The growth of the Chinese economy following the adoption of the reform and open door policy became particularly pronounced from on. Over the course of this period, however, the nature of the problems has changed substantially. China experienced two major environmental shocks in the late s: the drying up of the Yellow River on an unprecedented scale in and the Yangtze River floods of The drying up of the Yellow River was blamed on the growth of agriculture and industry and increased urban demand for water. But the story was not that simple.
According to a research project conducted by our Research Institute for Humanity and Nature RIHN , one cause of this phenomenon was the rise in use of water accompanying the afforestation activities undertaken to counter desertification see Fukushima The afforestation activities conducted as a national project to counter desertification in this area achieved a certain degree of success, and this resulted in an increase in the amount of water used by the restored forests through evaporation , which ended up reducing the downstream water flow.
The afforestation project undertaken to fight one environmental problem, desertification, caused a different environmental problem, the drying up of the Yellow River. A forested site on the outskirts of Wuhai, a coal-mining city on the middle reaches of the Yellow River. Afforestation has alleviated the sandstorms hitting the city, but growing trees in this dry area requires precious water from the river.
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As for the Yangtze River floods of , unusually heavy rainfalls were probably the direct cause, but the flooding was believed to have been aggravated by rampant clearing of forests for farmland in mountainous areas. After the floods, the Chinese government responded by implementing a policy of farmland reforestation, an extremely unusual move in a country that has continued to expand its farmland as its population has grown.
But the situation changed greatly starting in the latter part of the s decade as urbanization and industrialization progressed. In Inner Mongolia, where agricultural development led to the loss of grassland and increased desertification, the mining of coal, rare earths, and other resources is now being undertaken at an intensive pace, and this process is being accompanied by rapid urban development.
In the past, many of the coal mines of this region, like those in Japan, seem to have been dangerous warrens of tunnels, but now the minerals are being extracted from large-scale open-pit mines, and meanwhile the country towns of the region have been undergoing urban development reminiscent of cities in oil-rich Middle Eastern countries. Local residents no longer feel the incentive to farm, and the pressure for agricultural development is gone. I have heard Chinese researchers declare that further desertification will not occur.
An open-pit coal mine in Shenmu County, Shaanxi Province. Coal is being extracted from a bed 70 meters below the surface after clearing away all the soil to that depth.
Environmental Governance for Sustainable Development: East Asian Perspectives
After a year of mining, the operator is required to restore the soil and replant the site. Open-pit coal mining is a source of further environmental problems, but mine operators are stringently required to restore the mine sites.
The situation has changed greatly from the time when many Japanese nongovernmental organizations were involved in afforestation activities in this region. For example, the relationship between economic growth and environmental conservation, though generally a trade-off, is now being addressed around the world with integrated policies or policy mixes aimed at achieving both growth and conservation.
In the first half of the s the authorities used measures like the imposition of surcharges on emissions, but these failed to work. And advanced desulfurization equipment from Japan was too expensive to be widely adopted. But in the second half of the decade Chinese manufacturers developed their own desulfurization equipment and succeeded in lowering the cost by a large margin. China has also been actively promoting renewable energy sources like solar and wind power generation. We occasionally engage these countries through multilateral, regional and global initiatives; or on select technical issues.
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