Forestry, Floods and Hydroelectricity 1999

Published in: Sinosphere vol. 3.2  [formerly: at, but link went bad]


Forestry, Floods, and Hydroelectricity
China's Natural Forest Protection Project and its
Impact on Tibetan Areas


By Daniel Winkler


In late summer of 1998 devastating floods along the lower Yangtze received worldwide media coverage. While reporting on the floods, a lot of attention was paid to the causation. Consistently the floods were blamed on upstream deforestation, an assumption not supported by scientific evidence. However, the momentum of the crisis clearly is advancing nature conservation and environmental protection in China. While the floods were being battled in the lowlands the central government initiated the Natural Forest Protection Project (NFPP). This initiative is most commonly referred to as 'the logging ban' in the upstream forest region. In this paper I will analyze the possible implications of the NFPP for local Tibetans and their economic situation, especially from a forest-economic perspective. Presently, it does not appear that economic alternatives such as hydroelectricity and tourism will be able to generate the necessary revenue to compensate the losses occurring due to the logging ban. More likely, the already impoverished local economies will have to face a new dependency on governmental subsidies.

Yangtze and Tsangpo Floods


According to Niu Maosheng, vice director of China's flood control bureau, the Yangtze floods killed 3,656 people, impacted 5.6 million houses and caused $30 billion in damage. Furthermore, it was stated that the flood submerged 260,000 km2 of land and affected 230 million people. These figures made their way through the world media. However, some of these figures seem incorrect. 230 million people is simply the population of all the provinces (Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi and Anhui) in which an emergency was declared. Sauer (1999) estimates, based on UNDP's World Food Program figures, the actual flooded agricultural area to even be below 10,000 km2. Interestingly, while the Yangtze floods were instantaneously reported by the state news agencies, less devastating floods in Tibet Autonomous Region were reported with a delay of several weeks. In Central Tibet AR at least 53 people were killed between mid-June and August in heavy floods and mudslides. These have affected more than 40 counties and have blocked and hampered traffic on most south Tibetan roads. The floods have pushed water levels of the Tsangpo (Yarlong Zangbo), its tributary, the Kyi Chu (Lhasa He), and other rivers up to record levels, affecting more than 80,000 people and killing more than 4,000 yaks and sheep mostly in Shigatse (Xigaze) prefecture.


The Logging Bans


The devastation of Yangtze floods and their intense media coverage have generated great interest in the administration and the media towards environmental issues. It seems like there has been a renewed realization of the negative impact of human mismanagement and overexploitation in China. Thus, after decades of forest overexploitation, policy changes indicate a very promising step towards forest conservation in China, but especially in SW China's minority areas, the largest being Tibetan Autonomous areas. The floods triggered the reconsideration of present logging practices in the headwaters of Asia's greatest rivers which emerge from these Tibetan areas, such as the Yellow River (Tibetan: Ma Chu, Chinese: Huang He), Yangtze (Dri Chu, Jinsha Jiang), Yalong (Nya Chu, Yalong Jiang), Mekong (Dza Chu, Lancang Jiang) Salween (Ngu Chu, Nu Jiang) and Tsangpo / Brahmaputra. Over a billion people depend on their waters. In late August the Central government's State Council ordered 151 state forestry enterprises to halt all logging on the upper reaches of the Yangtze and the Yellow River in Yunnan, Sichuan, and Qinghai Provinces.
Tibet AR's forests initially were not included in the central logging ban. However, on December 9, 1998, the Tibet AR Government ordered the shutdown of operations of all lumber processing mills in southeast Tibet AR and announced the initiation of reforestation projects (communication D.Taylor-Ide). The directive applies to all of Qamdo (Changdu) and Nyingchi (Linzhi) Prefectures, an area of nearly 200,000 km2, which contains over 85% of Tibet AR's approximately 1.5 billion m3 of standing timber volume. The logging ban is expected to be of transient nature in all of Nyingchi Prefecture and in Qamdo's counties that drain into the Tsangpo, Salween and Mekong. Qamdo's counties along the Yangtze [Markham (Mangkang), Jomda (Jiangda) and Gonjo (Gongjue] will be included in the NFPP scheme. However, the submission of a proposal to include the majority of Tibet AR's forest area in NFPP has failed (YEH 1999). Thus, there will be no extra central funding for forest protection in TAR at this point. Furthermore, the TAR forest areas along the headwaters of Mekong, Salween and Tsangpo might now face higher logging pressure. In the past, logging companies from Yunnan already had operated in neighboring TAR counties.


