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Climate change menaces Mogao caves of Dunhuang, repository of ancient Tibetan manuscripts

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(TibetanReview.net, Jul20’23) – Even protected ancient Buddhist murals in northwestern China are under “direct threat” as a result of unprecedented levels of rainfall brought about by climate change, reported Reuters Jul 19, citing researchers.

Extreme rainfall in Dunhuang and Zhangye in Gansu province has put UNESCO-listed world heritage sites at risk, with cave monasteries dating to the 4th century already damaged, the report said, citing environmental group Greenpeace Jul 17.

The group has said rainwater leaks and rising humidity had damaged ancient cave paintings, including those in the famous Mogao grottoes, with some caves having even collapsed.

“Spikes in humidity, flash floods, and cave-ins are already happening,” Li Zhao, a senior researcher in Greenpeace East Asia’s Beijing office, has said.

The Mogao caves of Dunhuang, a county-level city in northwestern Gansu province, are well-known for their rich repository of rare ancient Tibetan manuscripts as well.

At the very beginning of the twentieth century, a huge cache of ancient manuscripts was discovered in a Buddhist cave complex near the desert town of Dunhuang.

The 735 caves in Mogao are particularly noted for their Buddhist art, as well as the hoard of manuscripts, the Dunhuang manuscripts, found hidden in a sealed-up cave. Many of these caves were covered with murals and contain many Buddhist statues. Discoveries continue to be made in the caves.

Numerous smaller Buddhist cave sites are also located in the region, including the Western Thousand Buddha Caves, the Eastern Thousands Buddha Caves, and the Five Temple site.

Greenpeace has said that while total precipitation had increased in Gansu since 2000, the number of rainy days had actually fallen, meaning that individual bouts of rainfall had become more intense. Temperatures in the province were stated to have also risen faster than the global average.

While China is conducting a nationwide cultural heritage survey, Li has warned that some of the country’s treasures could already be gone by the time it is completed.

“The sites we looked at include some of the most well-funded, best-staffed cultural heritage sites in China,” Li has said. “There are hundreds of less-funded, less-studied sites all around China that are facing these same risks.”

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