Science, Tech & Environment

China urbanization series: environmental challenges

China today unveiled measures to improve Beijing's air quality during this summer's Olympics. One of the measures is a ban on half of all the cars on the streets of the capital every day. Such steps may yield short-term benefits. But they fall well short of the actions China will have to take to protect its environment in the long term.

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Those environmental challenges are growing as fast as China's cities are...and that's mighty fast. The World's Mary Kay Magistad has the final story in our series on China's urban explosion.

All photos: Mary Kay Magistad

Magistad: Guo Hui is living the Chinese dream. She sits in the lush back garden of her spacious townhouse, in a far suburb of Beijing. She recounts how she, her husband, her daughter and her parents went from living in one cramped room in the heart of Beijing a decade ago, to this. It started with scraping together enough money to buy a $9,000 subsidized apartment from her government employer:

Guo: �We were very excited. It was the first thing we owned in our life. We spent a lot of time to design it. At that time, Ikea was our best choice. (Laughs.) �

Magistad: Eventually, that apartment started feeling too small � but its value had jumped tenfold. So the family could stretch, and buy this place. In four years, it's tripled in value � to $600,000. That's nice, Guo says, but the money is only part of its value to her family:

Guo: �We don't like to live in the city anymore. It's so crowded, and so many cars, and so much pollution.�

Magistad: Guo prefers the leafy suburban life � with shops nearby, and a pool and clubhouse just down the street. For trips out of this area, her family has one car, and is buying another, and a subway line will reach here before too long. Guo and her family have ridden the rainbow of China's double-digit economic growth, and Dutch architect Neville Mars thinks all this echoes the American experience of the 1950s. He calls his new book �The Chinese Dream.� But he says, the world is different now, struggling with global warming and growing competition for finite resources:

Mars: �The original goals that China put forth, with the dream of individual prosperity, are now under scrutiny, with people building suburbs and motorizing themselves in a way that in the global context is maybe no longer required or wanted.�
Magistad: Because it's not necessarily sustainable.
Mars: �I know the debate in America is ongoing, but from a European viewpoint, it's obviously not sustainable.�

Beijing smogBeijing smog

Magistad: Beijing now has three and a half million cars. Many of its roads are gridlocked, and its air is choked with pollution. It is expanding its subway, but many Beijingers � and other Chinese � see owning a car as a sign that they've made it, a status symbol they won't be denied. So as China's urban areas grow, the focus tends to be on building highways and overpasses and big boulevards � cities for cars, not for pedestrians. Neville Mars says, it doesn't have to be that way � nor, in this era of energy crisis, should it be:

Mars: �The way the urban landscape is forming will actually define our future energy needs. So for China, it means if we can find more efficient urban forms, it will actually safeguard its needs for the future.�

Magistad: Building cities that are more dense and walkable would help address one challenge. But the needs of China's megacities are many, and Beijing in particular has an even bigger challenge on its hands.

Magistad: It's water, or a growing shortage of it. Beijing sits on an semi-arid northern plain. Many rivers and lakes and reservoirs in the region have either dried up or become excessively polluted through decades of overuse. Now, two-thirds of Beijing's water comes from below ground, including from aquifers, as deep as three -- thousand � feet. The water table is dropping by about three feet a year. And with Beijing's population and water demands growing, even an ambitious project to divert water from the Yantgze River to the parched north won't by itself stop the drain.

Dai Qing: �In my mind, I'm lucky, because I have only 10 years or 15 years to live.�

Magistad: Dai Qing is a 67-year-old environmental activist and Beijing native, who has written extensively on water issues.

Dai Qing: �And then you, the next generation, you will see Beijing will totally disappear. We won't have the ancient capital Beijing. We won't have the ugly modern Beijing. We won't have it.�

Magistad: That may be an extreme prediction � but Dai Qing's point is that radical changes need to be made, and fast. She says the price of water is way too low � it doesn't reflect water's scarcity in northern China, or the long-term costs of drilling so deep to get it. She finds it obscene that water gets diverted from rural rivers and reservoirs that farmers use for their crops, to water golf courses, fill Beijing's manmade lakes and � for the Olympics � to fill a riverbed that's been dry for nine years, to hold the rowing and canoeing events.

