23 October 2016
A picture taken earlier this month shows vehicles stranded in a flooded area in Wuhan. Heavy rains and poor drainage systems have caused severe problems in Central China. Photo: Reuters
A picture taken earlier this month shows vehicles stranded in a flooded area in Wuhan. Heavy rains and poor drainage systems have caused severe problems in Central China. Photo: Reuters

China’s ‘natural’ disasters are man-made in many cases

With the onset of summer, China has been engulfed by natural disasters, particularly along the Yangtze River basin, where exceptionally heavy rainfall since the beginning of July has led to massive floods and mudslides in several major cities.

Massive floods in central China, in cities like Wuhan, are to be blamed not only on persistent and torrential rain, but also on the obsolete and poorly maintained underground drainage systems. Hence, we can say that the ferocious floods are partly natural, and partly man-made disaster.

China’s rapid economic growth over the past 40 years has come at a huge environmental cost. Industrialization, massive deforestation, rapid urbanization, reckless land clearance and over-harvesting have taken an irreversible toll on the natural environment, resulting in large-scale pollution, widespread soil erosion and desertification across the country.

The crisis has been compounded by the lack of public oversight and administrative transparency, as well as rampant corruption at basically every level of government. All these factors put together have exacerbated the environmental destruction across the mainland.

According to the official figures of the Chinese authorities, soil erosion is the second most critical environmental problem facing China apart from industrial pollution.

Currently soil erosion of different proportions has already affected an area of 3.6 million square kilometers, accounting for 37 percent of China’s total land area. In the meantime, the scale of desertification has also hit crisis level, affecting a total area of 2.6 million square kilometers.

It is estimated that as a result of continued soil erosion and desertification, China is losing an average of one million hectares of farmland every year, and the speed with which it is losing is accelerating.

In the meantime, China’s environmental crisis can not only be found on the ground, but in the atmosphere too.

Unregulated and unchecked carbon emissions have led to persistent smog in almost every major city across China. Highly polluted air has led to an increase in acid rain. It is estimated that as many as 190 cities across the mainland have been suffering from heavy acid rain in recent years, contaminating reservoirs, rivers, lakes and other fresh water sources.

To make things worse, while some parts of the country are plagued by relentless floods, other parts are facing persistent drought. When it comes to the scarcest and most hotly sought after resource in China, many people might immediately think of oil, but actually it is fresh water that is in need most.

As of now, China’s average fresh water resource per capita stands at 25 percent of the global average.

According to British climate expert and historian Hubert Lamb, government policies and political ideology of rulers often have profound and far-reaching implications for the natural environment. Unfortunately, contemporary China is simply a living proof of Lamb’s theory, showing how the ideology of a totalitarian regime can have devastating effects on the environment.

China’s massive environmental destruction dates back to as early as the 1950s, when Mao Zedong ordered the removal of the “4 perils”, during which hundreds of thousands of Chinese peasants eagerly took part in a nationwide campaign to kill sparrows on a massive scale because, according to Mao, they endangered crops.

Ironically, after all the sparrows in the wild had gone, the country witnessed a sudden surge in the number of pests such as locusts and aphids that were truly endangering crops.

Then during the period of the Great Leap Forward, Mao called on the nation to launch a steel production drive. That led to countless trees being cut down to produce firewood for makeshift and primitive steel mills across the country. During the process of steelmaking millions of tons of untreated toxic waste were discharged into rivers and lakes across China.

Unfortunately, even though Mao’s era is long gone, acts of state-sponsored environmental destruction are still underway in full swing across China.

As regional party leaders are obsessed with GDP growth and dazzling infrastructural projects without giving any consideration to the long-term implications for the environment, the situation looks bleak.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 14.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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