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China's Greed for Lithium is Killing the Tibetan Plateau

China's aggressive lithium mining in Tibet is polluting the region's water, soil, and air, wreaking havoc on its ecology and inhabitants.

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A vehicle is seen near a lithium smelter in Yichun, Jiangxi province, China March 30, 2023. (©REUTERS/Staff/File Photo)

Why did China invade Tibet? There are several reasons, one of which is because Tibet is very rich in natural resources. This fact is supported by Chinese sources. The rising demand for electronic vehicles has given rise to a new race for lithium mining across the globe. Lithium, primarily used in lithium-ion batteries, is considered a suitable replacement for fossil fuels. 

China has huge deposits of lithium. It has long been indulged in the mining, processing, and exporting of lithium to the rest of the world. The recent discovery of lithium deposits in the Tibetan Plateau has attracted the attention of hundreds of lithium industries. This has threatened the ecological bio-diversity of "the roof of the world."

A report titled "Tibet, a New Frontline of White Gold Rush in Global Race for Renewable Energy" was published in October 2023 by Turquoise Roof. According to the report, China's geologists have recognized that eastern Tibet has at least 85% of all reserves of lithium in China. 

It further highlights that the Tibetan plateau has been assessed to hold at least 3.655 million tons of China's estimated 4.047 million tons of lithium. Electric vehicle manufacturers like Tesla and BYD are heavily reliant on Tibet's lithium exploitation, especially on hard rock lithium (spodumene) available in the region. New factories have been set up while existing factories have doubled their production of lithium. 

Lithium in oil (©W. Oelen via Wikimedia Commons)

Xi Jinping's Campaign

As per the Turquoise Roof report, lithium extraction and its processing involve waste generation, pollution, and highly energy-consuming processes. These further damage the local rivers and livestock.

The report further stressed that this large-scale exploitation of Tibet has been initiated and supported by Xi Jinping himself under his "Made in China 2025" campaign. During his visit to Qinghai Province in 2021, Xi called for the escalation of lithium extraction on a large scale. Apart from lithium, Tibet is home to the world's largest deposits of critical minerals used in various technologies in critical industries like pharmaceuticals and electronics.

Since the Chinese occupation of Tibet in the late 1950s, China began mining work in the Tsaidam Basin for chromium and bauxite. Its second biggest mining work was launched in the 1980s for the mining of gold in the river basin of Kham and Amdo.

Following the discovery of large deposits of copper, Tibet saw an increase in mining in the 21st century. Recently, the discovery of huge deposits of lithium has attracted the world's largest electronic manufacturers from all across the globe. This has led to further exploitation of the natural ecology of the area. Lithium has long been used as the energy source in lithium-ion batteries.

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Water and Soil Pollution

However, the continuous mining in the area has had a devastating impact on the ecology of the Tibetan Plateau, raising the pollution level. It not only polluted rivers and streams but, in several cases, even diverted their flow. This has severely affected the flora and fauna of the region. The government in Beijing seems least concerned about the negative effect of continuous mining across the Tibetan Plateau. Its whole focus is on making money.

Rivers have been affected the most, and they are far from recovery. The Tibetan Plateau is the origin of mighty rivers like Mekong and Yarlung Tsangpo (known as Brahmaputra in the Indian sub-continent). These rivers have been the living force for millions of people in Southeast Asia and South Asia. 

Continuous mining activities along these rivers have badly impacted the essential minerals present in the water. This has led to a decline in fisheries, which are the primary source of food in the Southeastern nations. The economies of Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, and southern Vietnam are heavily dependent on the Mekong River fish.

The shortage of fish has created a situation like a food crisis in these countries. On the other hand, hundreds of people die every year due to the consumption of polluted water and infected aquatic animals from these rivers. 

Pollution and waste from the Gyama Copper Poly-metallic mine has poisoned the water flowing adjacent to the city of Lhasa. This has affected the health of thousands of local Tibetans in Lhundup County.

China's 'Dumping Ground'

Another problem is the contamination of soil. During lithium extraction, several chemicals come into contact with soil. Rivers and floods further aid this contaminated soil to reach agricultural fields, affecting the growth of crops. Apart from poisoning the nearby surface water, it also has severe effects on the groundwater. 

In many cases, mine workers and surrounding inhabitants have been seriously affected and later diagnosed with various medical implications. Some have even died due to leaks of these chemicals and gases. In many parts of the Tibetan Plateau, hundred acres of vegetation and agricultural land have been impacted, further complicating the food security issues in the region.

China has made false promises at platforms like the Conference of Parties (CoP) summits and other environmental protection summits. Little has been achieved in maintaining ecological biospheres around Tibet. 

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On the contrary, Tibet has become a dumping ground for Beijing. Glaciers are melting, tens and hundreds of small rivers and streams have dried up, the air is polluted, and floods have become normal occurrences. Many critically endangered species are on the verge of extinction. The "roof of the world" is going through the biggest turbulence while Beijing is busy extracting "white gold."

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Author: Pema Gyalpo