Great rivers have their own logic, seldom suited to the categories and economies of the modern world. China’s great rivers, the Yellow and Yangtze, rise close to each other, in glaciers on the slopes of Tibetan mountain ranges, before making their way across the vast grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau, before plunging to the lowlands.

The Tibetan Plateau is as its name suggests basically flat, undulating, occasionally intersected by mountain ranges but largely the slope is gentle, and the rivers meander. This is a major reason the grasslands are so productive and lush, in summer the alpine meadows are ablaze with colour as native grasses and herbs flower, and the yaks, sheep and goats pick out their favourites.

A mighty but meandering river is not what China expects of the primary water source for the North China Plain, the cradle of Chinese civilisation. The Yellow River (Huang He in Chinese, Ma Chu in Tibetan) meanders through the sward of Tibet, along the southern flanks of the sacred Amnye Machen mountain range and then fans out into a huge water meadow known as Dzoge (Zoige or Ruo’ergai in Chinese).

The story of this remote wetland is the whole story of why global warming is dangerously out of control.  Dzoge is these days the remote intersection of three Chinese provinces: Gansu, Sichuan and Qinghai, peripheral to all of them, abused, neglected, drained, dried out, over-engineered, officially protected yet neglected and even due to become the terminus of a megaproject to permanently flood it with water diverted by canal from the Yangtze to the Yellow River. Instead of carefully restoring this great wetland, and restoring its capacity to filter and clean the waters, to hold and release waters year-round, like a sponge, China is now planning to go from the extreme of draining and drying Dzoge, to the opposite extreme of drowning it.

As China prepares its 13th Five-Year Plan, set to run from 2016 to 2020, a key decision is whether to proceed, as announced over a decade ago, with dams across the Tibetan tributaries of the Yangtze, linked to a canal and massive pumping stations to send Yangtze water to the Yellow at Dzoge. Officially called the south-to-north water transfer project’s western route, the flow would permanently inundate the whole Dzoge district, its Ramsar treaty protected wetlands, migratory waterbird sanctuaries, peatlands and fertile pasturelands, in the name of providing lowland Chinese cities and industries with water. It would reduce environmental flows down the Yangtze, a heavily exploited river that needs all its strength to flush pollutants out. The south-to-north water transfer project, if it goes ahead, will remove the carbon capture capacity of Dzoge, transforming it from a carbon sequestering peatland to an acidic pondage of mega proportions, from carbon sink to carbon source. The designated canal route is uphill, requiring massive pumps, which will either be fossil fuelled, adding more greenhouse gases, or hydropowered by building yet more massive concrete walls across the wild mountain rivers of eastern Tibet.

If the Dzoge water meadow goes from desiccation to inundation it will be the final insult to an area modern China just can’t let be. Revolutionary China, from the start, saw Dzoge as an abomination, a mixing of two categories that modernity requires be kept separate: water and land. China was unable to see Dzoge as its pastoralists see it: as a production landscape rich in all that is needful for livestock, medicinal herb gathering, and good livelihoods. The mingling of land and water transgressed the requirements of modernity: that roads have firm foundations, rivers have clear margins, waters flow as fast as possible without impediment, land be firm underfoot and not boggy.

The very first encounter between the Chinese Communist Party and Dzoge was a disaster, that has been endlessly remembered as the worst time of the Long March of 1936 as the communist armies fled deep inland, only to sucked into the swamps of Dzoge, with many men lost, and many more picked off by Tibetan nomad marksmen. Not knowing how to walk from clump to clump of hardy sedges, the heavily laden soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army disappeared into the mud, a suffering relayed endlessly ever since as proof of their heroic sacrifice. Dzoge, even to Han Chinese unfamiliar with the name, is synonymous with patriotic revolutionary sacrifice.

The worst part of the march through Tibet was the last, through the wetlands of Dzoge, where the upper Yellow River fans out across the land into innumerable channels.  This has become the deeply inscribed image of Tibet in the textbooks Chinese children were raised on, to teach them the heroism of the revolutionary martyrs. This hellish land of neither earth nor water, of earth and water improperly inseparable, and a sky so close it can be touched, has long been immortalised in communist party mythology as a time of bitter struggle and ultimate triumph of the human will over nature, over enemies seen and unseen, over all obstacles, in the determination to be the agents of history. The greater the horrors of the Tibetan bogs, the greater the triumph of those who survived, and were not sucked into its terrifying depths. The party narrative of conquest of nature, and of barbarians  utterly resistant to their liberators, dwells on the horrors, to heighten the victory. Endless retellings of the epic traverse of the wetlands of eastern Tibet dwell on the treachery of men and nature, painting violent visions of men sucked into the swamps, their dying shouts bubbling up through muddied lungs.

Yet this same landscape evokes in Tibetans lyrical imagery of a naturally bountiful area of rich pastures, luxuriously meandering rivers, fat cattle, endless wildflowers in summer, and much leisure time in winter to attend to matters beyond the immediate concerns of this life. Among Chinese too, despite the master narrative of horror, other reactions occur. The essayist and documentary maker Sun Shuyun writes: “The pasture has a strange beauty, this vast flat expanse, as if you are looking into the heart of infinity, and then huge carpets of meadow flowers, yellow, white, blue, vermilion, violet, purple, like announcements of heaven. Your eyes ache from the brilliant colours, and their fragrance makes you smile.” [1]

Two decades after the Long March Dzoge was pacified by the PLA and the work began of making a man-made landscape in which land and water were properly separated, which meant digging ditches through the peatlands to drain the waste land, its official classification. Much of the drainage work in the revolutionary years was done by hand, by the compulsory labour of Tibetans being punished for their reactionary class consciousness, as counter-revolutionaries. Many were worked to death.

As the water meadows drained and the water table dropped, thousands of years of accumulated organic matter, the seven billion cubic metres peatland store of carbon taken from the atmosphere also dried, and then burned. The fires smouldering underground were almost impossible to extinguish, their smoke a major source of atmospheric pollution. Only 20 per cent of the Dzoge wetland is intact.[2]

The drying of the wetlands of Dzoge came on top of a drying phase affecting the whole Tibetan Plateau over thousands of years, leading to a steady drop in lake levels across Tibet, that has been much studied scientifically.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) describes what happened: “Thousands of drainage holes scar the otherwise flawless landscape of China‘s Ruoergai wetlands, constituting the single most serious threat to its high mountain peat-lands. These drainage holes have contributed to massive soil and water erosion, greatly reducing the wetlands. In fact, one lake has already shrunk by a third. For the people in the Sichuan and Gansu Provinces who rely on these peat lands for a remarkable array of products, including fish, rice, medicinal plants, peat for fuel and garden soil, and grasses and reeds for making paper and baskets, these holes, leftover from an attempt during the 1960s to transform the region into grasslands, pose a serious threat to their livelihoods.”[3]

Then, in the 1990s, China began to catch up with the world climate debate, and took steps to rectify some of the damage. Dzoge became Ramsar site number 1731, covering a modest portion of the huge wetland. It is also on the World Database of Protected Areas as site #315726.

The world has a global treaty specifically to protect wetlands, the Ramsar Convention, which most recently held a meeting of all signatory governments, including China, in 2015. The Convention singled out China for its: “low level of awareness of the value of wetlands and the ecosystem services they provide, so that the government is unable to make wetland friendly decisions.”[4] China reported to the Ramsar Convention that: “Compared to that of the 2003 first national wetland survey, the result of the 2013 second survey illustrated that China lost an estimated of 3,376,200 ha of natural wetlands over the past decade, representing an average annual 9.33 percent loss of its wetlands.”[5]

China was asked how it involves stakeholders in planning and running Ramsar sites. The official reply was: “Active engagement and support of all stakeholders have proved to the secret to sustain wetlands. Over the past three years, the stakeholders that care about wetlands contributed to the promulgation of a series of wetland-related regulations, bylaws, plans, policies, and business practices.” But what does China mean when it talks of stakeholders? The only stakeholders named are departments of government: “The State Forestry Administration sent the draft of Regulations on Wetland Protection to over 20 state sectors for review, and is working out a new version by integrating the collected review feedback.”

In the Ramsar global system Dzoge is officially known as site #1731 : SICHUAN RUOERGAI WETLAND NATIONAL NATURE RESERVE 02/02/08; Sichuan; 166,570 ha; 33°43’N 102°44’E. Said to be the largest alpine peat marsh in the world as well as tundra wetland located in the upstream area of the Yellow River and the northeast of Qinghai Tibet Plateau at 3,422m-3,704m altitude. A marsh meadow vegetation provides habitat for 137 bird species including IUCN Red-List species Chai (Cuon alpinus),Yudaihaidiao (Haliaeetus leucoryphus), andHeijinghe or Black-necked Crane (Grus nigricollis), as well as 38 animal species, 3 amphibian species,15 fish species, 3 amphibian species and 362 wild plant species. The site is also referred to as the water tower of China, as it serves the important water supply area of upper Yangtze River and Yellow River. The site stores peat of 7 billion m3 and has water-holding capability of nearly 10 billion m3. It contributes to local climate regulation, water and soil conservation, and aids in reducing green house effects. A high touristic place with a unique ecosystem, panoramic plateau landscape, and colorful Tibetan culture with great aesthetic value. Desertification and decrease in marsh area have occurred due to global warming and rainfall reduction. Ramsar site no. 1731. Most recent RIS information: 2008.”

This official definition, provided to the UN by China’s officials, makes no mention of the revolutionary policy of draining the Dzoge wetland, which makes it easier, as happens elsewhere in Tibet, to attribute much of the blame to nomads, who are then forbidden to graze, in the name of wetland restoration. Now, in the name of conservation, those who have always cared for this fragile mingling of waters and lands are often excluded, as the UN Environment programme reported in 2010: “The UNDP project, which began in 2007, has introduced innovative techniques and methodologies to Ruoergai County to help combat such drainage. Some of the techniques include strictly controlling wetland use, placing moratoriums on animal grazing and seeding to restore grasslands.”[6]

Chinese scientists have similar difficulty in clarifying cause and effect, natural values and economic value: “Zoige Marsh has a vast area of grasslands, providing high quality and huge quantity of fodder to livestock and thus making it one of the five largest rangelands in China. Additionally, Zoige Marsh has the largest peat deposition in China, with an estimate of about 1900 million tons in dry weight, which could be invaluable to multiple uses. Therefore, Zoige Marsh is not only related to the ecological security of the Yellow River drainage basin, but also crucial to the sustainable development of the local area.”[7]

These scientists, from lowland Chengdu and Nanjing also blame the Tibetan pastoralists: “Stockbreeding has developed at a high speed in the Zoige Marsh area since the 1970s, resulting in a serious conflict between livestock populations and pasture lands . Surveys conducted by Zoige County show that current livestock population and average livestock population per hm2 are 5 and 4 times higher than those of 40 years ago, respectively. A model calculation suggested that the theoretical livestock carrying capacity of Ruoergai County is 1865 thousand units (a sheep a unit), but the actual population is 2855 thousand units in 2000 (Gao, 2006). Overgrazed and trampled by these livestock, the pasture lands are hard to regenerate naturally and recessive succession is unavoidable.”

So, on the basis of applying a fixed formula to calculate carrying capacity and stocking rate, the recovery of the Dzoge wetland necessitates the removal of many pastoralists: “One way to eliminate overgrazing is to decrease livestock population to the level below the carrying capacity of the grassland. However, this will certainly decrease the income of local people, and therefore aid from the local and central government is needed.”[8]

This tendency to blame the victims of wetland degradation as the cause, complicates efforts towards solutions that help heal not only the 7000 sq kms of Dzoge wetland, but also the planet. Much is at stake. When this great wetland dries, it releases the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, but the 750 megatonnes of peat in Dzoge also release methane as it dries up, and methane is a much more dangerous gas, much more potent in its effects on atmospheric temperature than carbon dioxide. So it is important that China quickly rehabilitates Dzoge, gets the pastoralists on side as partners in the actual work of repair and biodiversity protection, and stops blaming the victims.

Slowly the drainage channels dug to dry the wetland are being blocked:

Dzoge canal sealed

But Dzoge is far from restored, and the great threat facing it is the south-to-north water diversion western route project.

For the sake of the planetary climate, Dzoge must be protected, not by engineering but by involving the local communities of Tibetan pastoralists as active partners. Dzoge will not be saved, nor the planet, by removing nomads in the name of conservation. Exclosure is not the solution, it only worsens the injury.

Dzoge’s chances of restoration aren’t helped by the discovery, 40 years ago by Chinese geologists, of a uranium deposit described in scientific journals as having “gained much attention of many geologists and ore deposit experts due to its scale, high grade and abundant associated ores.”[9]

In today’s China, Dzoge must work for its keep, must generate income somehow if it is to be restored, spared uranium mining and not inundated. The conventional wisdom these days is that it will be tourism that will save Dzoge. This requires airbrushing out the Long March, the draining of the peatlands, instead repurposing Dzoge as a natural unspoiled romantic wilderness. The English language version of the glossy popular travel magazine CNG (China National Geography, its resemblance to National Geographic not coincidental) in 2009 gushed about Dzoge:  “Serenity in the highlands, a Miracle created by the Tibetan Plateau and Yellow River”, with 12 pages of lush supersaturated colour photos.

Maybe one day Dzoge’s water meadows will breathe free again, and the Tibetan pop videos celebrating Dzoge’s grassland will be more than an evocation of a disappearing past.


[1] Sun Shuyun, The Long March, Harper Collins, 2007

[2] Schumann, M; Thevs, N; Joosten, H (2008) Extent and degradation of peatlands on the Ruoergai Plateau

(Tibet, China) assessed by remote sensing. In Proceedings of the International Peat Congress, Tullamorepp 77–80

[3] Restoring crucial Chinese wetlands will help preserve livelihoods, UNEP press release, 23 November 2010


[5] p.19

[6] Restoring crucial Chinese wetlands will help preserve livelihoods, UNEP press release, 23 November 2010

[7] Shuang Xiang, Ruqing Guo, Ning Wu, Shucun Sun; Current status and future prospects of Zoige Marsh inEastern Qinghai-Tibet Plateau; Ecological Engineering, 3 5 ( 2 0 0 9 ) 553–562

[8] Current status and future prospects of Zoige Marsh, Ecological Engineering, 3 5 ( 2 0 0 9 ) 553–562

[9] SONG Hao, ZHANG Chengjiang, NI Shijun, XU Zhengqi and HUANG Changhua; New Evidence for Genesis of the Zoige Carbonate-Siliceous-Pelitic Rock Type Uranium Deposit in Southern Qinling: Discovery and Significance of the 64 Ma Intrusions; ACTA GEOLOGICA SINICA (English Edition) Vol. 88 No. 6 pp.1757–1769 Dec. 2014

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