Magistad: One of the farmers affected by all this is 57-year-old Jing Guo. He lives in a village in Hebei province, near one of four reservoirs that is diverting water to Beijing for the Olympics:

Jing Guo: �Farmers in his village were told they'd have to look somewhere else for water � so they sunk their own well. At least we don't have to pay for water anymore.�

Hebei reservoirHebei reservoir

Magistad: But free access to water from deep wells hardly sends the right signal about water's scarcity and the need to conserve it. Nor does the cheap water that city-dwellers have on tap. That problem is only growing as China's urban population does. Within a couple of decades, the percentage of Chinese living in cities will jump from less than half to about two-thirds � an increase of hundreds of millions. Even the best urban planners are struggling to keep up. But Ma Jun, the director of the Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs in Beijing, says dense urbanization � as opposed to suburban sprawl � isn't necessarily bad for the environment:

Ma Jun: �In a way, when you get more urbanized, you leave more space for nature. In China, you can't just have this 1.3 billion people spread all over, and then try to make sure they can get more affluent in their small local towns or villages I think will be quite challenging, and also the environmental impact could be equally serious. So urbanization by itself is not a problem, to me, but sustainable urbanization.�

Shanghai urban planning museumShanghai urban planning museum

Magistad: One city that's out ahead in trying to promote sustainable urbanization is Shanghai. Here at the Shanghai urban planning museum, there's a big sign that says �Environmentally Friendly City Eco Shanghai.� The displays show the city's efforts to increase green space, reduce emissions, increase energy efficiency, and clean up water. The city also plans to invest one and a half billion dollars to put solar panels on 100,000 rooftops by 2015, and there are plans to build an experimental eco-town on the outskirts of town, that uses only renewable energy. This is part of a nationwide effort to boost renewable energy use. China is already the world's top user of solar water heaters � 40 million and counting. Zhang Lijun is the vice-minister of China's State Environmental Protection Administration. He says the country's goals for energy efficiency and pollution reduction are clear. But at a recent news conference, he listed the challenges in meeting them:

Zhang: �Polluting and energy intensive companies have been growing too fast. There's been blind exploitation in some areas, and too high a price paid for fast economic growth. Some local governments don't take environmental protection seriously enough. They don't do enough to reduce emissions and improve efficiency, or to monitor and enforce environmental protection laws.�

Shanghai's Pudong district in the smogShanghai's Pudong district in the smog

Magistad: Ma Jun of the Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs thought he'd help out:

Ma Jun: �We believe that to overcome this tremendous challenge, we need to involve the affected communities and the concerned public in the environmental governance. And the first step toward that is to give access to information�So we decided to set up a database, to provide people with information on water quality, the amount of discharge, and a list of polluters in all the 31 provinces, and about 300 cities.�

Magistad: The map's online. So if a factory near you is polluting, you can look it up, find out who it's supplying, and put pressure on everyone involved. The map's data comes from government sources. These are companies the government has already listed as polluters. But in many cases, the fines are so low companies find it easier to pay the fine than fix the problem. Ma Jun says public scrutiny and pressure through his website � have forced some companies to clean up their act.

It's a hopeful sign for China's urban future that ever more urban-dwellers are concerned about the environment, and willing to get involved to improve it.

Environmentalist Zeng Xing ChengEnvironmentalist Zeng Xing Cheng

Magistad: This is a rally for something called the �Green Long March.� This summer, thousands of Chinese college students travel with it all over China, to do public awareness education. Twenty-two-year-old Zeng Xing Cheng says he got involved in environmental activism, because when he moved from his small town to the city of Urumqi in Xinjiang province, he was appalled by the pollution:

Zeng: �When I first came to Urumqi, it was hard for me to breathe � painful, even. And the water tasted funny, too.�

Magistad: He figured, if he was going to live in a city, he might as well do what he could to make it more livable. That impulse, multiplied by millions, may be just what it takes to keep China's leaders honest, and help them steer a more sustainable path, on China's journey to an urbanized future.

For The World, I'm Mary Kay Magistad in Beijing.

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