Tibet’s resource curse
China plans to scale up lithium extraction to meet demand for
electric cars and smart phones. But environmental damage to the fragile
Tibetan plateau will be irreversible, warns Gabriel Lafitte.
Chinese geologists exploring Tibet in the 1960s criss-crossed
the plateau, searching for the mineral wealth they assumed must be
abundant, but had not yet discovered. In remote alpine deserts, the
geological expeditions came upon lakes which were slowly drying-up due
to long-term climate shifts. High on the empty Chang Tang plain
in western Tibet, they found lakes already dry, their beds a shimmering salt pan.
Testing the various salts, the geologists discovered a scientific curiosity. One lake in particular, Drangyer Tsaka
(Zabuye), held an extraordinary concentration of lithium salts;
measurements of 660 parts per million (ppm) of lithium were recorded.
Only in the Atacama Desert
of the Andes had such levels of lithium been discovered.
For decades, these findings were known only to a handful of geologists.
Lithium was a metal in moderate demand, for unglamorous uses in the
manufacture of ceramics and industrial greases and, in tiny amounts, as a
psychiatric anti-depressant. China satisfied its modest need for
lithium by mining a lithium-rich mineral ore at Yichun
in eastern China’s Jiangxi province. Should that prove insufficient,
there were other salt lakes on the Tibetan Plateau, far from lonely Drangyer Tsaka
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