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Date: Sat, 19 Sep 98 00:11:06 CDT
From: rich@pencil.math.missouri.edu (Rich Winkel)
Organization: PACH
Subject: Flood Disaster Reveals Beijing's Debts To Nature
Article: 43459
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <bulk.20011.19980921121530@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

/** headlines: 176.0 **/
** Topic: Flood Disaster Reveals Beijing's Debts To Nature **
** Written 3:22 PM Sep 17, 1998 by econet in cdp:headlines **
/* Written 4:07 PM Sep 15, 1998 by newsdesk@igc.org in ips.english */
/* ---------- "ENVIRONMENT BULLETIN-CHINA: Floods" ---------- */

Flood Disaster Reveals Beijing's Debts to Nature

By Antoaneta Bezlova, IPS, 10 September 1998

BEIJING, Sep 10 (IPS) - In the early decades of the Communist Party's rule, Ma Yongshun was respected as a national model for heeding Mao Zedong's creed that 'man can conquer nature' and proceeding to fell 36,000 trees.

His efforts during Mao's era (1946-1976) helped power China's economic growth. But after he retired in 1982, Ma decided to pay back his debt to nature.

Leading his whole family, he started an afforestation programme in China's northeast -- the same region where he had frequently used his axe in the past. The results are startling: Ma's family so far has planted 46,500 trees.

This week, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji, on a tour of the floods- ravaged Northeast, called on the nation to learn from Ma Yongshun. Let's transform the lumberjacks into tree-planters, read his appeal for emulation, carried broadly by the local press.

The premier reportedly said China would rather sacrifice industrial growth than continue its destruction of virgin forests -- one of the major reasons for the heavy toll this summer's floods are taking.

Rampant logging along the reaches of Yangtze, Nen and Songhua rivers has stripped vast regions of their natural forests, causing water once absorbed by trees to run off into the rivers.

The change of heart of Ma Yongshun, China's new role model, is a somewhat poignant reminder that the country is now paying a costly price for years of unbridled and unsustainable growth.

This year's floods, which are the worst since 1954 and still threatens many areas in central and northern China, is provoking an unprecedented public debate and making the leadership rethink some of its former policies.

In August, the government issued an emergency ban on all logging, especially virgin forests, and a freeze on using forest land for construction projects.

The ban, which in Sichuan province alone will leave more than 100,000 lumberjacks without work and dry up a substantial source of income for local people, reflects Beijing's recognition that only drastic measures can prevent the continued deterioration of China's ecology.

The pressure is such that scholars and environmentalists these days dare to attack what has been an indisputable government policy for decades, and all official newspapers are full of articles tackling the reasons for China' ecological disaster.

Yangtze River: natural disaster or man-made calamity?, asked a prominent story in the 'Beijing Economic Daily' last week.

The article demolishes previously the sustained official version that this summer's floods were caused by the weather phenomena of El Nino and La Nina, offering full account of the destruction of China's natural habitats.

The data and findings are staggering. From late 1950s to 1986, the land threatened by soil erosion along the reaches of Yangtze River doubled, while area of forested land fell by half.

In these 30 years, the rich system of lakes in the Yangtze valley, which served for discharging and storing water, has decreased by 45.5 percent.

Hubei province, lying in the middle reaches of the river, used to be called the province of a thousand lakes but there are only some 300 left now from 1,066 in the past.

Pollution aggravates this ecological picture. Some 20 billion tonnes of waste water are poured annually into the Yangtze River, coupled with more than 700,000 tons of chemicals.

What have we done to our once pure Yangtze River?, bemoaned the authors of the article in the 'Beijing Economic Daily'.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the government called on people to cut down forests, to smelt pots and pans to make steel in order to catch up with developed countries like England and America. In the countryside, farmers were urged to drain lakes and 'plant grain everywhere' to reach agricultural targets.

These days, it is the overpopulation which clouds China's environmental outlook. The Yangtze basin is home to 400 million people -- one-third of the country's population. More people and factories are crowding into the flood diversion areas.

With the region so densely populated, there is simply no place to put additional water, except where people already live, Lester Brown of the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute said in a July report on the Yangtze flooding.

We can expect even worse floods in the years ahead. Future evacuations are likely to dwarf those up until now, he added.

Government estimates that 223 million people have been affected by the floods and 14 million displaced. The official Xinhua news agency has reported more than 3,000 deaths so far.

The economic loss estimated at 20 billion dollars is considered manageable, yet recognition is growing that China should deal resolutely with its environmental problems if future ecological collapse is to be averted.

Said Hu Angang, an economist with Chinese Academy of Sciences: What is more worrisome than the floods impact upon economic growth is the fact that this year's floods seem to be the culmination of a worsening trend.

Natural disasters are occurring more frequently, affecting wider areas and inflicting greater damage, he said.