Tag Archives: Environment

If Pigs Could Float

If pigs could fly. Well, they do float. At least when dead. More than 2,000 bloated pig carcasses have been fished out of the Huangpu River at Songjiang on the outskirts of Shanghai. It is not unusual to see all sorts of pollutants in China’s rivers, including dead pigs, if not on this scale. It is not clear how the pigs got into the river, or who dumped them in it, but there are plenty of pig farms upstream. Authorities say there is no cause for concern over the quality of drinking water taken from the river, but this unusual case seems set to become a touchstone for popular concerns about environmental pollution.

Update: Authorities say the number is now up to 2,800 dead pigs, that the animals came from Jiaxing City in  Zhejiang, and that the pig virus, PVC (porcine circovirus, which is not known to infect or cause disease in humans), had been found in one water sample.

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One Crop Failure From Catastrophe

A peasant is happily showing her harvested wheat in Ganyu County, east China's Jiangsu Province, Oct. 17, 2011.

China’s farmers have been buying land abroad, from Africa to South America, and they should be buying more, according to the prominent Chinese economist David Daokui Li, to forestall a potentially catastrophic grain shortage that faces the country.

Li suggests that it would only take one bad crop to throw the world into food shortage. “We can imagine that with the frequency and severity of natural disasters in China as well as in other parts of the world, the overall global grain output will be decreased, which will pose a potentially grave threat to grain security, leading to worldwide food shortages and resulting in global inflation in food prices,” he says.

Li comments came in an interview published by Insead, the French management school that has a partnership with Tsinghua University, where Li is Director of the Center for China in the World Economy. He is also a member of the Monetary Policy Committee of the People’s Bank of China.

Buying more farm land overseas, Li says, “will not only work towards China’s self-interest, but will also contribute to helping to solve the wider global grain supply problem.”

China’s leadership has been repeatedly expressing its concern about the future of the country’s grain supplies. Regardless of record harvests being reported year after year for seven years despite a string of natural disasters, there is no hiding  the challenges facing China’s growers of wheat, rice and corn. A richer and growing population, urbanization and natural and man-made water shortages have  left supply struggling to keep up with rising demand.

The vulnerability of the country’s harvest, particularly the wheat harvest, increasingly concentrated on the drought-prone North China Plain, is only too clear to see. China is reaching the the edge of its capacity to keep its grain harvests increasing. Agri-technology is still boosting fruit and vegetable yields, but grain may have reached its limits after decades of seed and fertilizer improvement. In addition, grain farming remains inefficiently small scale and labour intensive, as is suggested by the photo above of a farmer from Ganyu County in Jiangsu. Acreage and younger farmers alike are also being lost to towns, exacerbating the longer-running effects of erosion, desertification and other environmental damage.

Stocks and imports have covered the gap with growing demand, forestalling, so far, the sort of shortages that Li fears. China imports more than 4 million tonnes of corn (mainly for animal feed) and more than 1 million tonnes of both wheat and barley a year. But being subject to world commodity markets pushes up prices, and no country likes to feel it can’t be self-sufficient in food, especially when it has an increasing number of mouths to feed.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates China to have 137 million hectares of arable land. China itself reckons 120 million hectares to be the minimum needed to maintain food security. All agree that the hectarage is moving in the direction of the smaller number, with the shrinkage of the area under grain shrinking causing most concern. Better water management, a national priority under the current five year plan, can reclaim some land for farming, but beyond that, as Li suggests, there is only one place to get any more.

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China’s Deadly Lightening

Flashes of lightning shoot across the sky in Yinchuan, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, on the night of Tuesday August 26, 2008.

As eastern China battened down in the face of Typhoon Muifa, officials have counted up the devastation caused by natural disasters in July: at least 204 dead and 43.6 billion yuan ($6.75 billion) in economic losses, with 7 million hectares of crops damaged. Inner Mongolia, Shandong, Sichuan and Shannxi were hardest hit by floods and landslides, while the drought in Guizhou and Hunan became more severe. July’s death toll followed the 279 who had died as a result of natural disasters in June, which took the total for the first half of this year to at least 449. During those six months, China was hit by seven 5.0-plus magnitude earthquakes while the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze river experienced their heaviest rainfall in more than half a century.

A large portion of the deaths in July were caused by lightening strikes, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, without giving a number. In June, 15 people died after being hit by lightening, the ministry had said earlier. Such fatalities have been on the decline since 2007 when lightening killed 744 people, mostly farmers caught in thunderstorms and unable to find shelter, making it the third most deadly type of natural disaster after floods and mudslides that year. Even so, we estimate, some 300 people were killed by lightening last year. Early warning systems for severe storms have been improved, but cover only 85% of China’s rural areas. It is not expected that the percentage will reach 90% until 2015.

