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Western China's Environment Faces "Critical Situation"

The natural environment in the vast region of western China now is getting even worse despite the nation's efforts to tackle the issue, and China may lose more than it gains if environmental problems persist, environment officials and researchers warned Saturday.

A survey of environmental situations in 12 provinces in the west found nearly none of the old environment worries, such as soil erosion, desertification, and shrinking of forests and grassland, has been successfully curbed. In fact, many of these problems have worsened.

The State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences jointly made the survey.

"The ecological environment in the west is becoming more fragile as the destruction of the environment by human beings continues to be serious," said Yang Chaofei, a SEPA official in charge of nature environmental conservation. "We are in a critical situation."

Although the central and local governments attached great importance to environmental protection in the west, the environmental deterioration has not been deterred "mainly due to irrational human activities," Yang said.

Unfavorable natural factors, such as climate and geological conditions, have already made the western area of China vulnerable to natural disasters.

The situation is becoming more threatening as local people abuse water resources which are already insufficient, or overdevelop the stockbreeding industry.

The survey found soil erosion is serious in the western region, which is dominated by deserts and barren mountains, and large tracts of farmland are turning into deserts.

In some provinces in west China, more than half of the land is suffering from soil erosion, and there are no signs that things will change.

"Human beings in the area should take the bulk of the responsibility" to correct the situation, said Yang Chaofei, adding the root of the problem is poverty.

Local people destroyed large tracts of forest and grassland to make way for grain production without considering whether the land was suitable for cultivation.

When the land is found low-yield and high-cost for grain production, it is often wasted and eventually eroded.

Massive construction of dams and irrigation projects in land-locked areas may cause shortages of water supply in the lower reaches of rivers, and shrinking of lakes, oasis and wetland, which are critical to a healthy environment.

China has started an ambitious plan to develop underdeveloped regions in its western areas in order to narrow the widening gaps between the underdeveloped west and the advanced east.

But the locals could lose more than they gain if environmental deterioration becomes more serious, the official said.

A study in nine Chinese provinces in the west showed that environmental deterioration could lead to almost 150 billion yuan (US$ 18.7 billion) in direct economic losses a year, or about 13 percent of the annual gross domestic products of the area.

Frequent disasters may force many local residents to flee their hometowns, becoming "ecological refugees," Yang said.

"If we fail to curb the environmental deterioration in the west, our country's abilities of economic and social developments may be weakened," he said.

"Then, the country's ecological safety will face more serious threats," he added.

(People's Daily December 30, 2001)


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