Roof of the world melting away?

Expedition to Tibetan Plateau reveals devastating consequences of global warming

Feature story - 13 October, 2005
When you live off the land any change in climate can have profound effects. This Tibetan woman used to have a healthy herd of animals to support her family. Now due to the lack of rain and spreading deserts on the Tibetan plateau her income has disappeared. Try telling her that global warming isn't a reality.

A 31-year-old Tibetan woman at her home in Yellow River township. Once she lived well from the profits off her animals. Now, due to climate change, she is reduced to a life of poverty.

The Tibetan Plateau is often referred to as the roof of the world, landof high peaks, glaciers and nomadic tribal peoples. The snowy peaks andglaciers are the source of many of Asia's mightiest rivers - theGanges, Mekong and China's Yellow River. This area is predicted to warmconsiderably before 2100 due to global warming. The roof of the worldis melting, and melting fast.

A little less ice

So what's the big deal about a little less ice in a place full of thestuff anyway? Actually it's a disaster for the region now,  and theramifications may yet be felt across the globe. We visited the region tohighlight the impacts of the changing climate of the Tibetan Plateau.

As the area warms less rain is falling and glaciers in the region aremelting. Local communities used to make a living of their herds ofanimals grazing on lush mountain pastures. Now those pastures are fastturning to desert due to lack of water, overgrazing and erosion causedby new animals that are thriving in the warmer conditions. Many localpeople now survive solely on government handouts.

Onour expedition to the region we travelled on "dancing roads" distortedby melting permafrost to meet the governor of Madoi County. In 1980, Madoi wasChina's richest province due to its agricultural wealth. It is  now China'spoorest. We interviewed once-prosperous, but now destitute,farmers and saw first hand the desert gobbling up pasture land.

Climate change is causing a cocktail of environmental effects at theYellow River source that threaten an ecological breakdown. When you seethe empty wells, bridges over nothing but dry dirt, cracked groundwhere there should be lakes, bare rock and sand where it was oncehealthy grassland you know something is seriously wrong.

See more impacts in the region at our Yellow River site in English or Chinese.

While the immediate impacts on the area are bad enough they palecompared to the possible future impacts in the rest of China. TheYellow River has fed China's people since time immemorial. Today, 120million Chinese people, a tenth of China's population, rely on theriver, especially for irrigating crops. As well as being known asChina's 'mother river', is also dubbed the 'cradle of the Chinesecivilization'.

Nowthe mother river is drying up at its source. In many places onthe upper stretches the flow is much reduced. If the flow of the rivercontinues to decline it threatens the food supplies for a large part ofChina's population.

Alarm bell for the world

Butthis isn't just a problem for China. Many of Asia's rivers begin on theTibetan Plateau. If it continues to dry this could affect many ofthese rivers and the millions of people who rely on them. As well as water shortages, scientistspredict that rising temperatures will reduce the rice crops that arethe staple food for more than half of the world's population.

How would the world feed millions of people who cannot rely on locally produced rice?

The Yellow River source region is an urgent warning that climate changeis harming people now and is going to get worse. The Yellow River storyis not just about China, it's a warning signal that we need  worldwideaction on global warming.

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