Railroading China’s Environment

A bevy of red-crowned cranes fly over the wetland of the Zhalong Nature Reserve in northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, on July 25, 2009. Located near Qiqihar City in northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, the Zhalong Nature Reserve is a perfect habitat for red-crowned cranes, and also a perfect observation site for bird fans at home and abroad. (Xinhua/Zhang Xiaolong)

Construction of the Harbin-Qiqihar railway was suspended at the beginning of this month because its work camps threatened the Zhalong nature reserve (above), a wetlands nesting ground for red-crowned cranes. Perhaps surprisingly, the Ministry of Environmental Protection is proving itself a diligent guardian of the environment in the face of the rapid expansion of the country’s rail network. Even more surprisingly, the scandal-tainted railways have shown themselves to be pioneers in adopting environmental impact analysis and management into their expansion, according to a new paper* by the World Bank.

The world’s largest national railway development program for more than a century poses significant challenges to the environment and humans alike. There is no sugar-coating that. Some new lines cross sensitive ecosystems, are built in fragile mountain ecosystems, pass through densely populated areas, or threaten the traditional social and geographical connections of the countryside.

Environmental and social protection has been integrated into rail infrastructure development on six fronts, the paper says:

  • The simplest and most obvious one: routing lines around environmentally sensitive sites.
  • Implementing mitigation measures where social and environmental impacts are unavoidable, such as the provision of safe crossings under or over the new lines for humans, domesticated animals, wildlife and irrigation.
  • The use in mountainous areas of tunnel-bridge-tunnel schemes instead of embankments, which are at risk of landslides and erosion, despite bridges and tunnels costing half as much again to twice as embankments.
  • Recycling of waste materials.
  • Minimizing the impact of noise, vibration and erosion during construction.
  • Preserving of cultural resources and historical artifacts. The environmental impact assessment that every infrastructure project has to have includes a physical cultural resources survey. Where relics are suspected and impacts probable, detailed site investigation and excavation by experts is conducted prior to construction.

Building railways is disruptive and destructive, beyond doubt. Few residents who have had new lines pushed through where they live would argue with that. While the World Bank paper, No 6 in its series on China transport topics (Nos. 3 and 4 here), casts the efforts of the railways in a favorable light in terms of their sensitivity to the environment, its authors have a number of recommendations for further improvement:

  • Current environmental regulations and procedures remain specific to each railway administration. The authors suggests introducing an industry-wide code of practice for railway construction environmental management to standardize good practice and ensure uniform application.
  • Environment impact assessment documents are technically strong, but focus on the biophysical environment. Assessments would benefit from deeper analysis of the broader social and cultural impacts, such as land acquisition and involuntary resettlement, and on induced or cumulative impacts.
  • The environmental management plan that is often prepared in connection with any bank financing for each project should become mandatory. Such plans turn the conclusions of an environmental impact assessment into measures incorporated in to project design, bidding documents and implementation.

China: The Environmental Challenge of Railway Development  by Peishen Wang, Ning Yang and Juan D. Quintero, World Bank Office, Beijing. China Transport Topics No. 6,  June 2012.

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