Changing Planet

5 Myths About China and the Environment

Text and photos by Sean Gallagher

I have spent the past seven years traveling across China, documenting some of the most pressing crises affecting the world’s most populous nation. I’ve climbed glaciers, ridden across deserts, crawled through wetlands, and walked through sandstorms, all in an effort to try to understand the complex environmental issues facing China in the early 21st Century.

Along my travels, I have also met countless experts who have helped me to better understand the state of China’s ecosystems.

Last week, I released Meltdown: China’s Environment Crisis, a new eBook with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting that brings together years of photos, videos, and personal stories into one interactive multimedia platform  (get it for free at iTunes or at Amazon).

Here I present five common misconceptions people often have about environmental issues in China.

A giant panda stares back from an enclosure at the Chengdu Panda Breeding Center, in south-west China’s Sichuan Province.

Myth 1. Reintroduction of the Giant Panda Into the Wild Has Been a Success

Natural forests cover about 10 percent of China’s surface area, but few of the forests remain in a primary or pristine condition. Large swathes of forest have been destroyed by human activities, which include logging, wood collection, and mining. The giant panda is one species that has been affected by these changes. Has captive breeding and reintroduction into the wild been a success?

“So far the success rate is 100 percent failure,” according to Sarah Bexell from the Chengdu Panda Breeding Center in Sichuan Province.

“But the good thing is that one panda was reintroduced,” reports Bexell. “His name was Xiang Xiang and he actually did quite well until breeding season. He was attacked by other males and later died of the injuries.”

Bexell warned that there have been several challenges for reintroduction. “First, we are not yet saving land appropriately for wildlife, she said.

“Second is the issue of behavioral competency of animals born and raised in captivity. Third are concerns of passing disease to wild individuals, or compromised immunity of captive individuals once released. Finally, there are human social issues, like potential poaching of reintroduced animals,” she said.

(Related: “Is Breeding Pandas in Captivity Worth It?“)

A farmer walks through sand dunes in the Tengger desert in Ningxia Province, in western China
A farmer walks through sand dunes in the Tengger desert in Ningxia Province, in western China, which has been hit by desertification.

Myth 2. Desertification Isn’t a Problem in China

“Some 400 million Chinese people’s livelihoods are affected by desertification, which takes up 27.46 percent of the total land area,” reported China Daily

The statistics surrounding China’s battle with desertification are both surprising and shocking. As a result of a combination of poor farming practices, drought, and increased demand for groundwater, desertification has become arguably China’s most important environmental challenge.

Farmers are being forced to abandon their land as land becomes unusable. In affected areas, levels of rural poverty rise and the intensity of sandstorms, which batter northern and western China each year, continue to intensify.

This not a new issue for China, although it is generally not well known around the world. It is estimated that nearly 40 cities have been abandoned as a result of desertification in Northwest China in the past 2,000 years.

Tibetan Plateau
A man walks over rocks near a glacial lake that has formed at the base of the Dagu Glacier, on the south-east edge of the Tibetan Plateau. The glacier has been reducing in size in recent years, as a result of rising temperatures.

Myth 3. The High Tibetan Plateau is Buffered from Climate Change

“The North Pole, South Pole, and Tibetan Plateau are changing more rapidly than elsewhere,” says Marc Foggin, executive director of Plateau Perspectives, an international organization that aims to improve local people’s lives and protect the natural environment through community-based projects.

“There is a demonstrated increase in temperature over time and it is doubling that of the global overall average increase in temperature,” said Foggin.

Glaciers in the west of China on the Tibetan Plateau have been retreating since the beginning of the 20th Century. The retreat has accelerated since the 1980s.

“Grasslands [on the Tibetan Plateau] and the peatlands within them serve effectively as a sponge,” explains Foggin. But when that land is degraded, it can no longer store water from spring melt, and that leads to flooding.

A Tibetan man looks out onto a reservoir which lies behind the Maoergai dam
A Tibetan man looks out onto a reservoir that lies behind the Maoergai dam, a colossal dam near the town of Heishui in the Tibetan region of Aba in Sichuan Province. Three villages were flooded when the dam was created, leading to the relocation of hundreds of local residents.

Myth 4. Renewable Energy Has No Negative Consequences

“Today there are more than 25,800 large dams in China, more than any other country in the world,” according to International Rivers, an organization seeking to highlight the effects of development projects affecting communities worldwide.

China’s dams are notoriously controversial. The environmental impact to wetlands are well documented and include concerns over fish migration patterns, landslides caused by bank erosion, and the accumulation of industrial effluent in the resulting reservoirs.

Thousands of people have been moved, often forcibly, to make way for the reservoirs. This trend is spreading across the Tibetan Plateau, the source of some of Asia’s mightiest rivers.

Air pollution obscures the view from Coal Hill in central Beijing, China
Air pollution obscures the view from Coal Hill in central Beijing, China.

