Tibetans have no say over China’s lithium extraction, and see none of its benefits. What they have seen is pollution and the build-up of factories and other infrastructure across Tibet’s once pristine landscape.
The two principal methods of extracting lithium, brine harvesting from lakes and hard rock mining, both carry risks of environmental and social damage due to the toxic chemicals required. The Ganhetan industrial zone, for example, is well-known among Chinese scientific investigators for its air pollution, which has been accompanied by increased rates of fluorosis, a disease that causes teeth to become brittle. High concentrations of toxic metals in the soil have made the surrounding area unsuitable for agriculture.
Toxic chemicals used by the Ganzizhou Rongda Lithium in Dartsedo, eastern Tibet, have found their way into the Lichu River on more than one occasion, killing fish and farm animals belonging to the community of Minyak Lhagang. After one such leak, in April 2016, the residents of Dartsedo County defied a large police presence to protest to the local government, securing a temporary halt to the extraction.
In this aerial view of Chabyer Tsaka, a build-up of lithium production facilities can be seen in the east and northwest shores of the lake. Evaporation pools, used to extract lithium salts from brine, are visible on the northwest side, while roads on the southeast side connect the lake to the city of Shigatse.