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Experts Question Wisdom of Flattening China's Mountains

Jun 05, 2014 10:40 AM EDT
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Chinese officials launched a project two years ago that is literally flattening mountains to make room for a new urban district. However, environmental experts in China are now questioning the wisdom of this endeavor, as it may threaten both China's ecology and economy.
[PICTURED: Lanzhou city is flanked by imposing mountains that construction is now filing down.]
(Photo : Wiki CC0 - Sigismund von Dobschütz)

Chinese officials launched a project two years ago that is literally flattening mountains to make room for a new urban district. However, environmental experts in China are now questioning the wisdom of this endeavor, as it may threaten both China's ecology and economy.

In a scientific overview of the project that will "move mountains," Peiyue Li, Hui Qian, and Jianhua Wu, experts of engineering and environmental science at Chang'an University, China, express their concerns that the project is moving too quickly without adequate consideration of potentially dangerous consequences.

"There has been too little modeling of the costs and benefits of land creation," the authors said. "Inexperience and technical problems delay projects and add costs, and the environmental impacts are not being thoroughly considered."

According to the article, published in the scientific journal Nature, the 100-billion-reminbi ($16-billion) plan to expand the reach of Lanzhou City, in China's Gansu province, will flatten more than 500 square-miles of land to make way for a more urban landscape.

Experts warn that because land moving of this scale has only been seen in extensive strip mining, the project's long-term environmental impact on the region is unknown. The researchers note that a similar project on a smaller scale near Yan'an city has already led to massively changed conditions, the consequences of which have yet to be fully understood.

"Yan'an, for example, is the largest project ever attempted on loose, thick million-year-old deposits of wind-blown silt. Such soft soils can subside when wet, causing structural collapse," the authors said.

In the case of the massive Lanzhou project, it has already been halted once, back in 2013, after visible air pollution led to calls for an environmental assessment that is still pending.

However, despite some warning signs, project leaders are unperturbed. Angie Wong, a spokeperson from the China Pacific Construction group, told The Guardian that the Lanzhou project will actually help improve the region's naturally "poor" and water-thirsty environment once completed.

"Our protective style of development will divert water to the area, achieve reforestation and make things better than before," Wong said. "I think whether it's England or America, or any other country, no one will cease development because of resource scarcity caused by geography."

However, the criticism doesn't stop with environmental concerns. The experts from Chang'an University also question the economic sustainability of the endeavor. Projects like the Lanzhou result in costs that "could take decades to recoup." This, they write, is not even considering the costs that China will face once the earth moving is complete.

The new urban sector, once complete, "will lead to an environmentally sustainable economy based on energy-saving industries" including advanced equipment manufacturing, petrochemical industries and modern agriculture, Chinese Central Television wrote on its websitebut, these are all long-term goals benefits. The authors of the Nature review write that with a lack of knowledge, it could take decades upon decades before the argued benefits of these potentially harmful projects are seen.

The Nature article was published on June 4.

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