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The countryside is being forgotten

The animals are dying, the soil is contaminated and so is the water. Economic growth has meant great improvements in living standards for Chinese country dwellers, but rural development has had a heavy ecological cost, writes Jiang Gaoming.

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The standard of living for China’s rural residents is clearly higher than it once was. The steamed buns we could not afford as children are now on every breakfast table. Many homes have electric fans, telephones, colour TVs, washing machines and even air-conditioning. Thatched roofs have been replaced with tiles. But the environmental price we have paid for these welcome changes is huge. The clean air and water that used to be the pride of the locals are now history. Rapid economic development has been achieved through the sacrifice of natural resources and the environment. Over the last three decades, China’s rural areas have seen the following environmental changes:

First, the countryside has been affected by pollution from fertiliser and agricultural chemicals and the emergence of plastic pollution (See “A sea of plastic”). Modern agriculture is over-reliant on the products of fossil fuels: fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and plastic agricultural membrane. As a result, pollution has risen in tandem with harvests. China uses 434.3 kilograms of fertiliser per hectare of arable land on average, almost twice the safe limit. And only 40% of that is used effectively. Thirteen-and-a-half kilograms of herbicides and pesticides are used per hectare, 70% is highly toxic; 60% to 70% of this remains in the soil. Farms today are virtual killing fields, with orchards, vegetable gardens, farms the scene of “chemical warfare”. This misuse is worsened by efforts to grow out-of-season crops. Besides traditional crops like corn and wheat, farmers are planting peanuts, cotton, garlic, watermelons, tomatoes, cucumbers, tobacco and celery – all under plastic membrane. The agricultural sector needs 500,000 tonnes of membrane annually, 40% of which is abandoned. This becomes the plastic pollution that blights China’s countryside. Dung from livestock is a major cause of pollution; China produces twice as much livestock excrement as solid industrial waste; in some provinces four times as much.

Second, rural areas have seen the loss of wild animals and decreasing biodiversity.The use of large quantities of agricultural chemicals has not eliminated pests and weeds, but it has killed off large numbers of wild animals, especially predators that are needed to kill pests, and caused a severe drop in biodiversity. In the countryside in northern China you no longer see migrating geese in autumn or clouds of dragonflies in summer. There are fewer swallows due to a loss of nesting places. Varied forests have become poplar plantations. The disappearance of wetlands means frogs and other amphibians have lost their homes; river pollution has killed off fish and shrimp populations. Even snakes, which can end up on restaurant tables, are dying off after eating rats that have been killed by rat poison.

We haven’t just lost the dragonflies, cicadas, geese, swallows, magpies, titmice, frogs, snakes and hares; we have lost our natural environment. We once lived in a child’s natural paradise, full of animals and plants. But that is now just a memory. Will our children even know what dragonflies or cicadas are?

Third, the countryside has been blighted with homogenous tree planting and the removal of trees to the city (See “Trees are not enough”). For the sake of quick profits, rural residents are selling off their trees and planting quick-growing commercial replacements. In northern China, the traditional elm, pagoda tree, locust tree, ash, catalpa, paulownia, parasol tree, maple, willow, cypress and pine have all been replaced with poplars (See “China’s green deserts”). In the south, firs and masson pines are traditionally planted, but they are steadily being forced out by the eucalyptus, an Australian import. Tall old trees are sold to traders who resell them in large cities. Tree-lined avenues come at an environmental cost to rural areas. Entire villages now lack a single old tree, with new ones regularly cut down and sold, as if China were in a permanent state of growth.

Fourth, the Chinese countryside is losing its wetlands and its water.In the past, every child from a village could swim, but this is no longer the case. One agricultural university with a student body of 30,000 recently started a swimming club and found that only 30 people would sign up. The majority of students simply could not swim. A major cause is that ponds have been turned into dry land. With lakes, rivers and wetlands disappearing there is no water left in which to play. If there is any water in the rivers, it is polluted by factories upstream and nobody wants to get anywhere near it. The loss of wetlands has caused a fall in precipitation; many think this may be the cause of rainfall falling below historical averages by as much as 50%. This is particularly true in the arid north.

Fifth, straw burning is choking the countryside with fields of smoke (See “Waiting for the smoke to clear”). As no use has been found for straw, farmers simply burn it off after the harvests to save the trouble of proper disposal, causing major pollution problems, road closures and even forcing airports to close. Smoke exacerbated a light mist in Jinan on September 26, 2007, affecting 30 flights and forcing a flight carrying a Russian politician to make an emergency landing (damaging China’s national image in the process). Burning straw on neighbouring farmland also affects the cities, causing an increase in particulate matter. Ensuring blue skies in Beijing, for instance, is hampered by straw burning in the surrounding provinces.

Sixth, the countryside is losing its sand, soil and stone.Rapid urban and industrial development requires large quantities of building materials from rural areas. Sand is dredged and rivers have lost their capacity to absorb the impacts of flooding. Large areas of hillsides have been blasted for quarrying, the stone turned into building materials or “art” for sale in cities or overseas. This was once limited to a few unknown hills and mountains, but now even Mount Tai is at risk. Some believe that stone from the Taoist sacred site can guard against evil spirits and there is a brisk trade in ornamental rocks from the mountain. The bricks used in buildings are made from clay found in rural areas. Brick kilns are common in country villages. More worryingly, factories and urban buildings are not long-lasting and are often knocked down and rebuilt. The sand contained in the concrete is lost forever, sourcing new building materials causes yet more damage to rural environments.

