Radio Free Asia reported today that an underpass being built beneath a main road in central Lhasa has flooded. Excavations for the underpass have apparently disrupted the water table in the vicinity which has led to several nearby trees dying and falling, according to RFA’s sources, and raised fears that the foundations of the Potala Palace itself may be at risk.
Surely, there can be few better metaphors for China’s development plans in Tibet than this.
Lhasa’s urban planners wanted to move Tibetan pilgrims circumambulating the Potala Palace out of the way of the city’s traffic. As an article on one of the main official news portals in August 2009 said, “At certain times, vehicles occasionally let pedestrians pass, causing danger to traffic.”
The solution? Sever and re-suture the centuries-old Lingkor – the circumambulation route around Lhasa’s holiest sites – by building at great expense and to great fanfare two underpasses on the east and west sides of the Potala Square. Concerns over “such factors as a shallow water table and the environment around the Potala Palace” had apparently been resolved, and the tunnel entrances were even designed to have “nationality characteristics” and to “blend with the environment of the Potala Palace.” The article trumpeted: “The phenomenon of cars having to stop at these two places to allow pilgrims to pass will be history and will open a new chapter for Lhasa’s bridges and pedestrian tunnels.”
What could possibly go wrong? Lhasa at last has a modern underpass! Now the Tibetan faithful wont get in the way of Chinese traffic! And they’ll have their own token “characteristics” into the bargain! Concerns about splicing concrete tunnels into the ancient Linkhor, along which people have prostrated for centuries in devotion to the Buddha and successive Dalai Lamas and to accrue merit, were given short shrift in the August 2009 article: the city’s first underpass will mean “a new memory for Lhasa will start.”
This flooded underpass and the threat it potentially poses to the Potala Palace is the classic poorly thought-out and poorly carried-out Chinese development plan in Tibet. It’s a prime example of aggressively flinging an inappropriate solution against something that is actually only really a ‘problem’ in the eyes of an unaccountable few, only for whole vistas of ramifications to unfold – some imagined, some not.
According to RFA’s sources, pumps have been brought in and work is continuing on the underpass.
PHOTO: The Potala Palace seen amid Lhasa’s urban sprawl, summer 2005.