Population boom in cities in mountainous regions of China has led to a project to level more than 700 mountains in China’s Gansu province and other provinces, to make room for urban development. Two years into the project Chinese scientists at Chang’an University have questioned the undertaking.
This is reminiscent of an ancient Chinese fable, ‘The Foolish Old Man who Removed the Mountains’. In the tale, a 90-year-old man convinces his disbelieving neighbour that he can dig away, stone by stone, two mountains that block the way from his house. Because he succeeds (albeit with the help of deities) the fable is often cited — including by Mao Zedong — to illustrate the power of perseverance. But in our view, China should heed the story’s title: earth-moving on this scale without scientific support is folly.
The tearing down of mountains was embarked on with little review of the cost and benefits of land creation. In Yan’an, much of the soil excavated from mountains and used to fill the valley is loess, a silty soil that subsides when wet. Building on loess, loamy deposits, is not the best choice.
Inexperience and technical problems delay projects and add costs, and the environmental impacts are not being thoroughly considered.
The scientist noted that work was halted at Lanzhou in April 2013, after visible air pollution led to calls for an environmental assessment. While work began again four weeks later due to financial pressure from the local government and contractors, the environmental assessment has yet to be completed.
In Yan’an, the air is often brown with dust owing to construction teams working on windy days without dampening the soil. Forests and plants on hills and in gullies are stripped ahead of the demolition and filling. This increases the risk of soil erosion and groundwater loss, because farmlands and forests block wind and retain moisture and soil grains. During the earth-moving project in the city of Lanzhou, soil erosion is expected to increase by 10% and concentrations of dust particles in the air by 49%.
The Chinese scientist want more research and reviews done. Environmental impact, geological, and economic reviews and seek scientific advice and input from around the world to learn more about the consequences and create a model plan before proceeding with the campaign to bulldoze mountains.