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U.N. Warns On Drought, Land Loss Threats To China’s Food Security

A senior U.N. official says that loss of farmland poses a major threat to China’s ability to be self-sufficient in grain. The warning comes from Olivier De Schutter, the U.N. Human Rights Council’s special rapporteur on the right to food, in a preliminary report based on a visit to China in December. De Schutter writes:

Since 1997, China has lost 8.2 million hectares of arable land due to urbanization, forest and grassland replanting programmes, and damage caused by natural disasters, and the country’s per capita available land is now at 0.092 hectares, 40 per cent of the world average. This shrinking of arable land represents a major threat to the ability of China to maintain its current self-sufficiency in grain. China has adopted the principle according to which any cultivated land lost for other purposes should be reclaimed elsewhere, and it has set a “red line” at 1.8 billion mu (120 million hectares) beyond which arable land will not be allowed to shrink further. But China is already dangerously close to this limit.

De Schutter also highlights the issue of drought:

Water scarcity is a huge problem: per capita water availability is less than one third the world average. According to one estimate, climate change may cause agricultural productivity to drop by 5 to 10 per cent by 2030 in the absence of mitigation actions, affecting principally wheat, rice and maize. Indeed, already today, droughts affect between 200 and 600 million mu of farmland in China every year.

De Schutter recognizes the progress Beijing has made in improving food security, but says more needs to done to improve living conditions in rural areas, to improve the security of land tenure and to move to more sustainable farming. All these are challenges that Beijing acknowledges it faces, though that makes addressing them none the less urgent.

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Drought Now Reported In Southwest China

Xinhua says that 190,000 people in one county in the Chongqing municipality in southwest China face water shortages because of a lack of rain for four months. Ponds and wells are said to have dried up. Light rain is in the forecast for the area for the next few days but it is unlikely to be sufficient to break the drought.

Unlike the North China Plain where drought is posing a serious threat to China’s grain harvest, the Sichuan basin is more a producer of livestock, milk, poultry, eggs and vegetables. Chongqing municipality and Sichuan, from which it was carved out in 1997, account for 10% of national meat production and 7% of the country’s eggs. If the drought persists, the risk is to the fodder crops for livestock, which could mean more corn having to be bought, putting further pressure on grain prices. If the dry weather is accompanied by above normal temperatures that will put chickens at risk of death from heat exposure.


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Satellite Image Of Snow On North China Plain

How lightly it has been snowing on the drought-afflicted North China Plain is shown by this satellite image taken in the early afternoon of Feb. 14th by the China Meteorological Administration‘s FY3B’s meteorological satellite. Snow cover is indicated by the areas in blue.

The plain only got its first snowfalls of the season this month, a light dusting despite extensive cloud-seeding. No more rain or snow is in the forecast for the next few days. The drought continues unalleviated. Vice Premier Hui Liangyu, at the end of a three day visit to Shanxi, called for preparations for a long-term fight against drought.

Update: Peversely, barely 750 miles away the east coast of the Korean peninsula has had days of record snowfalls, with rescue helicopters being needed to drop food to cut-off villages.

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New Wells Alone Insufficient To Solve North China Plain’s Old Problem

Drought-stricken provinces of North China Plain

Beijing’s plan to sink 1,350 wells across the North China Plain (see map, right) to alleviate the drought in the country’s wheat belt that has persisted since October is a sticking-plaster not a cure. We don’t yet know the details of the proposed drilling, but it is a fair bet that the wells will have to drop to the deep aquifer. The plain’s water table has been shrinking for years under the onslaught of desertification, urbanization and industrialization, compounded by periodic droughts. The result has been to make the plain increasingly arid as the water table has been unable to replenish itself adequately. Drawing water from the deep aquifer is equivalent to a pensioner dipping into their capital once the interest from it becomes too small to live off.

The North China Plain needs a modern irrigation system and a comprehensive water conservation policy that encompasses both the wheat lands and the water-hogging cities on the plain, notably Beijing and Tianjin. Beijing has plans, including grand plans, and has recently been throwing money at emergency drought alleviation and making water conservation a policy priority as the leadership gets evermore anxious about the grain supply. But it is all too reactive. For a country that prides itself on its central planning, its water management has been weak.

Governments often suspend the laws of economics when it comes to agriculture because of national food security concerns and a desire to support rural communities. There are plenty examples around the world of governments spending vast sums of money on irrigation schemes to turn deserts green. Yet this Bystander is starting to wonder if policymakers should be starting to think the unthinkable: at what point does watering the North China Plain start to become just too expensive, and a new sort of agriculture become needed.


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Making Snow In Henan

You can’t cloud seed to induce rain- and snowfall without clouds. Now it has started snowing, albeit lightly, in Henan on the drought-parched North China Plain, the cloud seeders can set to work across the province. Those above are at Luoyang. No nation is more enthusiastic about using anti-aircraft guns and rocket launchers to blast the sky with silver iodide.

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FAO Voices Concern At Drought In China’s Grain Belt

The drought on the North China Plain, the country’s main wheat growing region, that has lasted since October already alarms Chinese authorities, who say Shandong, the province at the epicenter and which has had only 12 mms of rain since October,  is facing its worst drought in 200 years. Now the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has issued a special alert — which means an early warning alert — about the situation.

