Environment

Not so great…

China’s extensive seawall is taking a perilous toll on the coastal ecosystem

十万扭王字“将军”守护金塘岛2700米海上长堤

Sea walls like this are causing controversy among environmentalists

China’s longest wall is typically acclaimed as a “great” one. But there is another lengthy barrier that is winning fewer plaudits.

A team of scientists says the country’s 11,000km-long network of coastal fortifications is causing environmental damage worth tens of billions of dollars. Writing in Science magazine last month, the biologists said that provincial governments are hyping the risk of coastal erosion in order to reclaim many of the country’s wetlands. Over 50% of wetland is now being walled in and drained, it said, depriving fish and birds of their natural habitats. The destruction has “severely reduced biodiversity” and has “turned natural pollution sinks into pollution sources.”

The scientists also called on the government to “rethink” its policies on sea wall building.

Of course, there is nothing new about building sea walls; China has been doing it for centuries. The problem now is the scale of the fortification programme, as well as the fact that it is being used to mask the reality that land is being reclaimed too.

More than 60% of China’s coastline has disappeared under concrete in the last 30 years and the evidence suggests that each year sees larger stretches given the same treatment.

Part of the problem is that the eastern seaboard, a powerhouse of China’s economy, is now so crowded that the local authorities often want to reclaim wetlands. Indeed, as the report points out, in many cases the land is classified as “unused” so governments are actually motivated to put them to work. But as the scientists say, the wetlands provide huge value to the Chinese economy each year simply by being there. In 2010 they produced 28 million tonnes of seafood, for instance, also acting as spawning and nursery grounds for offshore fisheries. They also serve as barriers against extreme weather and as carbon sinks. “Although the wetlands only account for 1% of China’s ecosystem area the services they provide amount to $200 billion annually or 16% of the country’s total,” they said.

The central government is aware of the problem and has tried to prevent the worst of the destruction by saying projects over 50 hectares in wetland areas must be approved by Beijing.

For example, Jiang Daming, the land resources minister, says that two large airport projects on reclaimed land in Haikou and Dalian are under review. But often local governments get round the rules by breaking their larger projects up into smaller ones that don’t transgress the 50-hectare threshold.

A network of wetland reserves set up in 2004 is also being undermined by local governments changing the boundaries of the protected areas. “In practice wetland destruction carries none or negligible penalties,” the report said.

The scientists might also have underestimated the scale of the destruction. The Chinese media estimates that at least 13,000km of coastline is now walled up and more than 1,100 square kilometres of land reclaimed. Last year the Beijing Times said reclamation “had gone crazy” and Xinhua said the practice “posed a direct threat to the ecological chain”.

Without a formal response, the construction frenzy looks set to continue. The Science magazine report predicts another 600 square kilometres of coastal land will be reclaimed every year until 2020.

When the most famous sections of the Great Wall were created during the Ming Dynasty, foresters often felled the trees on the hills they were trying to protect in order to fire the bricks needed for the construction work. The newer sea wall now rivals the Great Wall in length. Sadly it is rivalling it in environmental impact, as well.


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