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Between the glacier and the dam: life on the Tibetan plateau

Sandwiched between a melting glacier and a new dam, residents of Heishui town in northern Sichuan face a changing environment.

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A man walks over rocks near to a glacial lake that has formed at the base of the Dagu Glacier which lies at 5,100 metres on the Dagu Snow Mountain, on the south-east edge of the Tibetan Plateau.

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A Tibetan flag flies over the Dagu Glacier. The glacier has been shrinking in recent years, as a result of rising temperatures in the region.

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The town of Heishui which lies in a valley between steep mountains in the foothills of the Tibetan Plateau, in the Tibetan region of Aba in northern Sichuan province.

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A Tibetan woman collects corn in the mountains of Aba. As temperatures rise on the plateau, communities living on the “roof of the world” will be some of the first to feel the effects.

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Tibetans storing freshly harvested corn, high in the mountains of Aba, on the south-east edge of the Tibetan Plateau.

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A Tibetan man in a village in the region of Aba.

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Local Tibetans watch on as heavy machinery tears down the side of a mountain to make way for new homes and developments.

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A man stands on a bridge that leads to newly built homes, built to rehouse local Tibetans displaced by the building of the Maoergai dam, in the Tibetan region of Aba.

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Locals in Heishui town working on a small construction site near to the Heishui River. Construction projects in this area have contributed to a changing landscape on the Tibetan Plateau.

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Two Tibetan men walking in front of a river that has breached its banks and flooded a nearby path. Flooding ravaged the region in 2012, causing the displacement of thousands of people.

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As a result of increased run-off from melting glaciers and increased rainfall in the region, flooding is becoming a common occurrence in the mountains of northern Sichuan. In Heishui town, a path has collapsed as a result of the disturbance of land beneath it, next to the Heishui River.

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The drainage channel of the Maoergai dam, a 147-metre high, clay-core, gravel dam located near Heishui town. The dam is one of 25,000 dams that make up China’s hydropower network.

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The side of a mountain has been cut away to allow for the building of a road that leads to the Maoergai dam. Large-scale damming projects have caused knock-on environmental effects that have altered the local landscape forever.

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Construction workers sit among a rock field caused by flooding and landslides in the mountains of northern Sichuan, on the south-east edge of the Tibetan Plateau.

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A Tibetan man looks out onto a reservoir which lies behind the Maoergai dam. Three villages were flooded when the dam was created leading to the relocation of hundreds of local residents.

The Tibetan Plateau covers approximately a quarter of China’s land area, spreading out over 2.5 million square kilometres in the west of the country. Home to the largest store of freshwater outside of the poles, it feeds water into Asia’s major rivers which supply water to over a billion people. As a result of anthropogenic climate change, temperatures are rising on the Tibetan Plateau faster than anywhere else in Asia. The effects of these changes are becoming more evident in the form of melting glaciers, intensified weather events, increasing desertification and degraded grasslands.

In the town of Heishui, in northern Sichuan province, the effects of climate change are being felt firsthand by the people who reside in this south-eastern corner of the plateau. The Dagu glacier which sits above the town lies at over 5,000 metres. But it’s quickly retreating due to rising temperatures in the region. Just 50 kilometres downstream, the water run-off from the glacier slows and stagnates behind one of the country's largest and newest hydropower constructions, the 147-metre high Maoergai Dam.

At the beginning of July, the Chinese central authority activated an emergency response plan in order to cope with severe flooding in Sichuan Province, which receives its water from the rivers that originate on the Tibetan Plateau. State media reported that more than 4.6 million people were affected, with flooding damaging more than 37,000 homes and leaving over 250,000 hectares of crops unusable.   

In the summer and autumn of 2012, photographer Sean Gallagher, whose work focuses on environmental issues across Asia, was awarded his fifth grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting to travel to the Tibetan Plateau and document the effects of climate change on the “roof of the world”. You can learn more about this work on the Pulitzer Center website

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