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Sustainability on the Third Pole: Of Water and Carbon; Policies and People

As China seeks to meet the development needs of its people and communities, it must rely on its natural resource base. However, it must do so in a way that does not cause harm or loss for future generations. Sustainability, it must be remembered, is not just a "green" idea but rather a long-term goal with three interconnected, complementary parts: economic, social and environmental. Moreover, these parts should not be seen as part of a balancing act, as if in opposition, but rather all three should be recognized as affecting each other, interdependent and synergistic.

How does this discussion of sustainability play out in China? The short answer: "On a massive scale!" For example, the over-arching development goal in China's vast western region is that the present level of urbanization should increase three- to four-fold (up to approximately fifty percent) by the year 2050. However, this will transform not only the physical landscape where towns and cities are built, as well as people's livelihoods, but also the much broader socio-cultural and environmental landscapes across the entire region. The main arguments for such a radical transformation are the purported benefits of urbanization for the environment (leading, for example, to the relocation of one hundred percent of Tibetan nomadic herders in Qinghai province over the next five years by settling them in new towns), and a strong belief that urban centers are always better suited for people's quality of life (e.g., through enhanced quality or access to social services such as health care and education). International experience, though, has shown that this is not always the case; sometimes urbanization may be harmful for community as well as individuals' social and physical well-being. The difficult experiences of several First Nations ethnic groups in Canada provide sobering examples.

Globally, the dialogue on sustainability is now focused on several themes. Among these, most notable are climate change, carbon emissions and sequestration, water resources and the roles that local communities can or should play to help ensure a more sustainable future. As a global Christian community with dual mandates to care for creation and to love our neighbors, we have ample reasons to be involved in all of these important arenas.

Lessons learned on the Tibetan plateau

Plateau Perspectives is an international, non-profit organization that seeks to promote environmental protection and community development in the Tibetan plateau region of China. Our work has focused on the Sanjiangyuan region in Qinghai Province (i.e., in the headwaters of the Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong rivers) for more than a decade. During this time, many development policies and some environmental initiatives have come and gone; but environmental degradation is a consistently growing concern, and the state (and fate) of local people's livelihoods and their "quality of life" have gained increasing attention, in China and abroad, even as their future options now are more constrained than ever before. Many different perspectives and dialogues have led to this situationnot least the current environmental agenda, too often divorced from a social agenda, and also the socio-cultural ideologies that have driven China forward over the past several decades.

What can be done? What are the issues we should concern ourselves with? How can we participate in and promote more equitable development and the care of creation?

Climate, carbon, water

As the climate changes, as grasslands of the Tibetan plateau desiccate, as the glaciers melt, water availability throughout much of Asia, fed by rivers that originate on the Tibetan plateau, will decrease and become less reliable. These dramatic changes will impact nearly forty percent of the world's population which lives downstream and depends on these rivers for basic livelihood. The Tibetan plateau and its surrounding mountain zones, together with the North and South poles and Greenland, is, in fact, one of the critical regions of the world that is most seriously impacted by climate change.

With less and less water, and with less reliable water regimes, the vast grasslands that comprise the Tibetan plateau region may degrade, and hence both ecosystems and the people that depend on and are part of these ecosystems will suffer. Yet, if the ecological function of such grasslands can be maintained, with their enormous potential to sequester (or "hold on to") carbon, then even the rate of regional and global climate change could be decreased. The converse would be further acceleration of climatic change which does not bode well for these unique highlands or for the surrounding provinces of China and countries of South and Southeast Asia.

Of policies and people

However . Not only is China, along with the United States, one of the highest carbon emitters worldwide, it also has the potential, through effective conservation measures, to become an example of good environmental stewardship. Unfortunately, to date the study of "natural sciences" and "social sciences" have yet to be united in China (as in many countries), and sometimes people may suffer unnecessarily from otherwise well-intentioned, conservation-oriented policies.

Such is the case with the "ecological migration" policy currently being enacted on the Tibetan plateau. For environmental reasons, people are being "requested" to move off the land in order to decrease the grazing pressure (from livestock) on the grassland. In theory, the natural ecosystem will then be able to recover from overuse and return to its former state. Yet, Tibetan pastoralism has been practiced in the region for millennia with little apparent degradation. Hence the question arises: What is the primary cause of degradation? Is the cause related to the management practices of local herders or, instead, to more regional/global players or issues? Certainly a variety of factors affect the state of the grassland, including growing population (people and livestock), a changing climate, short-term market incentives, etc. But who should pay for, and/or suffer from, any proposed solutions? It is already recognized that, with one of the proposed solutionsecological migrationmost of the burden falls on (former) herders even though there is increasing consensus in academic circles across China, and abroad, that the primary driving force behind observed environmental/habitat changes on the plateau is more climatic. Anything less than treating the root cause is largely cosmetic and, in some instances, possibly harmful.

