The terrible cost of China’s growth (part one)

Rapid development has brought great gains to China. But pollution, the loss of land and the destruction of ecosystems will hold back the country’s future growth, write Jiang Gaoming and Gao Jixi.

China has seen rapid economic growth since the start of the reform era in 1979. Annual GDP growth averaged 9.6% between 1979 and 2004. In 2004, GDP growth reached 10.1%, an achievement that attracted global attention. Over this period the population has grown sharply; huge quantities of resources have been consumed; environmental pollution has worsened; ecosystems have been wrecked; and vast areas of land have been lost. This has given rise to all manner of environmental problems. The economy has grown, but the environment has suffered. Over the past 27 years, China has adhered to an economic model characterised by high levels of pollution, emissions and power consumption, combined with low levels of efficiency. It has repeated the “pollute first, clean up later” model that Western nations adhered to during their early stages of capital accumulation.

The Tang-dynasty poet Du Fu once wrote: “Though a country be sundered, hills and rivers endure,” yet we can only reflect that while our country endures, our hills and rivers have been devastated. Environmental degradation harms public health, affects social stability and holds back China’s sustainable economic growth. It is a major problem, one which threatens not only the development but also the survival of the Chinese people.

Decreases in cultivated land

Remote-sensing surveys show that China’s cultivated land area plummeted between 1988 and 2000, from 1,307,400 square kilometres in 1991 to 1,282,400 square kilometres in 2000 – from 1.8 mu (0.0012 square kilometres) per head to 1.5 mu (0.0010 square kilometres) per head. Construction accounted for 56.6% of the decrease, 21% of land was forested, 16% was flooded and 4% became grassland.

During the 1990s, the number of cities in China’s east increased from 315 to 521. Each year, an average of 767.42 square kilometres is built on, with this figure growing at an average of 5.76% every year. The land around Beijing has borne the brunt of this, with the city expanding by about 20 square kilometres per year.  Besides urban construction, the effects of industry and mining account are also significant. Statistics from the provinces of Jilin, Jiangsu, Fujian, Henan, Hubei and Hunan show that land given over to mining development increased 1.96 times between 1986 and 2000, and the land area that was damaged increased by 4.71 times.

Over this period some cultivated land was added: 24.2% of it by reclaiming woodland, 66% from grasslands and 1.9% from bodies of water. But this was all obtained at the expense of natural ecosystems. Over the last 40 years, land reclamation has lead to the loss of 11,900 square kilometres of coastal shallows, with industry taking more than 10000 square kilometres of coastal wetlands. Half of China’s coastal shallows are now completely destroyed. And despite this, the trend of overall loss of cultivated land has not been reversed.

Where the loss of cultivated land is due to a change in usage, the soil itself at least remains, though sealed below concrete and asphalt. However, soil that is swept away by wind and water is lost forever. In 1999, 3.56 million square kilometres of land were affected by erosion due to wind, water and freeze-thaw cycles. Of this land, 82.53% lies in China’s west. The country has 1.74 million square kilometres of desert spread across 30 provinces, over 90% of which is in the west. An astonishing 1.6 billion tonnes of soil is swept into the Yellow River every year, approximately 400 million tonnes of which is deposited on the riverbed downstream, causing it to rise between eight and 10 centimetres annually. During the past 40 years, the riverbed in the lower reaches of the Yellow River has risen by two metres, and on average it stands three to five metres higher than the land that it flows through. In places it is as much as 10 metres higher. The Yangtze River basin also loses 2.4 billion tonnes of soil per year.

With the loss of soil, valuable nutrients are lost. In the Yellow River basin alone, about 40 million tonnes of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are lost annually – more than the total consumption of China’s fertiliser industry in 2003 (39.9 million tonnes). A conservative estimate, factoring in soil lost to water erosion in the Yangtze River basin and wind erosion in arid and semi-arid regions, puts annual loss at five times that figure. The lost nutrition is replaced artificially, atmospherically and with ore, resulting in serious environmental pollution. China’s government should take urgent and effective measures to prevent the further loss of soil.

The threat to China’s forests

According to State Forestry Administration figures, forestry coverage in China rose from 12.98% in 1986 to 16.55% in 1999, a growth of 33%. But we need to be clear about what went into those figures. Many areas adjusted the canopy density rate used to define a “forest” downwards from 0.3 to 0.2. Bushes and shrubs were also added to the figures. It is possible that the amount of forest did not actually increase – only the figures did. In China no old-growth forest remains, and forests over a century old are extremely rare. Even if the above figures are accurate, China’s huge population means that the per capita average is extremely low – only 21.3% of the global average. In terms of volume, China has only 12.5% of the global per capita average of 72 cubic metres.

It should be noted that although central government’s investment in forestry has been gradually increasing, forest management policy’s disregard for the environment has led to a potential threat from weak and unsustainable single-species forests. Between the 1950s and 1990s, the forested area affected by disease and pests increased six-fold. This increase was greatest in the 1990s, 196% of the increase during the 1980s. If China’s vast subtropical mountainous areas were sealed off and human interference reduced, their broadleaf evergreen forests would recover. But tragically, paper manufacturers have felled natural forests in order to plant the invasive eucalyptus tree. Intervention by the authorities has been too weak to prevent this destruction, and some local forestry authorities have even profited from collusion with interest groups.

