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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.

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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