"The environmental requirements in the construction of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway have basically been fulfilled, except for the environmental restoration work in a handful of sections," Zhang Tianhua, Deputy Director of the Tibet Regional Administration of Environmental Protection, said on June 7, three weeks before the railway is scheduled to go into trial operation.
The Qinghai-Tibet Railway runs across an alpine meadow at an altitude of 4,000 to 5,000 meters. This region has vulnerable ecological systems and a fine soil layer. Once the grass is destroyed, desertification can quickly ensue.
Sun Honglie is an environmental expert who has been to the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau for field surveys dozens of times. According to him, once the ecology along the railway is ruined, it will be irreversible.
Before the inception of the ambitious railway project, the public's biggest concern was not the technical difficulty but how to protect the environment while pushing ahead with its construction.
The work of laying the rails was finished in October 2005. About five months later, Sun Yongfu, Vice Minister of Railways who oversaw the Qinghai-Tibet Railway construction, was awarded the China Environment Prize, the highest honor for environmental protection in China. This sent a reassuring signal to the environmentally conscious public.
Figures released by the National Audit Office in March show the investment in environmental protection and related ventures during the construction of the railway amounted to 1.54 billion yuan. "This is the first time in Chinese rail construction history that so much money has been invested for environmental purposes," said Hang Difu, a project chief.
Before the project got underway, relevant agencies did research on the climate, environment and ecology of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Based on their assessment, the goals in protecting the environment while building the railway included making sure that rivers are not polluted, soil erosion is avoided, vegetation is effectively protected, the migration of wild animals is undisturbed and scenic views are not spoiled.
According to Zhang, in order to clarify the goals and responsibilities in protecting the environment, the government has tried to mobilize a number of monitoring forces. The Central Government signed environmental protection responsibility pledges with the governments of the provinces and regions through which the railway passes, since they have the best knowledge of local environmental weaknesses and extensive experience in how to protect the local environment.
In order to guarantee that every friction over environmental protection could be dealt with in a timely manner, the Central Government set up an inter-agency coordination group. However, according to Zhang, there have been no major disputes over environmental protection in the process of building the railroad.
In light of government regulations, before each section of the railway was started, the contractor company had to provide an environmental protection plan to the authorities. No construction was to begin until the document was approved. In addition, all construction enterprises involved were required to name an environmental protection supervisor who, as a third party, monitored the impact of the entire project.
The construction team head at one contractor said, "We have to attach great importance to environmental protection, since we are under the close monitoring of a third party besides the government."
Another team leader said half jokingly, "During the roadwork of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, Tibetan antelopes were our 'big boss' and the environmental supervisor was the 'No.2 figure,' neither of which we could afford to upset."
Li Shaowen, 38, has worked on the construction of the bridge over the Lhasa River for more than two years. He said that, on his arrival, the contractor he worked for stressed to every employee the importance of environmental protection. The company also worked out rules forbidding the dumping of garage into the river, which could bring a 5,000-yuan fine.
"Not only are people afraid of such a big fine, but we really don't want to pollute the clean environment," Li said. "Everyone is at his most discreet."
Shortly after the inception of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, a truck driver drove his vehicle off the road a bit and damaged some turf. The driver was fined 2,000 yuan, and his immediate supervisor and the project administration office were fined 20,000 yuan.
A stretch of the railway lies near a river that is rich in the gravel needed for construction. It is cost-efficient to take the construction material from the riverbank, but such an arrangement could damage the vulnerable adjacent vegetation. The contractor company finally decided to build a quarry in a vegetation-free area over 50 km away. The result was transportation expenses of 20 yuan for every square meter of gravel. The total extra cost amounted to a staggering 2.4 million yuan since 1.2 million square meters of gravel were needed.
Protecting the migration routes of wild animals is considered the top environmental concern for the railway. For this purpose, 33 pathways were opened along the rail. Based on the different migratory habits of different animals, the pathways have taken different forms, including under bridges and above tunnels. The passageways for small and medium-sized animals such as antelopes are designed to be at least three meters high. For larger animals such as wild donkeys and yaks, the passages are four meters or higher.