Today, rural residents are better off than they once were, but the quality of their environment has declined. And with this has come an increase in illness. Is an increase in the standard of living worth the price of pollution and related health problems? Moreover, the rich rarely worry about the environment. Faced with this grim reality and an apathetic public, all we can do is cry for someone to save our environment. 

Jiang Gaoming is a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Botany. He is also vice secretary-general of the UNESCO China-MAB (Man and the Biosphere) Committee and a member of the UNESCO MAB Urban Group.

Homepage photo by rycordell

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

再回蒋先生 (第一部分)

因为从事环境科技工作,我对您在学术界的名声熟悉而敬佩,那是我这类从事微观技术工作的人所不能比的,更没有堵口的意思。由你这两篇文章看,虽然可能没有为北京市开责的意图,但读起来却有那么个意思,这是我主要反对的观点,请您自查自己的文章,有没有这个意思在。
从宏观鼓呼环保问题和现象,最怕的一件事,就是没有提出可以适行的解决方案来讨论,好像环保问题,已经无药可治。我们展示没有药方的问题和现象,作为行业或半行业的工作者,还不如不说。仿如农药问题,绿色农药有多大能力支持我们的两年耕作高产,有多少系列的农药品种在现有市场经济条件下,可以实际运用,应该是我们讨论的问题,不谈解决方案,就容易出现危言耸听的后果。须知,您是作为公众信任的科学家出现在白纸黑字或网络上的,代表着科学家言论水平的。当然,我也不是扣帽子反对您粗浅谈论宏观环保问题,我们的数据来源和思考问题总是角度不尽相同的,我更愿意看见您提出哪怕是解决问题的不成熟的睿智想法,我们也会为你鼓掌助威的。

More comments on Mr. Jiang’s article (Part 1)

As an environmental science technologist, I’m familiar with your academic reputation and admire you. People like me engaged in micro-technical work can not compare with you, and not even intend to shut you up. Readers may feel the two articles have the intention of taking away Beijing’s responsibility to improve the quality of the air and environment though maybe you don’t mean it, this is my main objection. Please check out your own articles to see if they can leads to that impression. The most terrible thing is when environmental protection problems are discussed from a macro aspect, no feasible solution is proposed, making the environmental protection problem appear to be incorrigible. As professional or semiprofessional workers, we’d better keep silent to issues we can’t offer a solution. Take pesticide for example, the ability of green pesticides to support our two years high-yield farming and the amount of varieties of pesticides to be actually used in the existing market economy should be the topics of our discussions. Problems without solution will easily bring out alarming consequence. You should know that your viewpoint on internet represents the view of a public trustful scientist. Of course, I am not putting a label on your rough discussion about macro environmental protection issues, after all, data sources and viewpoints vary from person to person, I am more willing to see you propose your wise solutions even immature and will applaud you for doing that.

Translated by TinaZhou

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

再回蒋先生 (第二部分)

周边省市生态环境、污染物排放对北京市的影响到底有多大,不是简短的文字能够说清楚的,那是要有确凿的数据支持的。要从实际感觉来说,北京市的问题,主要是自己造成的。比如空气污染,尘源解析中,北京市建筑工地、北京市上路的庞大汽车群,他们代表什么样的贡献水平,也许有人做,但我们不知道结果,我们讨论的基础是没有的。奥运期间为什么要限制机动车上路,从我的观点来说,就是觉得污染物排放量大,对空气质量影响大嘛,还有什么可争议的?我提出,看看卫星照片,到底北京市有没有秸秆着火点以及如何比较北京市机动车污染强度的文字,这些都是公开的数据。
非常理解您对中国环保事业的尽心,我提出一些争鸣文字,即时错了或有所误解,请您原谅。对固体废物的问题,您说的我也有不同看法,我的email是[email protected],希望私下与您讨论,共同促进我们在不同层次和角度,推进环境保护的事业。

For Mr Jiang

It is impossible to clearly express the extent of the environmental impact of Zhoubian on Beijing. Reports must be supported by conclusive statistics. It seems fair to judge the majority of Beijing's pollution as self-inflicted. Take for example air pollution, dust source analyses and the city's endless streams of traffic, and consider how these factors contribute to the situation. Without accurate research results, our discussion has no base.

During the Olympic games, traffic is to be restricted in Beijing. As I see it, large quantities of polluting missions in the capital lead to a large decline in its air quality. I suggest taking a look at the satellite pictures and the publicly available information on Beijing's traffic pollution.

I empathise with you in your efforts towards China's environmental problems and apologise if I'm misinformed or misunderstand your meaning. As regards your comments on waste, I also have a different viewpoint.

My email is [email protected] I look forward to having a relaxed discussion with you on the subject of how to protect the environment.

Translated by Kim Fergus