China’s water crisis

China consumed a total of 556.7 billion cubic metres of water in 2001, 13.2 billion cubic metres more than in 1998. Most of this increase came not from replenishable surface water, but from groundwater obtained by drilling – water that should be left for future generations. Water usage rates for major river basins such as the Huai River, Liao River and Yellow River have reached 60%; the rate in the Hai River is 90% and for the Hei River the rate is 110%. The internationally-recognised warning level is between 30% and 40%.

An inefficient use of water resources and a lack of water conservation awareness mean that even this massive overuse does not meet our so-called “needs.” A total of 60% of China’s 669 cities face water scarcity, and of these, 110 face serious water shortages. Around 60 areas suffer from lowered groundwater levels, with a zone measuring 30,000 to 50,000 square kilometres in the North China Plain being the world’s largest. Over-extraction of groundwater not only happens in China’s arid north, but also in the water-rich south. Subsidence affects 46 cities in 16 provinces, including Shanghai, Tianjin, Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Shanxi. In south China’s Suzhou, 180 square kilometres of land has subsided over 60 centimetres since 1949. In Wuxi, 59.5 square kilometres has subsided by the same amount, and 43 square kilometres in Changzhou.

The relatively water-rich Sanjiang Plain, in northeast China, has also seen a large-scale extraction of water and soil degradation, has led to the loss of wetlands. In the past decade, the northern part of the plain lost 105 square kilometres of wetland. The Songnen Plain and Liao River delta have lost 1,820 square kilometres and 230 square kilometres hectares respectively.

But China’s water crisis is not a purely underground phenomena, it also manifests itself in the loss of glaciers on high plateaus. Glaciers are China’s “solid reservoirs” and an important source of water for arid regions. Global warming caused glaciers north of the Sichuan-Tibet highway in Nyingtri (Lingzhi) to shrink by 100 metres between 1986 and 1998. This retreat will directly impact the progress of the western branch of China’s South to North Water Transfer project.

The destruction of China‘s ecosystems

There are ten main types of land ecosystem in the world, and China has nine: tropical rainforest, evergreen broadleaf forests, deciduous broadleaf forests, conifer forest, mangrove forest, grasslands, alpine meadows, desert and tundra. The only ecosystem it lacks is the African savannah, though regions such as the Hunsandake, Keerqin, Mu-us and Hunlun Buir have the same structure and function. China is therefore the only country in the world which may feature all of the world’s ecosystems.

But unfortunately, every one of these ecosystems is suffering. Aside from China’s well-documented loss of forests and expanding deserts, alpine meadows, temperate grasslands and mangrove forests are also being seriously degraded. The Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau is one of the worlds largest, highest and most unique ecosystems. But long-standing over-grazing and misuse has caused serious degradation of its alpine meadows, mainly demonstrated by the drop in hay production from 300 kilograms per mu (667 square metres) in the 1960s, to 100 kilograms today. This destruction is also attested to in the region’s increasing mole-rat infestation: from eight to 10 mole rats per hectare in the past, to more than 30 today.

Ninety percent of China’s usable grasslands display varying degrees of damage, and this area is expanding by 20,000 square kilometres per year. Of this lost grassland, 55% is being used for cultivation, and 30% has simply become unusable. The majority of grasslands in the west of China are over-used; in Xinjiang the rate of overuse is 121%, in Ningxia is 72% and in Inner Mongolia is 66%.

Mangrove forests are globally recognised as one of the world’s most productive and diverse ecosystems. China’s mangrove forests are mostly located to the south of the Fujian coast and at one time covered 2,500 square kilometres. In the 1950s, they covered 500 square kilometres. Now they only cover 150 square kilometres. Since 1949, exploitation, felling and inefficient usage of coastal mangrove forests has brought unprecedented destruction, especially in the past 20 years.

The UN’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) lists 740 endangered species. Of these, 189 are in China, around a quarter of the total. Between 4,000 and 5,000 of China’s plant species are endangered or approaching endangerment, from 15 to 20% of the country’s total number of plant species. Environmental changes and the fragmentation of habitats are causing this loss of biodiversity. For instance, in the natural forests of Nenjiang county in northeast China’s Heilongjiang province, endangered species were distributed across 240 different locations, with an average size of 0.8 square kilometres. By 2000 this had fragmented to 343 different locations with an average size of 0.68 square kilometres.

NEXT: How can China strengthen environmental protection?

Jiang Gaoming is a chief researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Botany and a doctoral candidate tutor, vice secretary-general of UNESCO’s China-MAB Committee and director of the China Environmental Culture Promotion Association. He is recognized for his introduction of the concepts of “urban vegetation” and “using natural forces to restore China’s ecosystems.”

Jixi Gao is chief specialist and head of the Institute of Ecology at the ChinaAcademy of Environmental Sciences. He has long been involved in the evaluation of functional ecologies, environmental assessments of regional development strategies and research into environmental pollution testing.