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    home - english - Fctories turn grasslands into dust bowl

Inner Mongolia’s rolling pastures,

Drained of life-giving water, have

Disappeared, writes Stephen Chen

Factories turn grasslands
into dust bowl

    Trust an artist to know beauty when he sees it. That's why it was good to know the timing was right for a visit to Inner Mongolia (内蒙古).
    "August is the best season to visit," said oil painter Chen Jiqun on the flight from Beijing to Xilinhot(
锡林浩特市) . "The grass is flowering, sheep fattening and horses prancing all over the steppe."
   Then he added: "Too bad you won't be able to see them any more."
   After his listener got over the impact of the last sentence, he lifted the window shield. Below was Xilingol League, one of the most celebrated pastures in Inner Mongolia but now a flat, lifeless landscape as brown as the Australian Outback.
   Less than 10 years ago, most of Inner Mongolia still looked more or less the same as the heavenly pasture where Genghis Khan and his horsemen sauntered, said Chen, who has been painting in the region since the 1960s. Despite the customary lack of rainfall, a wide spectrum of perennial grasses grow waist-high in summer, thanks to a scattered but ample quantity of lakes, seasonal rivers, wetlands and a fairly reliable supply of underground water.
   But as China's economy has boomed, a large number of coal and mineral mines have been built, followed by polluting factories, densely populated new towns and





















       with government approval, factories have drained all permanent lakes, and
       dammed or stopped the flow of major rivers on Inner Mongolia.
Photo: Xinhua

ever-extending railways and highways to connect those industrial outposts. The thriving mining and heavy industries need water. With government approval, they have drained all permanent lakes, dammed or stopped the flow of almost every major river and built wells hundreds of metres deep to fetch an enormous volume of irreplaceable underground water used to wash ore, cool steamers and mix with pollutants for discharge.
   In just a few years, healthy pastures have disappeared all the way north to the border with the country of Mongolia. According to some environmental researchers, the rampant industrialisation of Inner Mongolia may have produced the biggest man-made drought in history.
   Knowing their crusade would face fierce resistance from 2000,000 Mongolia herdsmen whose livelihoods depended entirely on the steppe, the government of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region has come up with a policy to disarm them.
   Wriliji, a Mongolian herdsman in West Ujumchin Banner, Xilinhot, said that since 2003, the government had been tearing down primary schools in pastoral communities and forcing all the children to attend school in the banner’s headquarters.
   “The officials reasoned that a big, concentrated school would provide better education, but really it was to pave the way for the incoming mines and factories,”Weiliji said.
   Most herdsmen lived far from the banner headquarters, more than 200 kilometres away, and the school offered no boarding, so they were forced to leave their land and take their children to the headquarters, rent a house and stay there for a long period – sometimes permanently.
   While they were away, the government officials led mining companies to their land sinking shafts. If something valuable turned up, they would force the already cornered herdsmen forsaking their pasture to accept a low price such as 200,000 yuan(HK$228,000) for 3,000 hectares. 
   “Raising cattle on our land is what we herdsmen are horn to do. Without land we are nothing. They knew I would meet them with a stick, so they hijacked my child,” Weiliji said. “Bastards.”
   But water was taken away, as well.
   The Wulagai Wetland, less than 1,000 kilometres north of Beijing, used to be one of the largest, most ecologically prosperous and geographically important wetlands in China.
   In Inner Mongolia there was simply nothing like it. More than 2,000 sq km of lowlands were thoroughly watered by a perennial river, and even during the worst droughts in the past, biological life still had a comfortable refuge and thrived. Mongolians even had a song singing the whenever Genghis Khan had trouble feeding his army, he went there to hunt game. Millions of Mongolia gazelles roamed, gorging themselves on more than 400 species of grass.
"It is hard to believe the government dared to build a dam over the river and turn such a heavenly pasture into a desert, but here you are. They dammed it," said Aluha, a 60-year-old herdsman who said the first half-century of his life was bliss.