The social cost of such policy is very high and includes breakup of community, loss of hope for many people (who have few new, alternative livelihood opportunities), unnecessary loss of some cultural traditions, and in new towns also real potential for poor health through over-crowding, unemployment, poor sanitation, alcoholism, obesity, smoking, etc. Such devastating scenarios already have occurred many times around the world, and they are almost always long-lasting and very difficult to reverse. If alternative approaches could be introduced, many people would stand to gainfrom local people and communities all the way to national-level interests.

What next steps?

If we as a Christian community are to concern ourselves with being good stewards of God's creation and caring for our (global) neighbors, in the context of China today, with its focus on the environment in general as well as on the Tibetan plateau region, we really have no choice but to consider, with our Chinese friends and colleagues, the very important issues of environmental conservation and related policy matters. Perhaps we can help not only with technical expertise and a more holistic perspective but at the same time also draw attention to some of the potential social consequences of current directions, and thus help redress or mitigate some of the imbalances now being fashioned. Any solution, however, will need to include within it elements of both environmental conservation and social equity. Clearly, this is not a straightforward proposition. However, who is better placed to keep these two concerns in tandemthese two biblical mandatesthan the Christian community in China and globally?

Plateau Perspectives has been working with Tibetan communities in Qinghai Province for several years together with relevant government partners at several levels, aiming to promote conservation and development in the region. At each step, we have actively sought to include local individuals, communities and organizations in the on-going process of development and changeempowering them to be more involved in the out-working of their own future. There have been many successes; of course, there have been setbacks too. Not least among the latter, for example, are some "good" environmental policies that unfortunately do not sufficiently consider societal or cultural implications. When looking at the history of Canadian government relations with aboriginal peoples over the past two centuries, we find a similar history in which a variety of "good intentions" in fact did more harm than good. Is there any way, therefore, to protect the Tibetan plateau environment in ways that do not require the loss of traditional livelihoods; the creation of new towns with long-term, potentially systemic challenges/problems; increases in disparities in terms of wealth and health; and a general sense of despair due to lack of local involvement in decision-making, on the one hand, and the speed of change, on the other hand? What are some possible alternatives to the current trend (or rather, drive) toward urbanization?

Two possibilities come to mind. While more research and proper deliberation are still needed, carbon trading and geotourism are two avenues that could be pursued further. The alternative, that is, the relocation and urbanization of all (former) Tibetan herders, is simply too bleak a future to consider if other aboriginal/minority histories worldwide provide any indication of the real consequences. As in Canada, China as a whole would bear the financial and societal burden if one of its member ethnic groups were to suffer from current actions.

The challenge now is to engage effectively with the business community at large. For example, we could work with the business world to find ways in which carbon credits from remote grasslands, still grazed sustainably by local herders or restored with the help of local communities, could be linked with companies in search of pollution offsetting mechanisms, whether they be situated elsewhere in China, Europe or North America. In this way, there is some hope that communities that have long lived on the Tibetan plateau may not need to relocate and urbanize in order to protect the natural environment, but instead they might even be able to receive additional support, when and where they are found to live in balance with the ecosystem, so that their quality of life could be improved at the same time as their current livelihood is sustained and in some ways enhanced. An example of a carbon-based approach to community-based conservation and sustainable development can be found at Climate Stewards (, a project of A Rocha (

A second possible avenue that could benefit local communities and help to protect the environment is geotourism, defined by the National Geographic Society as "tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a placeits environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents." An excellent example is the Wenhai Ecolodge in Yunnan province, owned and operated by fifty-six households in Upper Wenhai village ( In the work of Plateau Perspectives, we also have found that the concept of community-based tourism is well received by protected area (nature reserve) authorities who are generally keen to develop such mechanisms to promote local development together with wildlife conservation. Supporting the development of business opportunities like this, based explicitly on the local situation and seeking to benefit local communities and the environment, is also an approach that the global Christian community could develop further as it seeks to show love for its neighbors around the world, to help the poor and to protect the environment.

In summary, China is currently undergoing very rapid changes. Finding ways to help rural communities transition more smoothly into new livelihoods (or modify past practices), in ways that integrate well with regional and global conservation goals, is a challenge to all development workers. Christian practitioners in development or conservation work should be at the forefront as we, more than anyone, recognize the importance of responding to God's call for us to care for his creation and to love our neighbors with all our heart, mind, body and soul.

The author is an ecologist who has worked in China for 15 years. For more information go to: