China Pollution

China flattening mountains to build more ghost cities?

(June 6, 2014) A mind-boggling new twist on the road to urbanization.

In Lanzhou, China, 700 mountains are being levelled to create more than 250 square kilometres of flat land. Imaginechina/Corbis.

In Lanzhou, China, 700 mountains are being levelled to create more than 250 square kilometres of flat land. Imaginechina/Corbis.

By Lisa Peryman for Probe International

In a mind-boggling new twist on the road to urbanization, China’s local governments are bulldozing mountains into valleys to manufacture flat land for cities and towns — the latest in the faux GDP-maximizing construction and development projects that have given rise to China’s notorious ghost cities, malls and theme parks. In a paper published this week by the London-based scientific journal Nature, Chinese academics sound the alarm on the current mountaintop surgery for land creation strategy, saying the consequences of doing so “have not been thought through environmentally, technically or economically.

In a paper published this week by the journal Nature, Chinese scholars warn that the consequences of the country’s latest geoengineering jaw-dropper — moving mountains to fill in valleys for land creation — are unknown and have never been carried out on the scale currently underway in China, where dozens of mountain peaks are being bulldozed over hundreds of kilometres for urban construction.

As part of a sweeping social experiment to urbanize millions of rural dwellers by 2020, local governments are incentivized by the promise of development profits to free up land for what has been described as one of the greatest migrations in history.

Authors Peiyue Li, Hui Qian and Jianhua Wu, all from the School of Environmental Science and Engineering at Changan University, China, describe flattening mountains for that end as akin to “performing major surgery on the Earth’s crust” without consideration of the impacts of “creating land in the complex geological and hydrogeological conditions of mountainous zones. They say:

Many land-creation projects in China ignore environmental regulations because local governments tend to prioritize making money over protecting nature.

They point to the air and water pollution problems that are already the result of these projects, along with soil erosion, geological hazards such as subsidence, altered groundwater flows, deforestation, farmland destruction and the loss of habitats for wild animals, birds and plants.

The largest mountain-moving project attempted yet, underway in Yanan city, located in the northern part of central Chinas Shaanxi Province, aims to double its area through the creation of 78.5 square kilometres of flat ground for a project begun in 2012. While local officials expect to generate billions of yuan from the sale or lease of the resulting new land, made up of loess, a kind of wind-blown silt, the soft soil is an unknown factor that may be vulnerable to geological threats such as landslides. The academics urge for cost modelling and full environmental impact reports:

Economists need to assess the costs and benefits of land-creation projects and suggest ways to reduce the risks before these projects begin,” they say. “Where high economic risks and low profitability are predicted, projects should not proceed even if they are technically feasible, at least for now. Where there is no profit, governments should be dissuaded from going ahead.

For example, the 100-billion (US$16 billion) total cost of the Yuan project over 10 years could take another decade or more for the ground base of mountain infill to become stable enough for construction. The lengthy payback period will deter investors and increase the economic risk of the undertaking a warning signal to officials that is drowned out by the lure of sales from land, a driver of local GDP growth. Such growth has for some time been the yardstick (despite warnings) used by Chinas central administration to assess the success of local governments, which has led to over-spending by ambitious local officials on infrastructure for expected profits not recouped by revenues. 

Alarmed by mountaintop removal for growth at all costs, the trio of Changan University academics point out that research into consequences continues to lag behind the engineering effort. In Yan’an, excavation began three months before the project’s research component started. They say lab tests that could have established the exact moisture content needed to harden loess foundations were unavailable to guide the project.

Insufficient funding and the limited experience of local scientists in this unchartered area of grandiose earth-moving needs the benefit of greater collaboration between research institutions across the country, as well as scientific input from the international community, say the scholars. The experience gained from mountaintop removal in the strip mines of the eastern United States would also help to inform the Chinese land-creation campaigns that “could drain local and national economies and irrevocably damage watercourses and ecosystems.

Read the paper by Peiyue Li, Hui Qian and Jianhua Wu published by the journal Nature here.





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s