Caixin
ENVIRONMENT

As China Builds More on the Sea, Nature’s Beauty Gets Buried

By Zhou Chen, Gao Jia, Wu Xiao, and Teng Jing Xuan

China’s mangrove swamplands are disappearing at an alarming rate.

These saltwater marshes, unique to tropical and subtropical areas such as southern China’s Pearl River Delta, serve as spawning grounds for aquatic life, major stops for migratory birds and shields for coastlines. However, mangroves have grown expendable in land-scarce coastal regions as land reclamation became an easy path to higher tax revenue, economic growth and better livelihoods for locals.

Guangzhou-based environmentalist Wei Hanyang recalls how a government official once described the awe he felt visiting a mangrove. “Everywhere I looked was green, and there was a group of egrets playing between the trees and on the water. It was beautiful,” Wei recounts the official saying.

Then the official turned to the subject of land reclamation, saying that sometimes beauty had to be sacrificed for the sake of prosperity, Wei said.

International conventions and domestic laws officially protect China’s coastal habitats. But land reclaimed from coastal wetlands and the sea along China’s coast has grown rapidly. Since 2006, 13,000 hectares of land (32,123 acres) have been reclaimed on average each year, swallowing up beaches, islands and wetlands.

Mangroves in China have suffered from pollution and overfishing, but environmentalists say land reclamation bears the bulk of the blame for their disappearance. The total area of mangroves in this country has shrunk from 42,000 hectares (103,784 acres) in the 1950s to 14,600 hectares in 2013, according to a 2016 paper in the Journal of Ecology and Environmental Sciences.

‘A plot of empty land’

In Dongguan, Guangdong province, the city’s last major mangrove forest will soon be destroyed.

The planned Dongguan Binhaiwan New District, which will be home to projects such as a research and development park and a Cantonese “culture street,” includes 17 reclamation projects of up to 50 hectares each. In addition to land reclaimed from the sea, more than 70 hectares of river and coastal mangroves will have to go to make way for the new district, environmentalist Wei told Caixin.

Caixin visited the area in August, where trucks and bulldozers were making their way toward the wetlands. One area on the western side the new district’s Chang’an New Area had already been transformed into a stretch of bare, flat silt.

China’s marine environment protection law stipulates fines for anyone caught felling protected mangrove forests. But a member of the Chang’an New Area administrative committee told Caixin that, “from a national land planning point of view, that area doesn’t belong to the ecological protection zone. Rather, it’s a development area — a plot of empty land that can be used for construction.”

Overall plans for the Chang’an New Area have received approval from the State Oceanic Administration, while its reclamation, split into multiple projects under 50 hectares was approved by the provincial government in September. Chinese law requires reclamation projects larger than 50 hectares to apply for permits from central authorities, while those under 50 hectares require only province-level permits. The Chang’an New Area administrative committee member denied that Dongguan had split its plans into multiple projects just to avoid central government scrutiny.

The usual practice in Dongguan is to go ahead with a project before even completing an environmental impact assessment, the committee member added.

The mangrove is a habitat for migratory birds, and its disappearance will indeed be a shame, the committee member said. But “on this issue, which requires us to weigh pros and cons, the government may still emphasize economic development.”

Fill it in

Dongguan isn’t the only place where large swathes of wetlands and water are being filled up in the name of economic development.

Shenzhen’s Baoan district plans to approve around 17 square kilometers of reclamation work for projects including a third runway at Shenzhen Bao'an International Airport and a wharf at Xiaochandao. In Hainan, environmentalists say land reclamation for a new airport could threaten the habitat of Chinese white dolphins, which are endangered in China and near-threatened globally.

This year, environmental protection inspections found that reclamation, including illegal reclamation, has damaged ecosystems off the coasts of Fujian and Liaoning provinces.

China’s 11 coastal provinces and regions account for only 13% of the country’s land area, but are home to more than half of its largest cities and around 43% of its population, according to figures compiled by Chinese Academy of Sciences researchers.