Hoh Xil region is one of the most important habitats for Tibetan antelopes, an endangered species. In August 2003, to make sure that Tibetan antelopes, which migrate to the southern part of the Hoh Xil region to reproduce, traveled back to the north undisturbed, the command office of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway demanded that all construction companies suspend work to make way for the migration, that construction areas adjacent to the migration passageways be cleared, and that drivers of vehicles not use their horns.
Due to the previous mass slaughters of Tibetan antelopes by poachers, the animals developed a fear of human beings that prompted them to flee once they heard vehicles and human activity. The antelopes generally tried to stay at least one km away from people.
For the first time this year, 67 pregnant antelopes in the east of the Hoh Xil Nature Reserve walked slowly across a bridge along the Qinghai-Tibet Railway on May 16 to a new habitat to give birth. So far, over 1,000 pregnant Tibetan antelopes have safely traveled across the railway through the migration passages.
Cegar, head of the administration of the Hoh Xil Nature Reserve, said, "What is so different about the migration compared with past years is that antelopes can travel more comfortably and in larger groups across the Qinghai-Tibet Railway." He believes this is a sign that Tibetan antelopes are becoming more accustomed to humans again.
There are about 10,000 antelopes under the oversight of Wengar, director of a protection station administered by the Hoh Xil Nature Reserve.
Wengar has a staff of four people. The nearest telephone service is over 30 km away and all the daily necessities are brought in from dozens of kilometers away. The most decorated room in the unpretentious office building is an exhibition room of Tibetan antelope protection. The most eye-catching piece in the exhibition is a banner full of signatures of advocates for antelope protection.
"We used to live a much more primitive life. We lived in a yurt and patrolled on horseback or on foot. Now we have a jeep and live in a brick house," Wengar said.
"Large-scale antelope poaching has been checked and we are confident of doing a good job in guarding these endangered antelopes," he added.
The earth's role
The existence of grassland on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, with an average altitude of 4,000 meters, is essentially attributable to the frozen earth's role in guaranteeing a water supply. With a very meager rainfall, the melting of ice provides water for vegetation in summer while the earth holds the water from freezing rain in winter like an underground reservoir. But if the heat from the railway hastens the melting, it could lead to a constant drop in the water level. Such a scenario would not only endanger the roadbed of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, but also harm the vegetation along the railway.
In this regard, the railway builders have adopted the model of a shallow roadbed or the installation of radiators on the roadbed so as to reduce the emission of heat to the frozen earth. This approach has proven quite effective so far. What's more, the view of a long row of radiators along the line has thrilled many tourists.
"We are happy that related agencies paid attention to environmental protection in building the Qinghai-Tibet Railway and have taken numerous effective measures," said Wang Hengsheng, a senior research fellow at the Qinghai Provincial Academy of Social Sciences. "But an even bigger challenge to environmental protection will unfold after the railway opens to traffic, which we cannot afford to ignore."
Wang, who has dedicated decades of research to the social and economic development of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, cannot conceal his concern. He pointed out that the reason the plateau has preserved its ecological systems and become China's last virgin land is mainly its backward traffic facilities.
"The poverty-stricken plateau will be the battlefield for natural resource exploitation after the railway is inaugurated. The vulnerable ecological environment will face the danger of irreversible destruction," he warned.
Wang's major concern is not irresponsible policies of the local government directed at producing immediate profits. "The problem is the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau has a vast area and sparse population, which poses a particular challenge to governmental administration and leaves an opportunity to exploit local natural resources."
The government has already acknowledged the environmental protection issues after the railway is put into operation. Vice Minister Sun told Beijing Review that a set of environmental protection measures is being drafted, including the education of passengers on environmental protection, the treatment of sewage and garbage and the monitoring of the land and water quality along the line.
"After the cars are on the track, the government has an important role to play as an environmental protection supervisor," said Zhang of the Tibet Regional Administration of Environmental Protection.