Flattened mountains, poisoned rivers: China's engineers face off against engineer-created problems

China's rapid industrialisation has not been accompanied by a respect for the natural environment - but, as pollution problems become so severe that they can no longer be ignored, engineers are beginning to dream up ambitious solutions to problems created by ambitious modernity.

Every aspect of China's landscape is under threat. Photo: Keith Roper / Flickr

The city of Lanzhou lies in the heart of China. Surrounded by vast mountains and arid deserts, the ancient Silk Road city with its abundance of natural mineral resources has flourished over thousands of years. The capital of the poverty-stricken Gansu Province has a rich history as a seat of Buddhist learning and culture. The Yellow River – "cradle of Chinese civilization" – courses through its centre, separating the vast mountain ranges to the north and south and nourishing the city’s three million inhabitants.

It is here that 700 mountain tops are being bulldozed to create a new megacity. Hundreds of square kilometres of mountain are being flattened by the authorities to rapidly generate vast quantities of rock, which can then be transported to valleys and gullies to serve as infill. It is shaping the environment on an unprecedented scale. The destruction of long-standing geological features will have untold consequences on the surrounding region - from the ground to the sky, the geography of the province will be altered in ways we can’t even begin to predict.

Scientists are adamant that moving mountains is not something humans are ready to do. “The consequences of these unprecedented programmes have not been thought through - environmentally, technically or economically,” wrote Chinese academics Peiyue Li, Hui Qian and Jianhua Wu in an article protesting the engineering project in Nature in June. “There has been too little modelling of the costs and benefits of land creation. Inexperience and technical problems delay projects and add costs, and the environmental impacts are not being thoroughly considered.”

The environmentalists from Chang’an University have decried the project as “performing major surgery on Earth's crust”. They fear these experiments could affect soil stability and river flow-paths, leading to an increase in landslides and flooding that have already laid waste to other parts of the country. Yet the work at Lanzhou isn't the only example. Land-creation projects like this have been growing in popularity to provide flat areas for buildings in hilly areas. In Hechi, southwest China, an airport has just been built by blowing the tops off 65 mountains and filling in the valleys in-between. The runway is a mere 1.3 miles long, and is followed by a sheer drop of a thousand feet on the other side.

The mutilation of these mountains comes at a time where the country is under heavy criticism for its disregard for the environment. The project is set to increase the concentration of dust particles in the air by almost 50 per cent - in a city already infamous for having the worst air quality in the whole of China. World Health Organisation data shows the concentration of 'PM10 particles' (a category of particulates known to cause severe health problems) in the air to be 150 micrograms per cubic metre, greater even than Beijing’s 121. In murky London it’s just 29.

The choking of Lanzhou’s air is testament to the shortcomings of China’s staggering economic growth over the last few decades. The city is already plagued by dust storms kicked up in the neighbouring Gobi desert but the sprawling mess of industrial centres and petrochemical factories add further fuel to the flames. Air quality in Lanzhou has reached such critically low levels that suggestions have even been made to bulldoze an adjacent mountain in a bid to allow more fresh air in. If it seems like a ludicrous solution, then remember that China is a country ruled by engineers: major, ground-breaking projects, regardless of efficacy, will always trump small-scale solutions. 

Yet increasingly these environmental impacts are exactly what China must consider. Every part of China’s geography - earth, air and water - is struggling to cope with the dramatic change in lifestyles of a nation that bears little resemblance to the China of ten years ago, let alone 50. The country has experienced staggering economic growth over the last 30 years and has successfully lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens out of poverty. But the huge soar in production has come about with little regard for ecology: China is now home to an army of coal-burning power plants and a quarter of a billion vehicles. Industrialisation here has occurred ten times faster and a hundred times bigger than in Britain, according to a report by McKinsey in 2012. The “growth at any cost” narrative has been hugely successful - but its price is beginning to show.

For the citizens of China’s megacities, this manifests itself very visibly as poor air quality. President Xi Jinping described the deadly smog settling over Beijing as the most serious challenge facing the capital and this situation is echoed across hundreds of other cities across the country. The health risks of dusty, polluted air are deadly serious. Rates of lung cancer in the capital have doubled over the last decade, as the city claims the title of second-most-polluted city in the world. The rapidly-expanding middle class in China are increasingly demanding the government solve what has been described as an “airpocalypse” – air quality reminiscent of a nuclear wasteland. Last year the concentration of particulates was so great it caused a near-shutdown of Beijing. Air pollution closed schools, hospitals and airports across the capital.

