BEIJING: China will build the world’s highest airport in Tibet as part of a 13-billion-dollar investment splurge in the Himalayan region, state media reported Tuesday.
China will spend more than 100 billion yuan ($12.9 billion) over the next three years on 180 projects in Tibet, including the airport in northern Ngari prefecture, Xinhua news agency said, citing the regional government.
The airport will be the fourth in Tibet and another important plank in China’s plan to link the remote Himalayan region with the rest of China.
A third airport began operating in Nyingchi, southeast Tibet, in September last year, two months after China launched a railway line from Beijing to the regional capital of Lhasa.
The Ngari airport will be located at about 4,300 metres (14,300 feet) above sea level, making it the highest airport in the world, according to reports in the state press.
The first reports of plans for an airport at Ngari emerged in 2005, although there has been little official mention of it since.
Xinhua said the 180 projects by 2010 would focus on other forms of infrastructure such as power plants and telecoms, as well as on education, social security and environmental conservation.
One project aims to see 80% of Tibet’s villages connected by road, while another intends to provide safe drinking water for all the region’s 2.76 million people, Xinhua said.
“Most of these projects are designed to improve the living conditions of the people, especially farmers and herdsmen, and to help them share fruits of the reform and development in Tibet,” Xinhua cited Tibet’s vice chairman, Hao Peng, as saying.
The amount of money to be spent over the next three years is about one-third more than the 63 billion yuan spent on similar projects in Tibet from 1994 to 2005, Tibet’s chairman, Qiangba Puncog, was quoted as saying.
However critics of China’s rule of Tibet say new infrastructure such as the railway and the airport is allowing the nation’s ethnic Han majority to flood the region, exploit its resources and consolidate its political control.
China has ruled Tibet since sending troops in to “liberate” the region in 1951. Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fled to India in 1959 as an uprising failed, and established his government-in-exile in Dharamsala.
In a speech from Dharamsala on 10 March to mark the 48th anniversary of the uprising, the Dalai Lama said the railway line had seen Tibet inundated with people from outside the region.
“It is a source of deep concern that ever since the railway line became operational, Tibet has seen a further increase in Chinese population transfer,” he said.
The Dalai Lama, who says he wants only autonomy rather than independence for his homeland, also warned off the enormous environmental impacts of China’s modernising of Tibet.
There has been a “further deterioration of (Tibet’s) environment, misuse and pollution of its water and exploitation of all natural resources, all causing huge devastation to the land and all those who inhabit it,” he said.
China announced in February that it had discovered huge resources of minerals buried in the Tibetan plateau, locating more than 600 potential sites for new mines.