Following the central announcement from mid August, the Sichuan governor Song Baorui announced a logging ban for the Yangtze and its tributaries Min Jiang (Tib.: Zhung Chu), Dadu He (Tib.: Gyarong Ngulchu) and Yalong. The ban affects Garze (Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (AP), Aba Tibetan and Qiang AP, Liangshan Yi AP, as well as Ya'an Administrative Area, and Panzhihua and Leshan City. Its first phase, prohibiting all logging and emphasizing reforestation, is scheduled to last until 2010. (SPPG 1998). The desperate condition of vast forest areas in West Sichuan has been reported since 1980 and was recognized officially in 1990 (EPIGPA). Commercial logging, which started in the late 1950s, had already been reduced in the early 1980s in the more accessible Tibetan counties due to resource exhaustion. In recent years, logging moved to more and more remote areas. Here, however, the cut has also been reduced in recent years. With this in mind, the ban is the logical consequence of decades of mining the forest resources without appropriate forest regeneration.


It is interesting to note that the Sichuan government issued a ban as well, since provincial authorities have been the driving force behind the irrational and irresponsible exploitation of the forest resource. Annually prescribed timber procurement quotas that had to be met by the state controlled county forest bureaus, for decades exceeded annual growth by a factor between 2 to 3. In addition, this timber often had to be sold below production prices, forcing the forestry bureaus to cut even more, to balance the losses and secure income for active and retired employees (Zhao 1992). Also, the dictated low prices commonly made reforestation impossible. Yang Yupo (1985), a leading Sichuan forestry professor, concluded that the government policies in Aba Prefecture caused an annual timber harvest up to five times higher than natural production.

The NNFPP and its Possible Impact on Local Communities


In connection with the bans, the government plans a gigantic forest conservation scheme ['Natural Forest Protection Project' (NFPP)] for all of China, which will cost over 18 billion RMB (2.3 billion US$) for the first-phase from 1998 to 2000 (Xinhua Sept. 4). In Sichuan and Tibet AR ten thousands of former loggers are now supposed to be trained in tree planting. The total ban of commercial logging has had a devastating impact on local administrations and local industries. In recent years, administrations created new jobs and generated income by developing timber related industries. These industries are already out of timber. I was told in Barkam (Maerkang) County (Aba Prefecture) by officials that the match factory and the local furniture industry had to stop production since there is no more timber available. Furthermore, in the 90's some counties developed timber related industries in the lowlands. For example, Litang county (Ganzi Prefecture) manages a factory in Qionglai (50km southwest of Chengdu), which produces floor boards and door frames with precission tools imported from Europe. These investments are highly endangered, since there is now a serious timber shortage. The present forest conservation initiative does not address these problems. In my opinion, the necessary timber supply for local industries within the Tibetan areas should be excluded from the ban. Their potential consumption is only a small fraction of former cutting rates. Consequently, each county should have a certain allocation of timber for local commercial processing. This would also support local economic development and truly make the new policy billed as `socially and economically sustainable' (SPPG 1998) viable.

Furthermore, the efficiency of these grand projects is debatable; at best they have yielded mixed results. Commonly central programs do not consider local realities. There are serious financial constraints. Most of the affected areas depend heavily on the logging industry for income generation. According to Zhao (1992: 56), in many counties of the Tibetan Prefectures the timber industry provided about 70% of the cash revenue. Project implementation foresees that each county matches prefectural, provincial and central funds. However, with the total ban of logging the main source of local income has been erased overnight, it will be hard enough for the counties to contribute their share for health, education, transit and economic development. It will take many years to develop income alternatives. As a first step, the unpopular restrictions on foreign travel have been lifted in Ganzi Prefecture on January 1, 1999. Now foreign tourists are not required to apply for costly permits, which were difficult to obtain. It is hoped that by accessing the international tourist market loss of timber money can be compensated. For the year 2000, the state tourism agency is planning to promote Ganzi Prefecture as an international tourist destination. Nonetheless, I am convinced that the tourist industry, which in its initial phase will mostly benefit Chengdu travel agencies and a very small local elite, will not be able to replace the timber sector's contribution to local economies.


