Monthly Archives: January 2013

Promised Land

South China Morning Post, 6 January 2013

The Sanjiangyuan (or “Three Rivers Headwaters”) Nature Reserve acts as China’s water tower. Covering 363,000 square kilometres at an average elevation of 4,000 metres, it is also home to the last Tibetan nomads.

“The waters from Sanjiangyuan sustain life for 600 million people downstream but in recent years this vast water tower has been under threat,” says Marc Foggin, a conservation biologist at the NGO Plateau Perspectives, who has studied life on the plateau for 15 years. “And what affects China, affects the world.”

That threat is environmental degradation. In 2000, officials panicked when they found dried-up lakebeds and grasslands turning to desert near the source of the Yellow River, in Guoluo county, Qinghai. The Yellow and Yangtze rivers function as China’s two major arteries, flowing through its industrial heartland. The third of the “three rivers”, the Mekong, also flows through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The future of China and Southeast Asia depends on how this water source is managed. […]

In 2010, an earthquake destroyed Yushu, the largest town in the Three Rivers Reserve, with the loss of more than 2,600 lives. While most buildings crumbled, a statue of Tibet’s mythic King Gesar remained standing in the town centre. Beijing has pledged to rebuild Yushu as an ecological city centred on King Gesar Square and the rebuilt hill-top monastery: twin totems of Tibetan culture. An airport and 800 kilometres of dual carriageway from the provincial capital will bring in tourists seeking an authentic cultural experience.

Horse festivals on the plains near Yushu have again become popular, despite government restrictions on large gatherings in the province. Resettlement villages have their own regular races – a reaction, perhaps, to “settled” life.

“No culture is a museum piece,” says Foggin. Plateau Perspectives works with nomads to sustain livelihoods and conserve local wildlife. “Tibetan pastoralism will continue to create and recreate itself. There is a creativity in us that has allowed humans to survive in harsh habitats.”

Lifestyles become ancient, he reasons, by having adapted to changing environments. For millennia, the nomads have looked for their survival to their wildlife and it is likely that at least some of them will do so again.