Dirty water
The treacherous air and endangered geology are not Lanzhou's only worry. Water rushing in from the enormous Yellow River - ochre-coloured from the silty deposits of the Mongolian steppes - starts off unclean when it enters the city; by the time it leaves, it is positively deadly. Across three thousand miles stretching from a spring high in the Bayan Har Mountains to its mouth near Beijing, the Yellow River is hideously polluted. More than a third of the river has been categorised by the Yellow River Conservatory Committee as ‘level five’ - unfit for drinking or agriculture. For Lanzhou it’s even worse. Along with the huge quantities of sewage and other chemical waste, an oil leak earlier this year saw benzene levels in the city’s water supply to rise to 20 times the national limit.

Despite being home to a fifth of the world’s population, less than seven per cent of global fresh water lies within China’s borders. The deterioration of this water, both in quality and quantity, is one of the greatest threats endangering China’s northern provinces. Overuse and mismanagement of water resources has been catastrophic, resulting in the disappearance of more than half of the 50,000 rivers that existed in China in the 1990s, according to China's Ministry of Water Resources. The effect of these vanishing tributary rivers has huge implications for the bigger channels like the Yangtze and the Yellow Rivers, which hundreds of millions of Chinese are reliant on. Almost a decade ago Jared Diamond noted in his book Collapse that the Yellow River's natural course has been devastated by dams and irrigations, placing the entire river valley at severe risk of drying out.

There is also a huge disparity in access to water – unlike the lush southern provinces, northern China receives very little rainfall. Agriculture remains heavily concentrated in these regions and farmers are forced to draw on underground aquifers and groundwater reserves to supply their water-intensive crops – which they then export back to the south. The result is water wastage on an enormous scale.

The South-North Water Transfer Project, a series of canals created to divert water from the enormous Yangtze River to the water-starved regions of the north, seeks to rectify this. Described as “one of the biggest feats of engineering in the world,” and with a budget greater than even the Three Gorges Dam, the project aims to ship 12 trillion gallons of water a year to areas in greatest need.

Hydrologist Dawei Han is a visiting professor at China’s Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower, and an expert in environmental engineering. He told me he thinks the project is a necessary measure to support a dry North. “Northern China needs more water. In southern China there’s more rainfall – so more water.”

"The Yangtze River is big and even during the dry period it’s still got several thousand metres cubic metres per second. If you look at the Thames River, the average discharge is fifty. So the idea is, you can take some water from the Yangtze and divert that to the north of China where there’s less rainfall.”

But many think the economic issues need to be addressed first. "China, in particular its water-scarce regions, are facing a serious water crisis driven by rapid economic growth,” warned a recent article published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. “Consumption in highly developed coastal provinces is largely relying on water resources in the water-scarce northern provinces, such as Xinjiang, Hebei and Inner Mongolia, thus significantly contributing to the water scarcity in these regions."

For the hundreds of thousands of locals already displaced by the South-North Water Transfer Project, an effective solution is essential. Internal critics, including even government officials, have fiercely protested the perceived waste of money and huge environmental impacts on those dependent on the Yangtze River. The sentiment is widely-shared that China is focusing its efforts on fixing the ‘supply’ side of its water resources crisis, but not the demand - a burgeoning population coupled with high economic growth will push demand to unsustainable levels.

This isn't just in the northern provinces, either. The densely-populated south has seen a flurry of desalination plants being built in coastal cities over the last decade to cope with water scarcity. “Desalination plants need a lot of energy and they pollute the sea-water,” Dr. Han explains. “You take fresh water out of the sea; the water left is highly concentrated salty water. In some cities, they’re building huge numbers of desalination plants – it’s always a problem. Wherever you have a human, you’re going to interfere with the environment. We all consume energy [and] materials.”

It’s a vicious cycle of growth depleting the country’s water supplies while polluting the surrounding land, air and sea, and as water scarcity increases so too does the need for energy-intensive desalination plants. As with flattened mountaints, China is relying on large-scale engineering solutions to appease the demands of citizens who are requesting, quite rightfully, the same standards of living seen in the West. It's an approach that, if continued, will lead to devastating consequences for every aspect of the environment.

Breathing space
But despite an arguably naive attitude towards its dwindling water resources, another pressing environmental issue is increasingly gaining traction. Inspired in part by internal pressure to improve air quality, China has seen a flurry of activity this year to reemphasise its commitments to curbing CO2 emissions. The country recently issued joint statements with both the US and the UK to pledge their concentrated efforts to reverse global trends. Though often dismissed as empty words, the moves signal China’s newfound recognition of the dangers of climate change.

