in a flashy wetsuit, rubber booties, lifejacket, and helmet—I waddle over to the big blue raft. All the gear is in the interests of warmth and waterproofing—and safety. Georgia gives us a briefing on what to do if ejected from the craft (don't try and tie a rescue rope around your neck). Georgia, from Australia, is conducting safety rescue courses for the Tibetan rafting trainees. She's our safety kayaker on this day trip, scouting rapids ahead and trolling for any body that happens to be floating past.

Instructions over, we turn to face the river itself, which is swollen by monsoon rains—definitely moody—frothy and foaming in parts. No room for error here. From this point, rapids are class III and IV—and our lives are in the hands of Captain Ram. Ram is a bearded young Nepalese with long hair tied back in a ponytail, and a warped sense of humor. Happily, Ram has ten years of white-water rafting and kayaking experience on rivers in Nepal. He gives us a briefing on when to paddle forward, backward, stop, jump to the left side of the boat, jump to the right.

There are not many rivers in the world where you can raft above 13,000 feet. In Tibet, most terrain starts at this elevation, and it's all uphill from there. I check my watch: the altitude at the put-in point is 13,400 feet.

We push off into the swirling Drigung Chu, nerves on edge. The majestic landscape flashes by in a blur—not much time to take it in when your energy is concentrated on remaining glued to the raft. But you feel the raw power of the river as no onlooker can. And you begin to realize that rivers are not all that simple—a point emphasized by the menacing waves crashing around your head. Rafters have more specific lingo for them: standing waves, pillow waves, eddies, seams, and drops—and deadly "holes."

On the river today are two matching inflatable blue rafts, both with a Nepalese Captain Ram at the helm. They provide a sort of stereo rafting effect for those with altitude-induced illusions. Injected into this is a dose of high spirits created by competitiveness among rafters—broadsiding boats, and drenching occupants by batting paddles on the surface. In the rafts: a couple from Germany, two Swiss guys, a brother and sister from the United States, a Dutchman, a Tibetan woman. I have missed most names, but remember the nationalities. Apart from high water, there's a lot of adrenaline floating around. The symphony of first-time rafters: high-pitched yelps, yahooing, and the occasional scream as waves crash over the bows, drenching all in frigid water. A good deal of the vocalizing emanates from Lodol, the young Tibetan woman on board next to me. She's on the lam: everybody at work has been told she's taken a day off to deal with family problems—and lord knows what she has told her family, as they would surely fear for her safety.

I'm trying to figure out if Captain Ram is bent on deliberately steering us into troubled waters at times to increase the excitement. In any case, he's a wizard at reading the river—looking for the best line through the rapids, steering clear of submerged rocks—and avoiding "holes" (like the spin-cycle of a washing machine, only much magnified) that can flip a small craft. Forward! Forward! yells Ram, urgently at one point. That translates as Fast forward! I think. There's no special command for Jump out of your skin!—which could easily be applied when we reach a spot with barely enough space for the raft to squeeze through. It's a kind of gate formed by rocks, so our raft has to be very precise. But we pull it off. Everybody good? inquires Ram. He calls for a group high-five with upright paddles.

Woman overboard! We have lost the college student from Virginia, along with the Dutchman—both swept out of the raft by a freak wave. But they are soon back with us, all in one piece though somewhat shaken. To the rescue is Phuntsok, the Tibetan trainee rafter aboard. In a few more seasons, he should be able to take over the helm from experienced rafters like Ram. Tibetan trainees have to overcome cultural taboos about fast-flowing rivers—normally places to stay well away from because they are associated with drowning. There is no tradition of pleasure boating in Tibet. Tibetans don't spend any time on rivers, they don't fish, and they look down on the boatmen who ply traditional yak-skin coracles at river crossings.

In calmer waters, we finally relax on the paddle and take in the scenery. And wave at Tibetans lining the banks. Some wave back, others just stare, openmouthed. Foreigners are alien enough, but ones dressed in colored wetsuits and helmets must surely appear quite bizarre. When we stop for lunch at the river's edge, curious Tibetans edge closer—not so shy.

On the Drigung, you get to experience just how powerful Tibet's rivers are. The rafting gives you a huge adrenalin hit. I'm on a euphoric high that stays with me for the rest of the day. But lunchtime conversation takes a surprising turn. The rafting guides are not talking about first descents, they're talking about last descents. The Drigung River is the site of the first commercial rafting trip in Tibet, only started a few years back. But the run may soon be inaccessible; dam building could block the river, according to one guide.

After lunch, we resume the rafting descent: more bouts of being heaved around and showered in freezing water. This alternates with more tranquil stretches where I even relax enough to indulge in bird spotting: I sight a hoopoe, an exotic-looking bird with a spiky orange crest and black-and-white wings.

All too soon, the wild ride comes to an end. The gear is stowed away. The rafts are deflated, rolled up, and packed onto a minibus. We help ourselves to mugs of hot tea, which is good because my fingers are numb from the icy Drigung waters. And yet while most of me feels numb, my brain is exceedingly clear and calm. I have survived the ride.

But something leaves a bad taste. At the tail end of the rafting run, we passed a small dam under construction. The guides mentioned there's a much bigger one downstream on the Drigung. Hydro megaprojects are popping up all over, one guide said, to supply the Chinese industrial ventures with power. Chinese engineers want to bore tunnels to divert rivers from Tibet to the north and east, to supply water-starved Chinese cities. That sticks in my head. The water diversion, the dams, the huge tunnels. What on earth are China's engineers getting up to?

This new information surprises me. As a guidebook writer I have traveled to the Tibetan world numerous times, and have read everything I could lay my hands on. But this is the first time I have heard of dam building in Tibet. And yet it makes sense: Tibet has very powerful rivers, with the potential to generate huge amounts of hydropower. The more I dwell on this, the more I am convinced I should get cracking and research it—and relay this news to others.

