The Dragon’s mindless growth poses big environmental risks

by Editorial

Environmental degradation and pollution are serial stranglers. Environmental degradation began with Mao’s ‘conquest of nature’ idea. The Chinese economy and severe environmental degradation took off together five decades back. China embraced industrialisation and economic progress unhesitatingly. Quick time centralised decision making without due checks and balances was the norm. Polluting industry was, in fact, enabled. Environmental regulation was blindsided. As China’s economy and geopolitical power grew, the negative consequences were on food, water and health securities. China has faced three-fold environmental degradation. One, developing an overpopulated and underdeveloped society, at frenetic pace has induced ecological stresses of land and water shortage, deforestation, and desertification. Two, its gigantic industrialisation and rapidly increasing urbanisation in a globalised economy has resulted in huge pollution including generation of marine and toxic wastes. Three, climate change has started to make its presence felt. At some stage the economy will be impacted, slow down and start shrinking. 

Dammed Degradation

 Since the 1950s, the Chinese have built around 22,000 dams which are more than 15 meters tall. It is roughly half the world’s total. More than 16 million Chinese have been relocated to make way for these hydro projects. They have over 125 mega dams with heights more than 100m. These mega-dams,block the flow of rivers, create floods, affect agriculture and fisheries, increase the chances of earthquakes, and destroy environments. To quote a view ‘rather than benefiting populations with non-polluting power, China’s dam builders are making a Faustian bargain with nature, selling their country’s soul in their drive for economic growth’. Extreme view? It was recently borne out by the massive flooding of the Yangtze basin in the course of which it was feared that the Three Gorges Dam, the biggest dam in the world, would collapse. It is so massive that it has the capacity to slow the earth’s rotation. It is now internationally recognised that the entire exercise has been a huge environmental disaster. The sheer number of dams has created so many water bodies that it has induced local climate change whose effect is being felt within China. The larger issue of global climate change will wreak greater disasters. To illustrate the argument, the analysed complexity of issues surrounding the Three Gorges Dam is reproduced ‘Factors are color-coded whereby green factors signify ecological issues and blue ones signify sociological issues. Beginning with the left, the Three Gorges Dam project has caused forced migration of many people both directly due to Chinese government policy as well as indirectly through landslides and erosion. Furthermore, forced migrants put pressure on urban centres insofar as they need housing and jobs that may not necessarily be available. This in turn affected the standard of living by contributing to poverty, among other things. All of this acted to erode social stability, which is itself a form of latent conflict and which is requisite for violent overt conflict. On the right hand side, we see that the dam disturbs fault lines and causes watershed erosion, both of which negatively affect ecological stability. Furthermore, the dam is believed to be connected to earthquakes in the area due to its massive size. All of these disruptions signal the potential for grave ecological problems such as ecological collapse, biodiversity loss, erosion, etc.’ 

Kingdom of Rare Earths

 China is the ‘Kingdom of Rare Earths’ with a market share of 80-90% in the past two decades. Rare earths are used in semiconductors and energy saving devices (see graphic). China’s rare earth map is shown below. Rare earth mining has a parallel and thriving huge black market. It is extremely polluting and contaminating to the extent that ‘cancer villages’ have sprung/springing up near mines. Rare earth mining is a contamination time bomb for the Yellow River in the North. In the South, China’s mega-cities like Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong may have already been affected by the radioactive toxicity related to uranium. It is no more a matter of ‘if’, but ‘when’. Water for agriculture and drinking in all rare earth mining areas and in downstream areas is heavily contaminated by excessive amounts of ammonia, nitrogen, cadmium, lead and its compounds. Remuneration from rare earths is inadequate to offset costs in health and environmental cleaning. Take another case of Titanium. China is the dominant player in the international market. Titanium mines destroy nature and habitat. The extracted ore is refined with Chlorine which is a huge environmental hazard. It is another saga of pollution and contamination. Sichuan, Hubei, Yunnan, Hainan, Guangxi and Guangdong have Titanium deposits. Sichuan has the largest deposits. Incidentally, India has huge reserves of Titanium. However, its extraction will defoliate the Deccan. Not an option and that is why we have not gone for it. A similar pollution / degradation story repeats with every form of resource extraction in China. The ‘Cancer Village’ map , which is result of all such pollution, can be seen below. Presently, more than 50% of China’s surface water is not fit for human consumption. 60% of the groundwater under Chinese cities is considered to be ‘severely polluted’. The World Bank (2007) estimated that the health cost of cancers and diarrhoea associated with water pollution reached approximately US$8 billion in 2003 in rural areas of China. Today it must be many times more. Resource extraction will extract more from China than imaginable. The damage has already been done and that too in its prosperous coastal belt. 

Other Stranglers

 There are other environmental degradation, pollution and contamination examples. Approximately 70% of the electronic waste generated worldwide used to be processed in China. It poses substantial risk to health and the environment (Ni and Zeng 2009). Small-scale rural factories known as ‘township and village enterprises’ contribute significantly to China’s growing rural pollution problems. China is world’s largest manufacturer, trader and fossil fuel consumer. It is responsible for 47% of the world’s coal burning, which is more than all other countries in the world combined. The list is endless.


China’s energy demand is likely to peak between 2035 and 2040 (see graphs). Its oil demand is expected to peak in 2030. However its petrochemical and gas demand will increase till 2050. China’s import dependence on oil and gas will continue to be around 50%. Coal is set to lose ground to renewables. However, it is still expected to account for 40% of power generation in 2035. The share of coal in China’s primary energy mix is expected to fall as shown in the graph. Renewables, oil and gas combined will overtake coal’s share of primary energy consumption by 2050. Having said all that coal will still remain the single largest supply source through to 2050. If one analyses this data, a few things stand out:- China will continue to be energy dependent and vulnerable. It will never attain energy security. Coal based energy will not vanish. Its effect on pollution will endure. Overall CO2 emissions are expected to fall only after 2035. China has committed to Carbon neutrality by 2060. By then it might be too late. Per capita requirement and consumption of energy will continue to increase as China modernises. China will continue to extract rare earths. Rare earths are extensively used in magnets for wind generation. Hence reduction in pollution due to renewables will be offset by pollution due to rare earths. Pollution will not decrease. China, in all likelihood, will enter into a state of energy entropy. 

Lt Gen PR Shankar was India’s DG Artillery. He is highly decorated and qualified with vast operational experience. He contributed significantly to the modernisation and indigenisation of Artillery. He is now a Professor in the Aerospace Dept of IIT Madras and is involved in applied research for defence technology. His other articles can be read on his blog www.

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