Myth 5. China’s Environmental Issues Are Their Own Problem

Sandstorms have been one of the major problems as a result of desertification in China. As the spring winds blow, dry and degraded topsoil is picked up and thrown into the air, to be carried in immense clouds of sand and dust.

Each year, the spring sandstorms that plague northern China originate in the northern central desert regions of the country. Moving east, the sandstorms descend on China’s capital Beijing, shrouding it in a surreal yellow light. In recent years, these same sandstorms have been known to be carried on to South Korea, Japan, and even as far as the west coast of the United States.

Water security in the region is increasingly becoming an important issue for the continent. As China builds more dams on rivers on the Tibetan Plateau, the implications downstream for water supply are far-reaching.

“China’s construction of dams and a navigation channel along the upper reaches of the Mekong threatens this complex ecosystem,” according to International Rivers, which is concerned that projects in the upper reaches of the Mekong will “change the river’s natural flood-drought cycle and block the transport of sediment, affecting ecosystems and the livelihoods of millions living downstream in Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Impacts to water levels and fisheries have already been recorded along the Thai-Lao border.”

Get Meltdown: China’s Environment Crisis for free at iTunes or at Amazon.


Sean Gallagher is a Beijing-based British environmental photojournalist whose work focuses on highlighting the conflicts between nature and humanity in developing nations in Asia. He works with many of the world’s leading news outlets and is a 5-time recipient of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting Travel Grant. He is also a contributing photographer to National Geographic Creative.”
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  • Another

    I lived in Beijing for years. What’s the point of having a picture of Beijing with fog and pass that off as being pollution? You know damn well what I’m talking about. Beijing isn’t nearly as bad as your hysterical article.

  • lily

    It is superficial and ridiculous to say it , you don’t know chinese.

  • EL

    I did a little research on how many dams China has and how many the US has. It seems like there is about 75,000 total dams (over 25 feet) in the States. What is this whole point of writing something that is not provide the whole picture. There is all those floods cause people to leave their home but what about all the floods before the dam was built that was cotrolled after the dams were built. I don’t know this whole thing about attacking China or communist on the media which sounds absurd. It takes decades to understand each other and let alone such a big country like China. Are we all being responsible and ethical? high

  • Dean Harding

    Having not been to China, I cannot directly or indirectly make informd comments on the article posted. But I do work extensively in Africa, accross many different countries, and I see with ever increasing horror and dismay how the Chinese are greedily raping Africa for their own advancement and benefit, taking opportune advantage of rampant African corruption. SO – maybe there IS some truth in the article . . .

  • Joe

    These myths are not the most serious problems in China, at least. I don’t understand why editor put the link on the first page of website. Just because the PANDA LOOKS SAD?

  • layla

    It is not true. your report will mislead readers.As a journalist you should report objectively. every country should responsible for the environment, not only china.

  • Glorious Nature

    “So much of the world is ignorant and poor and/or bound by myth/religious dogma, that even with the best intentions, we are stuck with the consequences of that….lots of babies continuing the cycle of ignorance and poverty.

    If children have not been raised to understand and care about the consequences of having so many children, and the support structures don’t exist to reinforce the point, you can’t change that. We don’t have the will or resources to change that ever.

    The fact is that the population will keep going until the damage to the environment TIPS SO FAR as to kill billions upon billions of us, if not all. Whole populations will die out, and millions upon millions will migrate and haves/versus have-nots will fight and many developed societies will collapse under the strain. Then eventually a much smaller population will be left in the mess that is all that remains of a once friendly ecosystem to pick up the pieces.”

    Scientific American, Population and Sustainability, 2011

  • Dean Harding

    Yes, China IS the most populous nation on the Planet. Not detracting from the essence of the original article – an internal focus on land and nature conservation issues in China surely does exist, whether sucessful or not. But it is thier external Global focus, with absolute disregard toward the collective affected environments, peoples and heritages that needs to be monitored more closely, commented upon more frequently and considered in far greater depth.

  • Sophie

    well, i partly agree with ideas in the article.The dam is built for saving people from the floods and providing energy, though there may be some negative effects same as other programs in other places in the world, and some of the effects are still not certain yet. Just some personal opinions of sandstorms, the sandstorm not only appears in this decade in China. It was recorded in the history at least hundreds years ago, the world don’t know how Chinese hate it for generations and effected other places, even Hawaii for hundreds of years as well. In my views, it is only a “normal” extrem weather under the climate. Even the soil of mainly Yellow River Basin was blown from the mid-east. And after the efforts of planting, sandstorms are obviously much much better than the old days. And about population problems commented above, just want to say that the fact of how low the natural population growth rate is in China is not widely known by the world, however, the big number of population seems more attractive.

  • caitlin

    i feel that having read many different articles on china and hearing a verbal record from a friend who has been there, the pollution is bad, the water situation is definitely not good, but i really think that they should be trying to undo what they have done and stop this from going any farther. though i do understand how they are trying to expand their economy, but i still think that they should at least recognize what they have done and reach out to other countries.

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