Beijing Water

Critics say China’s landslides are man-made

(August 10, 2010) More critics say the poor planning policies in China are behind a rise in geological disasters.

The recent deadly landslide in Zhouqu County, an ethnically Tibetan area in northwestern Gansu province, that has killed 702 people (1,042 are still missing) is being treated by government officials as a natural disaster caused by heavy rains. But, say critics, it is the result of a blistering pace of development, helter skelter planning, dangerous infrastructure projects, lax regulation and widespread deforestation.

Wen Bo, co-director of the China program of San Francisco-based Pacific Environment, said in a USA Today report, the landslide, “appears to be a natural disaster, but it’s actually a man-made disaster that would occur sooner or later.”

“China’s leaders are more experienced in handling natural disasters, but they have not woken up to dealing with the root causes of these disasters,” he added.

Wen believes that decades of excessive logging in the area has drastically reduced vegetation, which would help prevent such deadly landslides. He also pointed to poor planning that has allowed for multistory buildings to be erected on lots too close to the river.

Fan Xiao, chief engineer of the Regional Geology Investigation Team of the Sichuan Geology and Mineral Bureau—who has argued that the Zipingpu dam likely played a role in triggering the May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan—told USA Today that forest destruction, farmland expansion and overdevelopment of hydroelectric power stations should share the blame.

Botanist Jiang Gaoming also believes that vegetation damage, land reclamation and hydropower stations have all worsened flooding on the Yangtze River this year.

These opinions are in stark contrast to the official line, which according to Xu Shaoshi, China’s minister of land and resources, blames geological factors and rain. Speaking to the state-run news agency Xinhua, Xu said Zhouqu is a landslide-prone area, suffering from the after-effects of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, drought earlier this year and recent heavy rain.

The dispute over the true cause of the landslide is part of a much larger argument: is the country putting economic growth ahead of the health of its citizens and environment? And will the long-term damage be far worse than the short-term gain?

Jiang, speaking to Global Times, says government officials are often more concerned with GDP numbers than maintaining a healthy environment.

“Policymakers and lawmakers need to realize that a good natural environment can also bring economic benefit,” he said. “Local residents can profit from it, as at least people’s health and agricultural production would be guaranteed.”

The views of these critics are also shared by an overwhelming majority of the public. Even before the recent landslide, a poll by China Youth Daily showed that 82.4% of those polled believe the recent floods were caused by human neglect. It also showed that more than 50% said the country is lacking a long-term plan for flood prevention.

And along with increased pollution is a rise in pollution-related protests. According to Jamie Choi, a manager with Greenpeace China in Beijing, there were 50,000 pollution-related protests in 2005, the last year the government provided statistics. She says that the actual number now “probably is a lot higher.”

In an exclusive report for Probe International, Fan warned that China’s risk from geological disasters was on the rise across the country as a result of the construction frenzy—pointing to a recent train derailment in Jiangxi Province, and a mud-rock flow at the Changheba dam and a mountain collapse at the construction site of the Pubugou dam. He says the country’s blistering pace of development in recent years is the likely reason for this rise in geological disasters.

And the nation’s water reserves are also in dire straits—which Ma Jun, an analyst who runs a database recording water pollution in China, says is, “perhaps the most serious environmental challenge to China’s development.”

“Our economic development is still dependent on the expansion of resource- and pollution-intensive industries,” he added.

Echoing Jiang’s criticisms, Ma Jun says the environmental ministry, “is hamstrung by local officials who are keen to see GDP growth and put it ahead of environmental protection.”

Wen Bo says, “those who promote unsustainable development and short-term economic growth get promoted and push aside the ecological agenda.”

“Conserving the natural environment is an investment in your own national assets,” he adds.

Probe International

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