* * *

And so I start delving into the engineering puzzle. Delving is perhaps not the word I am looking for: it sounds too casual. Gathering any kind of research on Tibet is extremely difficult because there's a virtual blackout on media in Tibet. It is an information black hole. Information doesn't get in, information doesn't get out. Foreign journalists are refused entry to Tibet; a select few manage to make it there on brief, carefully orchestrated tours where every step is monitored by Chinese minders.

And gathering information can be a risky business in China. Information disappears, along with the messenger. Anything to do with Tibet is classified top secret by Chinese authorities. Therefore, getting information out of? Tibet is regarded as "leaking state secrets." For Tibetans, the penalty for being accused of this could be years in jail, though it is never specified what these state secrets are. Reporting a protest by Tibetans via e-mail or on the phone amounts to leaking state secrets. And to cover all bases, there are other absurd accusations such as "splitting the motherland" or "spreading rumors."

The Party definitely does not like criticism. The immediate reaction to any criticism is to silence the critic. Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are banned in China. It gets worse in Tibet. In a restive place like Aba in eastern Tibet, Internet access is either sporadic or it completely vanishes. This is not a technical problem: it is because of Aba's rebellious citizens. The police and propaganda department in Aba appear to have functioning Internet connections. In other parts of this region, monasteries have been raided and satellite dishes seized. Police routinely go through cell phones looking for forbidden images such as the Tibetan flag or a picture of the Dalai Lama. Finding such items is justification for arrest and imprisonment.

Pre-1950 Tibet was run by the strangest form of government ever devised: a theocracy ruled by a lineage of reincarnate Dalai Lamas. After the Chinese takeover, Tibetans were told their former masters were parasites, and that the way forward lay with socialism introduced by the Chinese Communist Party. Happy smiling Tibetans are depicted in posters and propaganda as living in a Maoist socialist paradise where all their needs have been taken care of by the benevolent CCP. But it seems that Tibet has gone from theocracy to "thugocracy"—a term coined by veteran journalist Paul Mooney to describe the Chinese leadership, which qualifies for the dubious distinction of being the longest-lasting repressive regime in modern history.

In 2013, and also in 2012 and 2011, China spent more on its budget for internal security than it did on its defense budget for external security. For 2013, the military defense budget was announced at 740.6 billion yuan ($119 billion) while domestic security spending was allocated at 769.1 billion yuan ($124 billion).

Chinese authorities spend extraordinary amounts of money on surveillance equipment, and on weapons and riot gear for China's vast network of official and undercover police and paramilitary forces. Huge amounts are dedicated to maintaining an elaborate complex of jails and prison labor camps. This is intended to keep the nation's people in check as discontent mounts over issues such as corruption, illegal land-grabs, inequality, and pollution. Government-backed studies indicate that the number of officially reported "mass incidents" of unrest across China skyrocketed from 8,700 in 1993 to around 90,000 in 2010 (those figures could actually be much higher).

Ethnic unrest is particularly treated with brute force. Indeed, some ethnic groups such as Uighurs and Tibetans have been accused of "terrorism" by Chinese authorities. Protests in Tibet are dealt with by People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops and paramilitary forces in overwhelming numbers, armed to the teeth. For Tibetans, their homeland has become a place of great sadness and little hope—a psychological black hole, a downward spiral of feeling helpless and desperate. For Tibetan nomads, it is a black hole with little prospect of employment.

* * *

First come the tunnels. The first thing that caught my attention when I stepped off the plane in Gongkar in 2005 and caught a taxi to Lhasa was a huge tunnel that had not been there on my previous visit. The entrance was painted with Tibetan auspicious motifs—rainbows and black-necked cranes.

I whipped out my video camera and pointed it at the front windscreen, thinking that this tunnel would finish in a matter of seconds. It didn't. It went on and on, boring through an entire mountain—quite a feat of engineering. Galashan Tunnel turned out to be 8,028 feet long. It was built to shave an hour off the trip from the airport to downtown Lhasa. But was this tunnel really necessary? It saved time, but at what cost to the environment? For Tibetans, with their belief in deities resident in mountains, such tunneling could well be seen as defilement of their land. For me, it's symbolic of something else: Tunnel Vision, a one-sided view of problem-solving.

Chinese engineers are the most advanced moles in the world now. They have the most advanced tunneling technology. Tunnels boring through mountains, diversion tunnels for dam building, tunnels for mineral extraction. The 710-mile railway from Golmud to Lhasa bores through some 18 miles of tunnels, including the world's highest tunnel, Fenghuoshan, at 16,093 feet. The train crests two 16,400-foot passes and crosses more than 400 bridges, running past more than 30 stations before reaching Lhasa.

The railway line got under way in 2001 and was completed in 2005 (becoming fully operational in 2006) at a cost of $4.1 billion. In fact, over a four-year period, the railway racked up bills that surpass the entire budget spent in Tibet on education and health care since it was invaded by China in 1950. Obviously, the railway was not built for philanthropic purposes. Later, Beijing admitted that mining was a major factor in the decision to build the railway and that the income and benefits from mining would easily cover the cost of building it. Mining is not possible without the railway, which allows for shipping minerals economically.


Excerpted from Meltdown in Tibet by Michael Buckley. Copyright © 2014 Michael Buckley. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Michael Buckley is an award-winning Canadian journalist who, amongst other things, wrote Lonely Planet's first guidebook to Tibet (the first guidebook ever to Tibet) in 1986. A freelance travel writer and photographer, he has traveled extensively throughout Southeast Asia, and the Himalayan and Karakoram ranges. He has made two short documentaries about major environmental issues in Tibet and moves between Asia and Vancouver, Canada.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews