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Date: Fri, 22 Jan 1999 13:54:06 -0600 (CST)
From: rich@pencil.math.missouri.edu (Rich Winkel)
Organization: PACH
Subject: Degradation Melts Yangtze's Might In China
Article: 52735
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <bulk.22025.19990123181522@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

/** headlines: 148.0 **/
** Topic: Degradation Melts Yangtze's Might In China **
** Written 10:51 PM Jan 21, 1999 by econet in cdp:headlines **
/* Written 3:05 PM Jan 21, 1999 by newsdesk@igc.org in ips.english */
/* ---------- ENVIRONMENT-CHINA: Degradation Melt ---------- */

Degradation Melts Yangtze's Might

By Bao Jiannu, IPS, 18 January 1999

BEIJING, Jan 18 (IPS) - To veteran journalist Wang Yongchen, the Jianggudiru Glacier remains as fascinating as she first saw it some five years ago.

But the senior reporter for the Beijing-based National Radio admits that the ecology of the source area for China's longest river, the Yangtze, seems to be deteriorating fast. This may mean disaster for millions of Chinese.

Wang and 12 other Chinese women journalists had taken a trip to the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, where Jianggudiru is located, at the height of raging floods in August in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze.

While the 10-day journey from Yanshiping to Jianggudiru, in the country's north-east, proved that women can hold their own in trying conditions, the journalists also saw for themselves just how bad the ecological degradation there has become.

Wang says the serenity and beauty of the glaciers at Jianggudiru, the farthest source of the three fountainhead rivers of the Yangtze remains simply beyond description. She adds: There I saw drops of the water melt from the glaciers, and it is incredible that it is these drops that form the torrents of the Yangtze.

But the journalists' excitement soon vanished. Chen Xiaqiong, the only experienced explorer on the expedition and who had first been there in 1994, noted that the glaciers had retreated by more than 100 metres in just four years.

This time we actually camped on the very site of a glacial lake I saw four years ago, says Chen. Now the lake (is gone), with only gravel left.

The Yangtze is 6,300 km in length and is considered the world's third longest river. It is believed to have three sources -- the Tuotuo, Tangqu and Qumar rivers -- in its fountainhead area. There, 437 glaciers reserve the water supply for the streams that finally converge into a mighty river.

The source area covers 100,000 sq km, a size almost equal to the entire area of Iceland, with an average altitude of 5,500 metres above sea level.

The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, known as the third pole of the globe, is a perfect laboratory for us to explore the causes for the changing climate and environment of the earth, comments Professor Cheng Guodong of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. It is no less important than Antarctica and the Arctic in this sense.

The journalists had embarked on the journey to see if there was any connection between what has been described as among the this century's worst floods and conditions in the Yangtze source area.

Although scientists point to El Nino as one of the factors for the floods, environmental degradation in the source areas of China's rivers has also been named as a culprit.

Professor Tang Xingbang, science adviser on the expedition, says glaciers at Jianggudiru had retreated by at least 300 metres over the 12 years since 1986, when he was last there.

Jianggudiru, he says, used to be a natural museum of glaciers with magnificent landscapes of icy tower forests, icy conical peaks and icy planks in the shape of teeth.

Tang says human activities, especially excessive herding and grazing, is one of the main causes for the retreat of glaciers, desertification of grasslands and other signs of worsening ecology apart from climatic changes.

A scientific experiment conducted the 1967 found that if a piece of frozen-earth grass cover was taken away from a hill on the Plateau, 15 or 20 years later the entire hill would become barren, with no vegetation left.

Warns Tang, who is also from the Chinese Academy of Science: If glaciers continue to retreat at such a speed, the whole of the Jianggudiru Glacier is doomed to perish before long.

To reach Jianggudiru, the women and the rest of the expedition team had met up at Yanshiping, a town in the vicinity of the Yangtze's source area, and trekked through 800 sq km of desolated land. They then hopped on and off rafts going downstream in the water courses of the Jianggudiru Glacier.

The expedition team had brought along some yaks to carry tents, bedrolls and food. The journalists also took turns riding on three yaks, but most of them had a hard time staying on the obstinate animals.

Says Xian Hong, a 23-year-old Sichuan newspaper reporter: I was so worn out after passing nine mountains in a single day that I felt as if even my ears were an extra burden and would have gotten rid of them if I could.

The journey had actually begun in Chengdu, where the women had first assembled. It took them 10 days to reach Yanshiping.

Professor Tang agrees with Wang that while the trip was arduous, what was more tormenting was what they saw at the Yangtze's source area. Marshlands there had turned dry, while the grasslands had been encroached upon by the Gobi Desert.

The situation was particularly serious in the eastern and northern slopes of Geladaindong Mountain areas.

Tang and colleague Cheng say the area deserves a thorough scientific study. Adds Cheng: We know too little about the source area of the Yangtze River. How can we protect the river and its fountainhead ecology if we don't even know about its problems?

Their worries are echoed by Wang, who has encouraged the other journalists in the expedition to campaign for the protection of the Yangtze and its source area.

I remember seeing herds of wild yaks, Tibetan antelope, wild Tibetan dunks, white-lipped deer and other wildlife species during a trip to the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in 1993, says Wang.

But this time the number of wildlife of the Plateau has dropped, she says, and quite a number of wildlife species have moved out of their original habitat because of the deteriorating environment.