EVENTS were held around the world yesterday to mark the 60th anniversary of Tibet’s failed uprising against China, a defeat that forced the Dalai Lama into exile. Here’s why the country’s future is globally important.

JUST over 30 years ago, in September 1987, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama presented to the US Congress his proposal for the resolution of the Tibet question – a resolution known as the Five Point Peace Plan.

Central to this plan was a simple but profound truth: that in these times of global interdependence any fruitful vision of the future, for all of us, across our world, had to focus not just on what we could do for ourselves but on what we can do for others.

The Dalai Lama visualised Tibet acting as a Zone of Peace in the heart of Asia. Not just political or military peace, but also environmental peace – an idea that is central to the Tibetan world view.

The Tibetan Plateau is often called the Third Pole. That’s because its glaciers, ice fields and permafrost contain the largest deposits of fresh water outside the two polar regions. The rivers that flow out of the Plateau – the Indus and Brahmaputra Rivers, the Yangtze, the Mekong, the Irrawaddy and others – feed and water most of the peoples of Asia, directly or indirectly. That’s almost half the world’s population!

The Tibetan Plateau is also called the Third Pole because, like its polar counterparts, it is uniquely sensitive to global climate change because of its weather patterns. Temperatures are rising faster on the Tibetan Plateau than almost anywhere else in the world. The pattern of the regional monsoons is changing dramatically, and pollution from the surrounding cities becomes concentrated upon the fragile high altitude ecology.

Glaciers around the plateau have been retreating since the 1970s and are projected to decrease by up to 35% by 2050. An almost total glacial loss is projected in Eastern Tibet, which feeds into mainland China, by the end of the century. Permafrost collapse is occurring at similar rates. Recent studies point to an outer possibility of a loss of permafrost on the entire Plateau of 39% by 2050, 81% by 2100.

All of this will cause a massive rise in earthquakes and landslides, and a significant loss of infrastructure. For example, the decline in permafrost support for the Beijing-Lhasa railway means that, with present technology, the railway will become non-viable within 20 years. For Tibetans, all of this has had a major impact already. State measures to protect the headlands of rivers that feed the Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong have involved the relocation and settlement of 90,000 nomads in Southern Amdo; part of a general relocation policy that has seen over 2.3 million Tibetans relocated in the last 10 years.

For the countries and populations around Tibet there are major implications. Some are already being witnessed. The increased melting of glaciers and permafrost, along with changing monsoon patterns and deforestation on the Plateau have led to disastrous flood and drought cycles in China, India, Nepal and South-East Asia.

If present projections are correct, in the decades to come there will be a progressive reduction, or indeed outright collapse, of the capacity of the major river systems flowing from the Tibetan Plateau to support agriculture and industry across Asia. The consequences of this are stark – mass population movement and migration crises, the potential for regional conflict is obvious.

To mitigate and plan for such a future requires a sustained international response focused on the Plateau.Not just amongst the countries that border the Plateau, but all of us. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama understood: the future of Tibet contains within it the future of the whole of Asia, and by extension the rest of us.

The questions of sovereignty over Tibet continue, of course. It may be that over the years these discussions have somewhat masked general understanding of the importance of this region to the world.

I am grateful for the tireless work of Dr Martin Mills, director of the Centre for Himalayan Research at the University of Aberdeen, in raising awareness of this. Regardless of any political or cultural view, the environmental impact of the Tibetan Plateau - the Third Pole - is one of the key issues of our time.