The forest industry will be fully dependent on state subsidies for reforestation and nursery development until logging can be resumed. Hopefully sufficient funds will be allocated to ameliorate these problems. Not too surprisingly logging was reportedly still being carried out after the ban. In Mewa (Hongyuan) County (Aba Prefecture), the local administration defied central regulations, and kept on logging (Independent 1998). Although these activities will remain an exemption, defying central and provincial regulations is too often common policy. For example, environmental laws, which in general are quite excellent in China, have required for decades immediate reforestation after felling. Too often, the implementation of these laws is seriously lacking. Monitoring mechanisms are still absent or in their infancy. What is monitored in the region is timber transport. Timber checkpoints are to be found in each county along the main roads. As of June 1999, roads are still cloaked with timber trucks transporting timber down to the lowlands. Supposedly, all timber was cut before September 1, 1998. Originally, all timber transports were prohibited after October 1, 1998. This has been extended by provincial forestry bureau until June 30, 1999 due to the high volume of already felled timber waiting for transport to the lowlands. Presently, it does not seem very likely that all forestry bureaus will manage to meet this postponed deadline either. This unrealistic deadline further indicates that the authors of the logging ban are far removed from the reality of the region.


Successful reforestation will not only depend on sufficient funds, but also on the availability of seedlings and expertise, both still limited in the region. After resource exhaustion in the late 1980s the nursery sector progressed impressively in West Sichuan, There are some good nurseries, i.e., in Drango (Luhuo, Ganzi Prefecture), but in general the whole nursery sector still needs to be developed. In Tibet AR's forest industry, many counties are still lacking functioning nurseries. For example, Riwoqe (Leiwuqi) County (Qamdo Prefecture) has only several square meters of neglected spruce seedlings (see Winkler submitted). Furthermore, conifer seedlings need 3-5 years before they can be planted out on the slopes, where they initially need protection from grazing. This issue will affect many Tibetans directly. To facilitate reforestation and afforestation the Sichuan government already has announced the closing off of nearly 90,000 km2 to livestock grazing, a third of West Sichuan. However, pastoralism is the main subsistence economy of rural Tibetans, which still represent 85% of the population in the Tibetan Prefectures and over 95% in rural areas of Tibet AR. It is not clear yet which areas will be closed for grazing and how such a controversial policy can be implemented in these remote areas. Local forest bureaus clearly shy away from fencing. Fencing is too costly and so far politically not enforceable in pastoral communities. From a local's perspective, these 90,000 km2 hopefully include mostly areas which are not part of the 168,000 km2, which  are classified as grasslands (figures based on Yang 1987). For example, 'poorly stocked forests', 'brush areas', and 'potential reforestation areas' cover 76,000 km2 and further 42,000 km2 are classified as 'well stocked forested land'. Locally many Tibetans will lose grazing grounds they have used in recent years. There have been no announcements regarding possible compensations.


Due to the absence of sustainable management practices the forest resource has already been mined for three generations to come, since forest regeneration in Tibetan areas takes about 70 to 120 years. Also Tibetans and other 'minority' peoples, such as the Yi and Qiang have been deprived of their traditional forest resources which go much further than timber supply. A wide range of non-timber products such as medicinal and edible plants as well as raw materials for handicrafts and daily life necessities are collected in the forests. But most importantly, forests supply wood for construction, charcoal and firewood, all of which have become very scarce in some areas where there used to be plenty. Meeting these subsistence needs is exempted from the ban (SPPG 1998). However, in February 1999, I was told by forestry officials in Litang County (Ganzi Prefecture), that locals are presently not allowed to utilize construction timber for their personals needs. Furthermore, forest destruction causes extensive loss of wildlife habitat. Although there are several nature preserves in the region, most of them seriously lack funding and effective implementation of conservation policies.


Overexploitation of forests inflicts a number of hardships on local people. Increased run-off can wash away fields or cover them with debris. In the dry season, springs might dry up. Bridges get washed away and roads get blocked. Construction wood becomes scarce and firewood collection becomes much harder. After commercial felling there is a period of increased availability of wood debris. Once this resource is exhausted, stumps are being chopped and dug out. This practice often explains the absence of stumps, which elsewhere would indicate recent felling. However, traditional firewood extraction practices cause serious damage to forests as well. There is no doubt that many traditional land-use strategies are not sustainable from a forest ecosystem point of view. This negative impact has manifested itself slowly through the centuries and most commonly was perceived as pasture creation. Taking into account that forest clearing can be dated back at least 5000 years, it is not too surprising that the Tibetan landscape has been transformed extensively. Wide areas of Tibet have the character of a cultural landscape, an environment shaped by human activity, rather than a wilderness, as still many like to perceive it. In wide areas of the forest region of the Tibetan Plateau it is estimated that the forest area was reduced by half; in central Tibet around Lhasa and in the Tsangpo Valley it was completely destroyed (see Winkler 1998 / submitted).

Local Tibetans in the Timber Industry


Local Tibetan people are underrepresented in the modern timber industry. Partially this can be attributed to a general lack of education. Often there is a language barrier, since all the state sector activities are actually carried out in Mandarin. Also, some officials seemingly prefer hiring Han, which are mostly recruited from the Sichuan basin. Furthermore, lowland Chinese are willing to work in the forest industry for 10 RMB per day, a salary that is not very attractive to local farmers or herders, who appreciate their economic independence. Furthermore, the recent boom in the mushroom market [especially Caterpillar fungus (Cordyceps sinensis) and Matsutake (Tricholoma matsutake)], offers substantial income opportunities to locals without having to work for a governmental agency on a minimum wage basis. However, involvement of Tibetans increases in more remote areas and is more common in the forest area of Tibet AR. Also some Tibetans might have found work in local forest administrations, county saw mills or in small gasoline-powered mills, which follow logging activities. Yet, most Tibetans are being hired on a short-term basis for logging and on-site transport.


Interestingly, since the mid 1980s some Tibetans have ventured into trucking, a booming industry. These Tibetan entrepreneurs were able to buy their own trucks, often generating their income by transporting timber to the lowland and bringing consumer goods to markets in Tibetan areas. In conjunction with the trucking industry a whole range of business opportunities mushroomed along the routes, ranging from improvised teashops, to small restaurants and lodges. There is good reason to believe that all of these small businesses will be negatively affected by the logging and transportation ban. Truckers will face dire times, especially the ones who have not yet paid off their loans.

Deforestation, Run-off and Hydroelectricity


Timber harvest has been stopped due to its negative impact on water run-off schemes and to increased erosion. Clear-cutting extensive areas tends to increase immediate run-off thus increasing the chances of local flooding in the rainy season. In the southeastern Tibetan Plateau over 80% of the annual precipitation falls between June and September. Quicker run-off in the rainy season can reduce run-off in the dry season, which has severe impact on the availability of much needed pre-monsoonal irrigation water. For Sichuan basin's rice paddies, a governmental investigation team figured the annual loss at an average of 160 million US$ (EPIGPA 1990). Run-off extremes also cause great problems for hydroelectricity plants. Not surprisingly, the powerful hydro-engineer community is presently one of the best allies for forest protection. Some years ago I had speculated (Winkler 1996) that, with the construction of the controversial gigantic Three Gorges Dam, overharvesting of Tibetan forest will hopefully be reduced through central intervention. This finally came through and the floods of 1998 sped up the process immensely.

The present perception that the floods are caused by deforestation in remote, cloud-enshrouded, 'minority' areas (`minority' automatically implies backwardness), is a very convenient assumption. However, Messerli & Ives (1989) analyzing downstream effects of watershed degradation in the Himalayan region conclude that on a macro-scale there is no evident connection between upstream deforestation and increased downstream waterflow fluctuations. Present streamflow fluctuations are the consequences of natural processes, predominantly climatic. Consequently, Messerli & Ives are warning: "it is potentially disastrous, however, for foreign aid agencies and national government authorities to undertake such activities [as forestation of mountain watersheds and extensive soil-conservation measures] with the conviction that they will solve problems on the plains". Without doubt, deforestation contributes to flooding on a more local level, a fact Messerli & Ives are not disputing. For example, Zhao (1992) reports that in West Sichuan, flood frequency has risen from once in 15 years to once in 5 years, which has been attributed to excessive logging. In this context, it is not too surprising that the 1998 Yangtze floods can be attributed to extremely heavy rainfalls. Their precipitation peaks were far beyond the water retention capacity even of healthy forest ecosystems. Pomfret (1998) reported that the 1998 Yangtze streamflow peak was around 55,000 m3/s, a rate it had surpassed 23 times since 1949. Interestingly, Chinese hydrologist reported the absolute peak at 63,600 m3/s, a rate just below the 1954 record peak. Although, the water volume was enormous, it was not the only problem. Rather it was a combination of factors, especially the recent downstream land reclamation from flood plains and former wetlands, demographic changes, and poor dyke construction.

