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Zhu's green report boosts wildlife campaigners

By Jasper Becker, South China Morning Post, 8 March 2001

Premier Zhu Rongji's green work report has provided a boost for campaigners struggling to preserve China's few remaining wetlands and their wildlife.

Under the rule of Chairman Mao Zedong, China drained large areas of marsh and lake land to grow grain, a scheme that allowed millions to be settled in newly-ploughed regions in Manchuria.

In principle, China has 1,227 natural protection zones, including 165 national ones, covering 9.9 per cent of the country's total land area, but in practice many of the curbs have been ignored.

Gong Zheng, an NPC deputy, is one of those who has submitted a series of proposals demanding tougher legislation such as a Law Regarding Construction and Management of Nature Reserves and Ecological Demonstration Zones. He complains that China's famous white cranes which used to winter in vast numbers on Boyang Lake in Jiangxi are dwindling in numbers as their habitat disappears.

Under Mr Zhu's instructions, a million people have moved out of land along the Yangtze and smaller scale relocation is being conducted along the Huaihe and other rivers to widen the flood plain.

Four major Chinese wetlands of global importance are being helped with outside funds. The largest is the 100,000 hectares of the Sanjiang plain in Heilongjiang province. The plain's five million hectares had been largely drained in the past 40 years to provide land for eight million people.

Other key areas are the Ruo-ergai marshes on the borders between Sichuan and Gansu, the Yancheng coastal marshes along the coast of Jiangsu, and the Dongting Lake in Hunan.

Ironically, as China makes such tentative moves, the 10th Five-Year Plan includes several schemes to solve water shortages. Jilin will divert water from the Songhua to keep in new reservoirs that are planned.

Sichuan intends to build the 6.2 billion yuan (HK$5.8 billion) Dujiang Dam, to create the Zipinghu reservoir and provide water for irrigation. Xinjiang will try to restore the Tarim River in its southern region, recreating its lakes and natural vegetation.

Premier Zhu has also boosted the efforts of the State Administration of Forestry with a budget of 3.6 billion yuan. It has set itself the target of restoring 330,000 hectares of farmland to forest and grassland this year. Trees or grass are to be planted on a further 490,000 hectares of barren land.

The programme aims to cut the sedimentation entering the Yangtze and Yellow rivers and among the beneficiaries will be farmers living around Dongting and Boyang lakes who will be compensated with state grain to offset the loss of their land.

With northern China short of water, the centrepiece of the Government's efforts to solve the country's water crisis is the approval of the south-to-north water diversion project.

Yet there is also a conflict brewing between East and West. The arid West has to retain more of its water resources to develop.

The Ministry of Water Resources says it has a new plan to build 17 million pools containing 40 cubic metres to help 20 million people in western China over the next 10 years. One NPC delegate even suggested it would be possible to bring an additional 60 billion tonnes of water to China every year with a grand artificial rain programme.

Many delegates, including one from Chongqing, are clearly uneasy about the giant engineering feat of diverting water from the Yangtze until the country has devoted sufficient resources into treating and recycling existing water supplies.