Desertification in China Threatens Headwaters in the Tibetan Plateau

    Due to a significant loss of the glacier ice, a population explosion of prairie dogs has damaged the local eco-system. (Wang Shangna/Secret China)Very little grass is left on the ‘grasslands’ of Qinghai Plateau.  (Wang Shangna/Secret China)Degradation of Qinghai’s grassland into deserts.  (Wang Shangna/Secret China)Exposed gravel due to desertification. (Wang Shangna/Secret China)Two-thirds of the headwater grasslands have undergone severe desertification. By Wang Shangna. (Wang Shangna/Secret China)The glaciers of the Anyemaqen Mountains are disappearing. (Wang Shangna/Secret China)

    The headwaters of the Yellow River, Yangtze River, and Lancang River are located in the Tibetan Plateau, and are critical to China’s ecosystem. The region supplies most of the water for some 600 million Chinese people, but rapid desertification in China is threatening this area.

    With an average elevation of 4,000 meters and a total area larger than that of Great Britain, it is the most environmentally sensitive area in China due to climatic changes—it faces severe problems imposed by global warming.

    Since 1966, the glacier at the headwater of the Yellow River has shrunk by 77 percent. There are currently 756 glaciers in the region, and almost all of them are shrinking, according to the local Bureau of Surveying and Mapping. Among them, two small glaciers have completely melted.

    As human activities increase and global warming accelerates, it is estimated that half of the frozen soil of the Tibetan Plateau will thaw over the coming century, and the shrinkage of local swamps and wetlands will double. As the principal water source for the Yellow River, the glaciers are rapidly disappearing.

    Due to a significant loss of ice, the famous Anyemagen Mountains (20,610 feet high) only have their summits covered with snow. The rest of them have exposed black gravel. In the 1980s, however, they were covered with thick ice and snow, like thousands of white tents lined up along the skyline. At that time, glaciers reached as far as half-way down the mountains, or to even lower valleys.

    Prairie dog explosion

    With glaciers retreating, the rampant multiplying of prairie dogs has damaged the local eco-system, and affected nearly 120 million mu (80,400 square kilometers) of the grassland.

    Consequently, shepherds are forced to move their stock around throughout the year to avoid prairie dogs, which are eating the plains clean. This prairie dog explosion is becoming worse by the day. The most severely damaged area is the headwaters of the three rivers. Some of the regions do not have a single blade of grass, only fully exposed soil.

    Experts in China admit that the rehabilitation of the headwater area will not be achieved for many years to come. Two-thirds of the area exhibits severe degradation and desertification of the grassland, worsened by the resulting rodent population explosion.

    desertification in china

    Very little grass is left on the ‘grasslands’ of Tibetan Plateau. (Wang Shangna/Secret China)

    desertification in china

    Degradation of Tibetan Plateau’s grassland into deserts. (Wang Shangna/Secret China)

    Tibetan Plateau

    desertification in china

    The glaciers of the Anyemaqen Mountains are disappearing. (Wang Shangna/Secret China)

    desertification in china

    Two-thirds of the headwater grasslands have undergone severe desertification. By Wang Shangna. (Wang Shangna/Secret China)

    desertification in china

    Due to a significant loss of the glacier ice, a population explosion of prairie dogs has damaged the local eco-system. (Wang Shangna/Secret China)

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