“In terms of where we’re going with climate change and its implications, my feeling is – certainly amongst the scientific community in China - that they totally get it,” said Hugh Montgomery, co-chair of the Lancet Commission on Climate Change and Health. The London-based doctor has been heavily involved with the joint efforts between the UK and China to combat global warming. “I don’t think they’ve got any doubt about the fact that emissions cause global warming and that global warming is going to be very severe. At the moment, we’re shooting way beyond worst-case scenario... we could easily be heading for a four degrees rise within the next 80 years or so.”

According to the Royal Society, a rise in global temperatures of four degrees is incompatible with human civilisation. Go between four and seven degrees and we’ll see ecosystems collapse to the extent that our entire species is likely to go extinct. But this doesn’t even account for what Montgomery calls "positive feedback loops" – a temperature rise of even just two degrees will set off a chain of events that will further increase global temperatures.

“If we build in these positive feedback loops - oceans holding less CO2 as they get warmer, albedo [reflection of heat radiation] diminishing with the loss of ice, methane hydrate release from tundra and all these other things - we could get some very significant binary shifts. Because one thing we know about climate is very rarely is it slowly changing; it tends to jump. [The Chinese] get that. The question is what’s going to happen at policy level.”

It’s a question that Chinese officials have been quick to answer. From energy efficiency in buildings and vehicles to dramatic increases in carbon capture systems, China is promising huge changes in order to reduce its impact on the planet. That isn’t to say it’s doing everything. But many feel its attitude towards change is more holistic than America’s or Europe’s. Writing in the Guardian, Energy and Climate Change Minister Ed Davey said he had witnessed “extraordinary effort being made to tackle greenhouse gas emissions and to curb air pollution” in China. It’s not just trying to solve its internal problems – China is leading the campaign to get Western nations to share renewable energy technology with developing countries undergoing rapid industrialisation.

Central planning
Chairman Mao, in a speech championing the virtues of unity and perseverance after the Second World War, alluded to an ancient Chinese parable: “The Foolish Old Man Removes the Mountains.” The fable tells of an old man who struggled to move two mountains blocking his doorway, chipping away at them stone by stone. Knowing he could not complete the task in his own lifetime, he trusted in the fact that his children, or his children’s children, would eventually succeed. The Gods looked favourably on his determination, and broke the mountains away for him.

Since then the tale has been invoked, not entirely in jest, as a justification for the huge infrastructure projects such as the mountaintop-chopping in Lanzhou and Hechi or the vast dams and canals springing up around the country. But it’s also testimony to the belief that collective, sustained effort can overcome huge challenges. For environmentalists this may be the attitude needed to achieve real change. Perhaps controversially, Han believes China’s authoritarian system may have the power to solve the country’s crises.

“The problem in the West is that people look locally, they look short term. In Spain, during Franco’s time, they managed to build a lot of civil engineering projects - dams, rivers, canal systems. Franco’s opinion was that the water in Spain belongs to the whole population. So if you’ve got more water in one place, why not take it to another place? So it is quite an interesting problem. China’s got its own problems [and the] authoritarian system has got problems. But maybe it’s able to see slightly longer-term, see the big scope like in Spain.”

“China occupies a unique place in the future of climate change,” write economists Frank Jotzo and Fei Teng of the Australian National University, international experts in climate change policy. “China has become the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and in many ways is the linchpin of global climate change policy. If China’s coal use and carbon dioxide emissions keep growing alongside GDP then current global goals for limiting climate change will be out of reach. If, however, China manages to decouple its emissions trajectory from its economic growth then ambitious global emissions reductions scenarios remain feasible, and other industrialising countries may be inclined to emulate China’s pathway.”

It’s a tantalising idea, but unlikely to come about without serious shifts in attitudes from Western nations too. The historical inequity of carbon distribution - whether you consider total emissions over 200 years or simply CO2 output per person - is difficult to argue with. Europe and America have taken a ‘share’ of emissions so large that we’re poorly placed to lecture develop China on its environmental track record - particularly given the greater progress it’s made in renewable energy.

As much of the world is set to discover in the coming decade, environmental degradation is of paramount importance. China is arguably one of the best-equipped to combat these threats, both as an economic powerhouse and an inspiration to developing nations looking for a model of how to modernise. Yet China’s relationship with the environment is of critical international importance, and this burgeoning superpower needs to figure out how to take the lead on the issue of protecting and preserving its natural environment before its engineering gusto goes too far.