A report by the American Embassy in China acknowledges that the construction of the Golmud-Lhasa railway could have a “big impact on the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the Tibet Autonomous Region” due to a thriving sex industry in Golmud, transplanted Chinese workers and close proximity to an illegal drug transportation route.
In a note on “Environmental Protection Along the Qinghai-Tibet Railway,” prepared in April 2003, the Embassy said the risk is that HIV will transfer from Qinghai (Amdo) to workers on the railway site and, as worksites shift southward, will spread to the areas of the Tibet Autonomous Region.
“Given the poor public health infrastructure in the TAR, this could prove disastrous,” said the report.
The Embassy note continued, “If this happens, fighting HIV/AIDS in Golmud City may be the most effective way to keep the virus out of Tibetan regions further south. Policy options include education campaigns and voluntary counseling and testing among railway workers. Golmud was included in a list of 51 districts recently designated by the Ministry of Health as priority locations for HIV/AIDS prevention efforts. But overall funding scarcity means that this designation may only net the district about $25,000 to supplement any ongoing local HIV/AIDS prevention efforts.”
Meanwhile, in an apparent effort to stem international criticism of not taking into consideration Tibetan concerns, Chinese authorities have said that Tibetans are being trained to staff the Golmud-Lhasa railway project and that cultural concerns are being addressed.
A Qingzangteiluwang (Qinghai-TAR Railway Net) report of September 30, 2003, said the first batch of 16 Tibetan graduates from Chinese universities and colleges are practicing at Golmud as “professional reserves.”
“This preparation under the guidance of seasoned railway workers has been proved effective before newly-grads take responsibility for posts,” the report also claimed.
“At the same time, some 500 other Tibetan students organized by the government are being trained at various vocational schools in neighbouring provinces for junior talents need,” the report added.
Tibetans and friends of Tibet, including the International Campaign for Tibet (in its report on the railway project entitled “Crossing The Line — China’s Railway to Lhasa, Tibet“) have recommended that China should give full control to Tibetans to regulate the operation and construction of the railway.
A Xinhua report of October 1, 2003, said construction officials were working not to disturb Tsonak (Ch: Cona) Lake in Amdo County, in the north of the Tibet Autonomous Region, which is near the railway project.
“Seven full-time environmental engineers have closely monitored the surroundings, including birds and water quality in four observation stations established along Cona Lake,” Xinhua said.
Following is an excerpt from the United States Embassy in China’s note on “Environmental Protection Along the Qinghai-Tibet Railway.” The full text is available on the Embassy website.
“…there is the possibility that the process of constructing the Qinghai-Tibet Railway could have a big impact on the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Although quality health surveillance data are scarce, all indications are that the TAR has thus far been spared significant HIV infection despite relatively high prevalence in neighboring Yunnan Province and the Xinjiang Autonomous Region.
“This is the risk scenario: Much of the highway reconstruction work is being handled by Lhasa-based firms employing Tibetan workers. But the workers employed at the railway construction sites stretching from Golmud to the south are primarily Han Chinese brought in for their special skills. Most of the truck drivers also hail from other parts of China, with license plates coming from as far away as Gansu, Sichuan and even Henan, in addition to Qinghai. Meanwhile, Golmud City — as one might expect in a frontier town with a swelling population of transplanted workers — has an obviously thriving sex industry. Finally, Golmud and Xining, which many truck drivers also frequent, are located uncomfortably close to the Yunnan-Sichuan-Gansu-Xinjiang illegal drug transportation route that has been documented to be an important vector for HIV transmission in China.
“The risk is that HIV will cross from injecting drug users (IDU’s) in Qinghai into the Qinghai commercial sex worker population, and thence to truck drivers and construction workers involved in the railway project. As construction worksites shift southward, increasing numbers of workers may visit Lhasa on furlough, instead of Golmud, eventually leading to significant transmission of HIV/AIDS into the TAR population. Given the poor public health infrastructure in the TAR, this could prove disastrous.
“If this happens, fighting HIV/AIDS in Golmud City may be the most effective way to keep the virus out of Tibetan regions further south. Policy options include education campaigns and voluntary counseling and testing among railway workers. Golmud was included in a list of 51 districts recently designated by the Ministry of Health as priority locations for HIV/AIDS prevention efforts. But overall funding scarcity means that this designation may only net the district about $25,000 to supplement any ongoing local HIV/AIDS prevention efforts.”