DAMMING A DESERT

Whatever becomes a scientific object becomes a problem, which in turn requires management, human intervention. No thing can be left as is, because that is risky. If it can be measured, it can be managed, as they say in business schools worldwide.

China, or rather the Chinese Communist Party, is obsessed with risk, in fact just held a four day meeting, at the highest party-state level, addressed by Xi Jinping, entirely on risk.

In case you didn’t know, risks are everywhere you look, and the further the scientific gaze extends, the more risks are found.

Take the remote landscapes of Achen Gangyab, known in China as Hoh Xil, in the arid far northwest of the Tibetan Plateau, an alpine desert so frigid, its permafrost soils so hard frozen most of the year, not even the hardiest Tibetan nomads had much use for it outside of the summer months of pasture growth.

adamantine Achen Gangyab

Despite aridity and frigidity, this huge landscape is a land of lakes, as the plateau floor is quite flat, and summer rains/snows come down from the bare mountain slopes above, filling the lakes, which have no outlet. None of this was problematic, for thousands of years. Seasonally migrating gazelles and antelopes headed there each year to safely give birth, in landscapes that wolves cannot live in year round. Drogpa nomads brought their herds to graze on the fresh green pick, alongside the wild animals.

Not only was this not a problem, but clever scientists came up with ways of calculating a monetary value of the environmental services provided to China by all those Hoh Xil lakes that annually swell in summer rains and evaporate in autumn and spring, maintaining a balance all on their own. So even though China has no access to the many lakes for lowland water supply, they show up in Natural Capital Valuation calculations as quite valuable, just by doing their annual rising and dropping, all by themselves.

Now, Beijing, we have a problem. Actually many problems. First, climate change increases the rain and snowfall, and a few lakes now sometimes brim over. One lake spilled so badly onto the plain that the lake is almost empty, its floor is visible, and when gales blow, as they often do, sand is airborne.

Now, have we got a problem? Actually, it adds up to an impressive list of problems, each carefully packaged to hit that neuralgic party-state nerve right where it hurts. According to recent coverage in official media, we now have a desertification problem in the middle of a desert so arid China, in its application to UNESCO for World Heritage listing, repeatedly called “no-man’s land.” Not only do we now have desertification, “after bursting its bank in 2011, the lake has bared much of its floor, which later became a major source of sandstorms wreaking havoc on the region’s vulnerable ecology, Lu Shanlong, a professor at the Aerospace Information Research Institute, Chinese Academy of Sciences said.”

Further, there is now an urgent need to “reduce the water flow to the lakes’ downstream, whose rising levels threaten to flood the Qinghai-Tibet railway lines, roads, and inhabitants further down.” As if all that wasn’t bad enough, there is also the feelgood sentimental factor, of all those antelopes and gazelles giving birth: “It is also the delivery room of the Tibetan antelope, and we cannot afford to let it develop on its own.”

In today’s new era, where development is the solution to all problems, the obvious answer, the scientists say, is a dam wall to contain the incontinent lake. Does China know how to build dams? Is the party-state a hydraulic civilisation?

So there you have it: urgency, the plight of baby antelopes taking their first unsteady steps, sandstorms, ungoverned waters, desertification and a threat to wash away the distant rail line to Lhasa as it heads south, traversing this alpine desert.

That’s modernity, let’s do it.“In our present era, China stands out as the paradigmatic infrastructural state: a state produced by and through infrastructure as a modern project.”

One further detail: this message of the urgent need for technological intervention comes not from anyone remotely near Achen Gangyab/Hoh Xil, but from Lu Shanlong, a professor in Beijing, at the Institute of Remote Sensing Applications.

A bit odd? Not in today’s China, where the fantasy is that Tibet can be governed by remote sensing instrumentation on board satellites orbiting the earth, and Lu Shanlong happens to have made his career mapping Tibetan lakes by satellite.[1]

Does this mean Beijing will send in the bulldozers and cement mixers? Maybe central leaders recognise when their buttons are being pressed. But Lu Shanlong has gotten his name into national official media, a good career move. Let’s get out there and save that delivery room, from itself.

Is there anything Tibetans can say, in response to this fear-mongering?    Maybe we could quote the mahasiddha Saraha:

With the condition of wind, from a clear ocean

The ripples of water and waves suddenly arise.

However, they are indivisible from the ocean.

Conditioned by thoughts, conceptualization suddenly arises.

That is the thoughtlessness of the previous.

 It is unbom, beyond the intellect.

B y means of these they are equally wondrous.

When freezing winds blow across a lake,

They turn water to ice.

Just so the turbulent activities of mind

When stirred by karmic traces and dispositions

Make our impressions appear solid.

This gives rise to the mistaken belief

In a self-existing and substantial world.”

First the experience of appearance and emptiness occurs,

 Like recognizing water even when it appears as ice.

Second, without obstructing the appearance of thought,

Emptiness arises as non-dual from the bliss. Like the state of ice melting into water,

Thought and non-thought are dissolved in the unborn.

Since everything is not distinguished, it is one in the great bliss.

This is like the ice being melted into water. [2]



Saraha’s arrow doesn’t aggressively kill arising problems, it dissolves them. As Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche said:

You needn’t constantly micromanage your life. Part of compassion is
trust. If something positive is happening, you don’t have to check up on it all the time. The more you check up, the more possibilities there are of
interrupting the growth. It requires fearlessness to let things be.
 
Excerpted from:
Mindfulness in Action: Making Friends with Yourself through Meditation and Everyday Awarenessby Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

[1] Lu, S., Xiao, G., Jia, L., Zhang, W., & Luo, H. (2016). Extraction of the spatial-temporal lake water surface dataset in the Tibetan Plateau over the past 10 years [in Chinese with English abstract]. Remote Sensing for Land and Resources, 28(3), 181–187, 2016

Qunhui Zhang, Jiming Jin, Lingjing Zhu & Shanlong Lu, Modelling of Water Surface Temperature of Three Lakes on the Tibetan Plateau using a Physically Based Lake Model, Atmosphere-Ocean,2018,  56:4, 289-295

[2] Lara Braitstein, Saraha’s Adamantine Songs: Texts, Contexts, Translations and Traditions of the Great Seal,  PhD dissertation, McGill 2004  , 76, 201

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