The agency says the June harvest of the winter wheat crop is at risk from the substantially below normal rainfall on the parched plain and from the diminished snow covering that has reduced the protection snow usually affords against plant-killing frost.

Although the current winter drought has, so far, not affected winter wheat productivity, the situation could become critical if a spring drought follows the winter one and/or the temperatures in February fall below normal.

In the maps below, the redder the area the more below average has been the cumulative rain and snow fall between October last year and January this. The worst affected area, circled in blue, falls directly over the plain.

North China Plain Rain- and Snow Fall, Oct 2010-Jan 2011

The main provinces affected are Shandong, Jiangsu, Henan, Hebei and Shanxi. In 2009, they produced 75.6 million tonnes of China’s 112.5 million tonnes of wheat, or 67%, a typical share. Offical estimates are that 5.2 million hectares of the 14 million hectares under winter wheat in these provinces may have been affected by the current drought. It has also left more than 2.5 million people and 2.8 million livestock facing shortages of drinking water.

China, we should note, is not facing a risk of imminent food shortages, even if the June wheat crop should fail; it has reserves and can import. However, wheat prices are already rising. The national average price of wheat flour is a sixth higher than a year ago. That and the worldwide rise in agricultural commodities prices are feeding through to persistent domestic consumer price inflation and the latest interest-rate rises, despite price controls introduced last year. Longer-term, authorities are concerned that China’s grain production, after seven successive years of increases, is hitting a plateau because of structural shortages of land, hands and water.

The North China Plain, 410,000 square kilometers of the most water-starved area in China, has become a poster child for the problem. A long record of deforestation and desertification has led to the erosion of former farmland. Urbanization, industrialization and the rapid growth of cities such as Beijing and Tianjin at the north-eastern end of the plain have gobbled up more farmland and caused the water table to sink lower and lower year after year. Shallow village wells are drying up. New wells are having to be sunk into the unreplenishable deep aquifer under the plain. Recurrent droughts only amplify the problems.

It is going to take more than normal rainfall to turn the increasingly arid North China Plain green again. The government is allocating vast sums not just to drought relief efforts but also to water conservation infrastructure and grand if controversial plans to draw irrigation water off three western and southern rivers through a series of canals and pipes — a project that will cost more than the Three Gorges dam.

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Some China Cities Slowly Getting Greener

Urbanization and industrialization is a filthy business. Industry pollutes. More of it just pollutes more. As nation after nation has gone through the industrialization phase of rapid development, each has had to trade-off the benefits of growth and their environmental costs. China is no exception, but it puts great store on being green. We are directed to a new article published by McKinsey & Co., the firm of management consultants, which asks the question, how green are China’s cities. Its answer? The country’s push for sustainable urban development shows mixed results. As a whole, China’s cities don’t meet global benchmarks for sustainability, but things are getting better and there are examples of successes for the laggards to follow.

The article is based on a paper first published last year by a joint team from the firm, Tsinghua University and New York’s Columbia University. Its Urban Sustainability Index uses data from 2004-2008 and covers 112 cities in China. It groups 18 indicators in to five categories, from the provision of basic needs such as clean water to political and policy commitment to sustainability.

The commonalities among the successful cities were “an unwavering focus on industrial restructuring, designing sensible transit systems and green space, pushing improvements through standards, monitoring and pricing, and exploring ways to make industries more resource efficient.” As might be expected, the successes also “displayed a clear, long-standing commitment to achieving their sustainable ‘vision”… “engineered a large degree of cooperation among relevant departments, for instance between those responsible for environmental protection and urban planning”…and “maintained commitment to their overall goals through several changes in leadership”.

The greenest cities do well across all these measures. Some examples: Tianjin has been consolidating heavy industry away from urban centers, a taking advantage of the moves to make fewer but larger new plants more energy efficient. Shenyang has now got almost all its heavy industry out of its center and is redeveloping the brownfields left behind as residential districts. Qingdao, arguably China’s greenest city, has pushed redevelopment projects to follow mass transit routes, increasing bus ridership at the expense of more heavily polluting private vehicles. Kunming is a pioneer in giving buses priority on roads. Nanning has developed  three greenbelts along the Yongjiang river as part of the creation of urban woodlands and green areas to absorb carbon dioxide emissions. Shandong province officials publicly identified the region’s 1,000 biggest polluters and set aggressive waste reduction targets for each of them.

We don’t underestimate the difficulty of implementing green policies, especially in a country where they require considerable coordination between often competing bureaucracies and in which the yardsticks of success against which local officials are measured (and promoted) have been ones of economic growth. Improving the quality of urban life is an objective of the new five-year plan and a high policy priority for the leadership. Gains are being made. The overwhelming majority of the 18 indicators in the Urban Sustainability Index show improvement during the study period. Yet the relatively limited amount of success stories so far among 112 cities also tells its own story.

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