China’s rapid, rural-to-urban migration, and its renewable-resource issues

China’s (PRC) government is relocating hundreds of millions of its people from rural areas into cities to expand the urban population to one billion by 2030.  The primary intent of this population shift is to boost consumption by the urban population and, thus, spur China’s economic growth.

Twenty percent of China’s population lived in cities in 1980, 50 percent in 2011, and a projected 60 percent by 2018.  China’s plan is that by 2030, some 300 million people will have moved from rural areas to its cities.  At that point, China’s cities are expected to contain about one billion of its projected national population of 1.39 billion.

The author of a recent analysis of problems and opportunities  related to China’s mass rural-to-urban migration states, “As the urban population grows even larger, China must learn to accommodate people in highly concentrated cities that use limited resources efficiently.”  Further, “If China’s cities are truly to accommodate one billion residents — one in every eight people on the planet — its leaders must find a healthier, more inclusive and, ultimately, sustainable model for urban development (Miller, T., 2012, China’s Urban Billion, p. 178-179).

What are the possible effects of this rapid and concentrated population shift on China’s renewable resources — air, water, soils, agricultural crops, vegetation and forests, and wildlife?  How does China expect it’s already damaged renewable-resource base to withstand this massive migration to the cities?  Although the following information and views expressed by Chinese experts from medicine, government, agriculture, water supply, and geology were not explicitly directed to the migration issue, they nevertheless help set the stage for one to address such questions.

(1)  Pollution and diminished public health:

Dr. Zhong Nanshan, a prominent Chinese scientist, Director of the Guangzhou Institute of Respiratory Diseases, and a Deputy of the National People’s Congress says,  “In the past five years, lots of patients have asked me why they still got liver, stomach or intestinal cancer despite the fact that they do not drink or smoke.  This made me increasingly aware of the fact that diseases are unavoidable for us if we live in an environment with contaminated air, harmful water and poisonous food” (Xinhua, 3/9/12).

(2)  Acknowledgement of cancer villages:

China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection acknowledges the existence of China’s “cancer villages.”  “In recent years, toxic and hazardous chemical pollution has caused many environmental disasters, cutting off drinking water supplies, and even leading to severe health and social problems such as ‘cancer villages’ ” (in, Twelfth Five Year Plan, on preservation and control of the environmental risks of chemicals, 2/20/13).

(3)  Soil pollution and lost agricultural land:

Wang Shiyuan, China’s Vice Minister of Land and Resources, reported that two percent of China’s arable land (8.23 million acres or 3.33 million hectares) is so polluted with heavy metals and other waste that it  no longer can be used for growing food (Xinhua, 12/30/13).

(4)  Smog and reduced food crops:

He Dongxian, Associate Professor, China Agricultural University’s College of Water Resources and Civil Engineering, Beijing, reports that laboratory and green-house farm measurements show that China’s smog significantly reduces incoming sunlight so much so that it hinders photosynthesis and damages the growth of agricultural crops.  Further, reduced sunlight produced sick and weak crop-seedlings (South China Morning Post, 2/25/14).  (Note): These findings hit China when the critical, minimum number of hectares of agricultural crop lands needed to feed its people may shrink further.)

(5)  Major river diversions:

Dr. Qiu Baoxing, China’s Vice Minister of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, commented on China’s activities begun in 2002 to divert certain of China’s rivers to help solve north China’s water-supply problems.  “If we try to solve our water crisis by diverting water, then new ecological problems will emerge.  That is not sustainable at all.” … ” Recycled water could replace diverted water.  Most Chinese cities are capable of finding more water if we develop water desalination technology and collect more rain water” (Chinadialogue, 2/20/14).

(6)  Damaged karst, ground-water resources:

Dr. Zhang Cheng, Professor, and Vice Secretary General, China’s Institute of Karst Geology, says that new, national projects are creating severe water challenges for China.  “The problems of karst water protection in China in the face of rapid environmental change are so basic that it is strongly suggested that the current state of, and changes to, the karst water environment should be carefully considered in the next National Five-Year Plan’s geologic survey, (www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MUTIMEDIA/HQ/SC/pdf/IGCP598-Newsletter2011.pdf.), p. 42.   (Note): Karst is the name given to geological terrane which consists largely of limestone, an environment where ground-water pollution happens quickly and easily.  Yunnan, Guangxi, Guizhou, and parts of Guangdong have extensive karst terrane, and the large cities here of Kunming, Chongqing, Nanning, Guilin, Guiyang, and Zhaoqing are built on such terrane.

Discussion

China’s goal to have one billion of its people living in  cities by 2030 may be difficult to envision.  Try to imagine 100 Chinese cities, each with a population of ten million people.  For comparison purposes, Paris, France has a population of 11 million, and Chicago, Illinois nine million.  Then, the numbers for China become staggering.

By 2015, China will have seven cities with populations ranging from about 10 to 23 million; the total population of these seven cities will be about 96 million (www.nationsonline.org).  The 38 next largest Chinese cities have average populations of 4.0 million .  Whatever population games we play here, we have to keep in mind that a city of 10 million, let alone a city of 20 to 30 million, can have major, adverse impacts on the area’s renewable resources — air, water soils, agricultural crops, vegetation and forests, and wildlife.  Even though China’s goal is to expand its consumer population to boost sales and, thus, the country’s economy, these same massive populations must rely ultimately on their renewable resources for survival.  Such population pressure increases the likelihood that their renewable resources, in fact, may not remain renewable.

As the population grows in each city, waste products like those plaguing China today, are likely to continue to pollute the air, water, and land.  Dr Zhong Nanshan’s (1, above)  experiences tell us that human exposure to such wastes already has increased cancer in China’s general population.  Even China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (2) now acknowledges the existence of “cancer villages” in China caused by the spread of toxic and hazardous, chemical pollutants into water supplies.  Vice Minister Wang Shiyuan (3) provides evidence that pollution is responsible for the loss of two percent of China’s land normally used for food production because the soil is so polluted with heavy metals and other wastes.  Professor He Dongxian (4) shows that today, smog is so thick it is significantly reducing the amount of incoming sunlight reaching the ground, hindering photosynthesis and damaging the growth of crops.  Vice Minister Dr. Qiu Baoxing (5) warns that diverting rivers to solve northern China’s water shortage is an unsustainable effort that will lead to new ecological problems.  Further, he says that water conservation in cities through recycling and use of rain-water collection techniques, and desalinization could replace river diversions.  Lastly, Professor Dr. Zhang Cheng (6) shows great concern for the state of the karst water-environment because of rapid environmental changes.  His concern was so great that in 2011 he proposed that this human/geological issue receive careful attention in discussions for the following China National Five-Year Plan.

These Chinese observations and findings are a sample of important renewable-resource issues likely to become increasingly evident as China’s rural-to-urban migration continues.  China’s scientific community is becoming openly concerned about the damaging environmental consequences that result from the government’s narrowly designed, large-scale development ventures like the construction of giant dams, the reversal of river flows, and the movement of hundreds of millions of its people from the country into the cities.  The general populace, in turn, has become more concerned and vocal about renewable-resource problems — such as breathing dangerously polluted air, the frequency of country-wide blankets of smog, drinking polluted surface water and groundwater, and eating unsafe food grown on contaminated soils.  Widespread evidence exists at all levels of government that for years little concern has been given to enforcement of China’s environmental laws.  Its short-term, economic goals so far continue to outweigh the essential long-term goal of protecting the renewable resources that assure safe, long-term, sustainable development.  China’s record for the protection and careful management of its renewable resources does not bode well for the success of its rural-to-urban migration plan.

Walter Parham, Ph.D., March 27, 2014

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