A Legacy of Pollution

Editors note on our East Asia series:

East Asia is the most densely populated region on the planet.  With that comes growing economic clout but also significant development challenges.  Successful achievement of sustainability goals in East Asia will impact more lives than action in the rest of the world combined.  Because of this the actions of this region are important not only as examples for the rest of the world but also as the largest scale sustainable development actions in the world.  This series will focus on all of the sustainability challenges and opportunities in this area of the world that is rapidly becoming the most important locus of sustainable development.

Throughout the 1960s, the United States confronted several significant environmental catastrophes. In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, which detailed the devastating effects of DDT on bird populations across the United States. In 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland famously burst into flames and one of Union Oil’s platforms off the coast of Santa Barbara suffered a blow-out, resulting in the third largest oil spill in U.S history. These events inspired an environmental movement across the United States, which culminated in Earth Day in April, 1970 and the subsequent formation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Last January, air pollution in Beijing exceeded 900 parts per million, a concentration forty times higher than the level the World Health Organization deems safe. Pollution in China has stolen an astounding 25 million healthy years of life from the population. On February 28th, Chai Jing, an investigative reporter for China’s national television network, released a very controversial documentary “Under the Dome,” which powerfully narrates China’s problem of air-pollution from a public health perspective. The day following the documentary’s release, Chen Jining, China’s minister of environmental protection, drew parallels between the film and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. It appears China is currently experiencing an environmental crisis of a similar, if not greater, magnitude than the United States faced in the 1960s.

Desertification is a major driver of that crisis in China, now affecting more than 25% of the country. Desertification is a form of land degradation in which a relatively dry region of land becomes increasingly arid. The desiccating region typically loses its bodies of water, vegetation and wildlife. Deforestation, grassland degradation, and climate change have driven this process of desertification in the northern and northwestern provinces of China.

China is remarkably forest-deficient to begin with, which contributes significantly to soil erosion and ultimately to desertification. There are only 0.1 ha of forest per person in China, compared with the world’s average of .6 ha. Furthermore, a proportion of China’s forests, which only cover 18% of the country’s land area, includes “single-species tree plantations.”China’s forests are not only sparse, but they are also unhealthy due to their homogeneity.

In recent years, weather trends have accelerated desertification. The Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change notes a decline in summer precipitation over the central parts of arid and semi-arid Asia, which has led to expansion of deserts and periodic severe water stress conditions. Considering that the IPCC report predicts current climatic trends within the region to continue, warmer and drier conditions will most likely intensify desertification and further degrade the environment.

While all forms of pollution involve environmental, economic, and social ramifications, desertification poses unique social consequences in China. It is a uniquely powerful vector for forced rural migration and a contributor to urban air-pollution.

Sandstorms arise in the desiccated regions in the north and northwest of the country and plague coastal cities like Beijing. From AD 300 to 1949, sandstorms struck northwestern China on average once every 31 years; since 1990, there has been one almost every year. Sandstorms are extreme events: on May 5th, 1993 one storm killed a hundred people.

In 2013 I visited a project that combats desertification in the Kubuqi Desert in Inner Mongolia, China. I climbed through a sea of seemingly endless dunes, which had formed there as a result of poor farming practices. The team I was with, the Green Corps, comprised a group of South Korean students who had volunteered their summer to help plant a wall of trees across the narrowest part of the desert. This wall of trees intends to reduce the intensity of sandstorms in the short term, and to reverse the process of desertification in the long-term. The Chinese government has also undertaken a $6 billion project to build a ‘great green wall’ of trees to shield Beijing against these frequent sandstorms. While this may seem excessive, it is to counteract an astonishing $7 billion annual direct loss attributable to desertification.

Desertification in Inner Mongolia is tangible evidence of the extent of environmental degradation in China. While Chai Jing worked to expose the magnitude and severity of China’s environmental degradation, her documentary received criticism for offering “little in the way of new information.” “Little in the way of new information” is synonymous with: pollution has been bad, is still bad, and we’ve known this for a while. So while “Under the Dome” is important for its contribution to understanding the state of China’s environment, it is even more important for indirectly addressing the Chinese government’s apparently apathetic approach to the environment.

Image Credit: Gobi Desert in Inner Mongolia, pfctdayelise via Wikimedia Commons

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