Topography and Geomorphology: environmental debate in China

The following OpEd piece is reproduced in its entirety from the August 20, 2010 issue of The China Daily. This opinion by a senior editor of the “national English-language newspaper” may be read as a reflection on Chinese environmental sensitivity. The writer argues for placing “conservation” at the center of an ecological approach to the stark geographical and environmental realities that confront the PRC.

This article helps allay one’s fear that the Chinese pursue growth policies without regard to environmental consequences. Everywhere we visited there was evidence the Chinese are discreetly aware of the environmental cost of their success. But, while there may be no point in being alarmist, the issues are pressing.

Whatever success the Chinese may have in building a more just and equitable society, whatever the challenges of soil and water conservation, the Chinese are tributary to a “youthful” geomorphology characterized by frequent earthquakes, flooding and progressive “natural” desertification.

Water, water everywhere, but not a drop

By Op Rana (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-08-20 06:10

Asia is home to half the world’s population yet it has the least volume of freshwater of any other continent, except Antarctica if we discount its ice sheets.

And among all Asian countries, the situation in China is perhaps the gravest: It’s home to more than 20 percent of the world’s population but has only 7 percent of global water resources. Worse still, its per capita freshwater availability is one-fourth the world average.

Till the heavy downpours triggered floods and landslides, killing hundreds of people across vast stretches of South, East and even Northwest China, a large part of the country had been under the grip of drought or drought-like conditions. The blame for this unusual weather rests primarily on global warming. But the tragic developments – drought one moment, floods the next – teach us a lesson, too.

That lesson is not necessarily [that we should build] huge dams, diverting water from South to North, although such measures might in the short term, solve the problem. By far the most important lesson to be learnt is how to conserve water.

Almost half of China’s more than 660 cities face, what in modern terminology, is called a water crisis. Beijing, unfortunately, sits somewhere at the top of that list.

As if that was not enough, Beijing’s underground water table is said to be receding, and receding fast. China’s capital doesn’t enjoy the luxury of being situated on a major river. It has to depend on underground water for a large part of its freshwater supply.

The problem is that the more water it pumps out from the ground, the faster the water table recedes and the drier the city becomes. That’s an invitation to desertification, which has been checked, at least for the time being, by the planting of hundreds of thousands of trees in the northern part of Beijing and its neighboring provinces. But these trees, or afforested areas, as hardy as they may be, need a certain amount of precipitation to survive. And precipitation depends partly on the water table of an area, which tragically is receding.

Studies have shown a large percentage of the cities’ groundwater and a majority of rivers and lakes are polluted. The result: millions of people have to make do with contaminated drinking water. Beijing residents are not among such people. But the signs are ominous.

There’s a saying among Indians, irrespective of which of the many Indian languages they speak: Tiny drops go on to make a pond. Every drop of water is precious, every drop of water counts – more so in China.

That’s precisely why one is surprised to see tree trunks on streets beautifully guarded by immaculately paved tiles, with just one-meter-square of bare soil. The rest of the pavements, as the term suggests, are paved. And shockingly enough, the moment a tree is chopped off or uprooted for some construction project or the other, even that one-square-meter of bare soil is covered with tiles.

Beijing has all the trappings of a modern city: glitzy high-rises, wide, tar-bitumen carpeted roads, beautifully laid-out pavements and paved walkways (as we see in the Olympic Green). None of these surfaces allow the little rain (and snowfall) that Beijing receives to seep into the soil. The precious water flows into gutters, and ultimately into the nearest sea or river, which, in turn, flows untapped into a sea.

It’s no secret that groundwater tables are replenished by water seeping through the soil. But the logic of human beauty teaches us to keep cities (and if possible, the entire country) dust-free, and thus “concretize” every possible inch of space. The tragedy is that nature doesn’t follow our logic.

A 2006 UN report says: “There is enough water for everyone” and “Water insufficiency is often due to mismanagement, corruption, lack of appropriate institutions, bureaucratic inertia and a shortage of investment both in human capacity and physical infrastructure”.

China neither has enough (fresh) water nor smart management to harness freshwater (harvest rainwater for instance), which otherwise flows into seas.

If we cannot build reservoirs in which rainwater can be drained into, can we at least let as much water as possible seep through the soil, especially in cities like Beijing?

For further information, the reader might take a look at the website “China’s Environmental Issues” (, a site produced by students for students and hosted by the Oracle education foundation, ThinkQuest ( Alternatively, one might have a more detailed look via the website, Facts and Details

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