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.
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
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 –
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.
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
my child [for
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
Chinese must be a
bunch of savages
Professor Yi Jin, of Inner
“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.”
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)
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
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."