Book review: Meltdown in Tibet, by Michael Buckley

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 November, 2014, 8:16pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 November, 2014, 8:16pm

Meltdown in Tibet

by Michael Buckley

Palgrave Macmillan

Tonle Sap lake in central Cambodia acts as a giant overflow for the Mekong River. When monsoon floods submerge the surrounding forest, they create an ecosystem rich in mineral-bearing silt and a fish hatchery that may account for more than half of the annual animal protein intake of the country.

Such rare habitats are sensitive to change and so act as an early warning signal - for anyone willing to listen. Tonle is sounding an alarm right now, says travel writer Michael Buckley: the fish catch is down and the pulse of the Mekong's floods has grown arrhythmic.

Thousands of kilometres upstream at the river's source, another sensitive habitat is also in peril. Tibet's snowcapped peaks and glaciers hold the world's third-biggest store of fresh water, and are the source for river systems that sustain almost two billion people.

Between these two precious habitats is China, and the Chinese obsession with dam-building.

Major dams on the Mekong and other rivers originating in Tibet are playing havoc downstream, blocking silt and fish, and putting control of water supplies into Beijing's hands, Buckley writes.

He fingers China's secretive leaders as the main villains in Meltdown in Tibet - and any lingering doubts about where his sympathies lie are dispelled by a foreword from the Dalai Lama.

More political pamphlet than academic study, the book's main charge is that China's exploitation of Tibet's natural resources and incompetent, corrupt stewardship of the environment has potentially devastating consequences not just for the "roof of the world", but also for the nations that depend on the rivers flowing out of it. Degradation of forest, grasslands and glaciers will be significant contributors to global climate change, Buckley writes.

China's policies in Tibet not only attempt to wipe out the culture and traditions of the country it invaded in 1950, but also enable the exploitation of hydropower and an untapped hoard of minerals that may be worth hundreds of billions of dollars, says Buckley. While Himalayan nations such as Nepal and Bhutan stand to gain from selling their natural resources, indigenous Tibetans won't benefit from China's "neocolonialism".

This important debate is made more so by China's economic and political power. Beijing is fond of rhetoric extolling the peaceful rise of China as a good neighbour and global citizen. But is it? China rules Tibet with an iron fist while promoting a "theme park" tourism industry that glosses over the brutal repression of ethnic Tibetans.

Buckley recounts seeking out a rooftop vantage point to take photographs during a 2010 visit to Lhasa: "I find these perches occupied by men in full military regalia, with binoculars - and guns - trained on the Jokhang [Temple] and Barkhor [Square] below - the launching point of many demonstrations in the past."

Buckley's polemical style can be grating at times: everything China does is bad; Tibetan nomads are romanticised as eco-warriors in harmony with nature. He makes a compelling case that China's Tibet policies are noxious, but other actors and factors are at work too.

A look at another nomadic culture is helpful. Mongolia's population in 1950 was only 780,000, with 80 per cent living in the countryside. Today, more than 70 per cent of the nation's 2.95 million people are urbanised, according to the United Nations.

Left alone, would Tibet's nomadic traditions have withstood the global trend towards urbanisation and globalisation? Has Tibet been protected from large-scale exploitation until now mostly by its inaccessible terrain?

As untapped sources of power and minerals become harder to find, even the most inhospitable regions now seem attractive.

Flaws aside, 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.