Hydroelectricity is regarded as a key industry for the development of the mountainous Tibetan areas. Hydel development is supposed to guarantee a steady regional source of income. The potential is extremely high, 250,000 MW, more than half of PRC's exploitable hydro-electrical potential is supposed to lie within the plateau region. Its development faces a lot of logistic problems, especially in remote areas with hardly any infrastructure, where hydel plant construction has to be preceded by extensive road construction and many other infrastructure basics. Presently there is a lot of road work taking place in West Sichuan, the Dardo (Kangding)-Derge road is being paved up to Drango (Luhuo) and shall be continued to Manigango and into Tibet AR. The availability of electric power is also a prerequisite for tapping Tibet's mineral resources. In Tibet AR mining is regarded as one of the four 'pillars' for the economic development, the others being forestry, tourism & handicrafts, and agriculture & animal husbandry. There are plans to build a dam in Qamdo County to generate power for the development of the Yulong mine, which is supposed to contain a deposit of 6,500,000t of copper (Xinhua Aug. 1, 1997).


Generating electricity with great dam projects has several disadvantages. Local people will be displaced and fertile valley grounds flooded. Furthermore, mountain rivers carry a high sediment load. Dams will cause sediment accumulation filling in reservoirs and thus terminating the actual function of a dam. The 700 MW Hongzui power plant at the lower Dadu (Gyarong) River, which drains the west of the Aba Prefecture, had a reservoir of 360 million m3. After 10 years of sediment accumulation, only 94 million m3 are left (EPIGPA 1990). Also, much of the Southeastern Tibetan Plateau is seismically a very active zone, endangering all people living downstream of dams. In August 1993, the breakage of a gravel dam in Qinghai, not inflicted by earthquake, but supposedly by poor engineering, killed 1257 people according to an UN organization statement. Xinhua had reported 300 victims. Moreover, large-scale projects like dams or diversion hydel plants require new housing facilities for workers, who are usually Han Chinese recruited from the lowlands. Diversion hydel plants can be much less harmful to the environment and local people if they consistently leave enough water for aquatic life in the riverbed. However, all of these developments put a very high burden on the environment, with very little direct benefit or added value for local people, who are usually neither included in the planning phase nor addressed as beneficiaries.

Future Outlook


The shift in policy will give the forests a badly needed break to regenerate. Perceiving the forests not solely as a timber mine but as a multifunctional resource with crucial hydrological functions, is a great breakthrough for securing resources for future generations, be it local people or downstream timber consumers, as well as for biodiversity conservation. It is hoped that the floods of 1998 will bring about a lasting change in resource management in the upstream catchment areas. Maximum timber extraction is a short-lived resource management strategy. It appears as if recent developments have brought the region closer to an appropriate ecosystem management, which integrates hydrological and ecological functions into resource management decisions. However, commercial logging surely will be resumed after 2010, but then hopefully based on sustainable silvicultural management principles. The elimination of requiring travel permits for foreigners will make West Sichuan's Tibetan areas more accessible for international tourism and also for technical and financial aid. The reforestation program has a clear potential of long-term benefits for the Tibetan areas, provided that local people will not only lose land-use rights, but will be empowered to become the forests' stewards. As pointed out, Tibetans themselves will need to redefine their forest use practices. Yet, such a change is only possible if local people will directly benefit from forestry related activities. The minimum benefits for local Tibetans need to be guaranteed right of access to their forest resources to satisfy subsistence needs. Furthermore, there need to be direct benefits from the announced investments in form of job opportunities and training programs. The impoverished local administrations will need to be fully compensated for economic losses due to the logging ban. A successful implementation will clearly provide long-term benefits for both downstream and upstream communities. However, the present policy puts a much higher burden on upstream communities. As long as the logging ban is in effect, it is necessary that upstream communities, who in the past supplied downstream communities with cheap timber, support the upstream communities to compensate for economic hardships.



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Last edited on Sun, May 20, 2012, 1:06 am