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Tibetan shepherds welcome climate change

By Richard Spencer at the Karo-la Pass in Tibet
Last Updated: 1:48am GMT 16/02/2007

Global warming is melting the snows and glaciers — and the peasant farmers of the Tibetan plateau are delighted.

While much of the world worries about the impact of climate change, for these hardy Himalayan shepherds, battling the elements in the world's highest mountains, a gentler climate can only be good news.

"Yes, it's definitely getting warmer," said Tsawang Dumi, 56, a Tibetan shepherd watching over a flock of 60 sheep and goats amid the winter snows of a Himalayan hillside. "Fewer animals died of the cold this winter."

Mr Tsawang lives on the side of the 23,600ft massif of Nozing Kangtsang, between the Tibetan capital Lhasa and Mount Everest to the south.

The glacier that falls from its peak has shrunk by nine per cent in recent years. "I have heard of global warming, though I don't really understand what it means," said Tashi, 30, another shepherd, watching his sheep lower down the mountainside.

"But you can see there is less snow on the mountains. In the old days, all those rocks would be covered. I don't have to take my sheep so far away from the mountain in lambing season now."

While global warming makes their tough lives a little easier, the changes unfolding around these farmers have triggered warnings from scientists, alarmed the Chinese government, and spread a panic worldwide which has affected even American politics.

Tibet's 46,000 glaciers — permanent fields of ice that feed some of Asia's biggest rivers and supply water to the biggest concentrations of humanity on the globe — are shrinking fast. "The Tibetan plateau needs our attention," said Professor Liu Shiyin, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who has monitored the glaciers' decline.

In some areas, average loss has been well in excess of 10 per cent since measurements began in the 1960s and 70s. The United Nations Development Programme has published even more dramatic figures, saying the plateau's glaciers could have almost entirely disappeared by the end of the century.

As average temperatures continue to rise, 50 square miles are lost each year.

"As the catastrophe unfolds, China is under threat," the UNDP's human development report said at the end of last year. "The 300 million farmers in China's arid western region are likely to see a decline in the volume of water flowing from the glaciers."

The winter in Tibet has been freakishly warm, with monks this week strolling round the monasteries of Lhasa — altitude over 12,000ft — with bare arms warmed by the afternoon sun.

In Qamdo, Eastern Tibet, the mercury hit a record 71 degrees Fahrenheit on the first Friday in January.

Like the melting ice-caps of the North and South Poles, the Tibetan plateau is an indicator of the worldwide effects of climate change. Al Gore, the former American vice-president, used its fate in his campaigning documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth, which is credited with changing attitudes in the US towards greater action on the issue.

But the big melt is more than just a marker of global change. The Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, which sustain much of China's population, rise on the plateau. So do rivers such as the Mekong, the Salween, and the Brahmaputra which flow into south and south-east Asia.

In September a joint Indian-Chinese research team will survey the remote mountains and monitor the sources of the Sutlej and Brahmaputra rivers — an indication of the international repercussions for water supplies.

"The melting of the ice sheets and the glaciers is a crisis in the Himalayas," H.P.S. Ahluwalia, who runs the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, said in announcing the project.

Present-day consequences are uncertain. In some areas, precipitation is increasing, meaning more snows in winter are swelling glaciers in some parts of the plateau. But they are in a minority. In the meantime, the melting of the plateau's permafrost is already thought to be turning its expansive grasslands into semi-desert where they meet the vast expanses of the Gobi and the Taklamaken.

But as he surveys the dazzling peaks surrounding him and counts his flock, it is hard to persuade Mr Tsawang that this is a problem. "Things are getting better and better," he said. So far this year I have only lost seven sheep."

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