They knew I would

meet them with a

stick, so they hijacked

my child [for

education]. Bastards
Weiliji, who says he was lured away
from his land to educate his children

   In 2002, a dam was built over the upper stream to harness water for the Wulagai Economic Development Zone, a medium-sized industrial complex of coal mines, power plants and chemical industries. Since then, not a single sluice gate has been raised. In less than three years, the entire wetland dried up and became a major source of the salty fine dust that fuels dust storms in Beijing.
   Losing all his cattle, Aluha and his family moved north and resettled near the border of Inner Mongolia's last pasture. "If the factories come here, I'll fling myself over the border," he said.
Professor Yi Jin of Inner Mongolia University leads a privately funded project that aims to restore a certain level of vegetation to the denuded landscape by applying a biologically degradable membrane over the dust. It is an untested technology, but even if it works, Yi said it would cost billions of yuan to make any
I feel ashamed…
in the eyes of
Mongolians, we
Chinese must be a
bunch of savages

Professor Yi Jin, of Inner
Agricultural University

significant changes.
   “A much cheaper, easier and more effective way is to blow up the God-damned dam,” she said. According to Xinhua, the total investment in the industrial zone’s factories was only 12 million yuan, and their revenue was almost negligible compared with the cost of revamping the environment.
   Yi was one of the few scientists in China who believed that the drought in Inner Mongolia was man-made. Other scholars made excuses for the government and mining business, in her view, by blaming global warming. For example, in a 350-page book by Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences professor Wang Zongli entitled Grassland Disasters – one of the few most authoritative accounts of the topic on the mainland – only the last chapter, consisting of 30 pages, was dedicated to human factors, and there was just one page about mining.
   Data collected by the Xilinhot Meteorological Bureau showed the rainfall in the region remained more or less consistent. In recent years, it had even increased, Yi said.
   But a direct comparison between Inner Mongolia and Mongolia shows that Mongolia is colder, drier with a fragile environment that – if the global warming argument is valid – should be as static as it is

in Inner Mongolia. While the grassland on the mainland has disappeared, it continues to exist on the other side of the border.
   “Each time I return from a trip to Mongolia, I feel ashamed,” Yi said. “In the eyes of Mongolians, we Chinese must be a bunch of savages.”
   Another frustration for the herdsmen was the discharge of pollutants once the mines and factories were up and running. Biligebateer was one of the angry victims of Baiyinhua Coal Mine, one of Inner Mongolia’s largest, in West Ujumchin Banner.
   Living on a small hill that oversees a huge plain stretching from west to east, Biligebateer witnessed that in just a few years the entire plain was filled by mines and factories that produced suffocating dust and smoke. His sheep began to die in large numbers. Their innards were black.
   After attempts to get compensation from the government and the factories ended in vain, he laid up two piles of rocks on the hill.
   “It is a Mongolian’s shrine to say a prayer,” he said. “I pray for their bankruptcy.”
   The prayer may have been heard. Despite the continuing breakneck pace of industrialization, many mines and factories that were hastily built during the investment frenzy have begun to encounter financial difficulties.
   The reason was that although Inner Mongolia had lot of minerals, from coal, copper and zinc to less-known xilingolite, it couldn’t match China’s other energy and mineral-rich provinces, such as Shanxi(
山西) and Jiangxi(江西)in terms of quality, quantity and accessibility. Inner Mongolia coal, for instance, is notorious in the industry for its low burn tanking, which means that when burnt, it generates little heat but produces lots of ash – bad for coal powered electricity plants.
   Also, poor traffic conditions in the region result in higher levies on its excavation and transport. Most roads are long, poorly maintained and always slippery when it rains, prompting truck drivers to charge more. If the global demand for coal and minerals falls, many mines and chemical plants will not survive. Many, in fact ,are already out of business, leaving sheep and cows grazing leisurely inside the abandoned compounds.
   It is also perhaps ironic that nature could deliver the decisive blow on the mines and factories through drought - the very disaster they created. Li Qinghai , an engineer with the Xilinhot Water Statistics Bureau, said that nearly all mines and factories in Inner Mongolia had built secret, illegal wells to suck up water from deep underground.
  "There's simply not enough surface water in Inner Mongolia to support heavy industry. They must go underground," Li said. "The problem is that beyond a certain depth, such as 150 metres, the water reserves are usually not recyclable. Some were accumulated over a million years' time. When they are gone, they are gone. In eight years, most factories in Inner Mongolia will run out of business for lack of water."

 from left: scientists examine the destruction of the Wulagai wetland in 2008 after a dam was built; herdsmen ride the wetland as it was in 2002.  
 photos: Echoing Steppe