Land-scarce cities, constrained by a national “red line” that says urbanizing China must maintain at least 1.8 billion mu (296 million acres) of arable land, face some of the world’s highest population densities. Appropriating already-developed land for new projects means untangling complicated legal claims, and requires expensive compensation.

Reclaiming land, in contrast, creates a blank slate to build on, and usually costs 140,000 ($21,048) yuan to 300,000 yuan per mu, far less than the millions of yuan per mu it could eventually fetch at land auctions in new areas near existing urban centers.

That’s why enthusiasm for reclamation is rising. After China’s eleventh Five-Year Plan began in 2006, China entered its fastest-ever phase of reclamation. In 2009, nearly 18,000 hectares of land were reclaimed, the largest total area in a single year, ever, according to a 2016 paper by Chinese scientists in the Journal of Ecology and Environmental Sciences.

In 2015, more than 11,000 hectares were reclaimed, a 13.19% increase from the previous year, according to figures from the State Oceanic Administration. But experts say the actual figure is probably higher, due to lax supervision in many regions and the common practice of proceeding with reclamation before official approval has been obtained.

To many, reclamation looks like it has no losers, benefiting government, business and the local community. In Danzhou in northern Hainan, the man-made Ocean Flower Island has catapulted two obscure fishing villages, Baimajing and Paipu, into the fast lane of development. Once Ocean Flower Island’s luxury residences hit the market, Baimajing got to keep more than 60 million yuan more in tax revenue each year. Other real estate developments have sprung up in the area, attracting a Tsinghua University-affiliated middle school, a technology development park and top hospitals.

According to Baimajing and Paipu government officials, many locals have abandoned fishing to work on Ocean Flower Island. Their annual income has risen from around 20,000 yuan to more than 100,000 yuan, allowing many to build new homes.

The losers

Amid the excitement over reclamation, marine and coastal ecosystems are increasingly threatened.

Rapid, large-scale land reclamation is the main reason China lost 1.3 million hectares of coastal wetlands — 22.91% of its total — between 2003 and 2013, according to an October 2015 report issued by a group of organizations including the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The areas lost included roosting spots for migratory birds, whose journeys through the region have become increasingly treacherous. Reclamation has “become a direct threat to migratory water and shore birds, and is one of the main reasons for the drop in the population of waterfowl on the East Asia-Australia migratory route,” the report said.

Coral reefs and rare Chinese white dolphins, which live in the Pearl River Delta, are also among the silent victims of reclamation. Chinese white dolphins are affected by the noise of reclamation work, a researcher told Caixin.

And many reclamation projects, like the project at Sun and Moon Bay in Hainan, are deliberately situated on top of coral reefs, because the hard reefs are better able to support construction, Chen Hong, director of the South China Sea Tropical Marine Biology and Disease Institute, told Caixin.

The environmental costs of reclamation have received national attention, but it’s been difficult to enforce laws aimed at protecting coastal habitats.

On Dec. 5, 2016, a reform meeting led by President Xi Jinping adopted “Reclamation Control Measures” that asked for the strict control of reclaimed areas, and strengthened supervision, including holding legal reclamation projects accountable.

But in March, a member of China’s Coast Guard wrote in an Oceanic Administration publication about the “five difficulties” of policing land reclamation projects: timely discovery, uncovering and collecting evidence, imposing fines, restoring habitats and upholding the permit application process.

Illegal reclamation frequently involves important regional construction projects central to local economic development, so the pressure on law enforcement departments to cooperate is great, Coast Guard officer Chen Ying said. Chinese law says those who illegally carry out land reclamation must restore the area to its original condition, in addition to paying a fine. But, in reality, most cases are considered closed once the fine is paid, and restoration isn’t a priority, Chen wrote.

Chen argued that China should set up an accountability system for local governments that links management of sea use with the performance rating of local government leaders.

Some coastal provinces, like Hainan on Sept. 22, have demarcated no-reclamation zones in response to past reclamation practices. But environmentalist Wei believes the country should set short- and long-term national reclamation limits as soon as possible.

“Some ecological destruction can never be reversed, no matter how rich and strong the country grows,” Wei said.

Contact reporter Teng Jing Xuan (jingxuanteng@caixin.com)

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