Is it okay to flatten 700 mountains in China?

Smack in the middle of China, developers are busy flattening 700 mountains so they can build a new economic zone. It has become a common practice in China, but now three academics have questioned the wisdom of it when the environmental impacts are not clear.

The Lanzhou New Zone, near the city of Lanzhou in central Gansu province, was approved in 2012 as a special economic area designed to ramp up the economy and create jobs. It’s the first slated for China’s relatively underdeveloped northwest, and planners hope it will boost trade with central Asia.

There is a problem however: it’s going to be quite big, 800sq km eventually, according to China Daily, and that part of Gansu is mountainous. The solution? Slice the tops off the mountains, fill in the valleys, and presto: nice, flat space. It has been reported that 700 peaks in total will be levelled to make way for the Lanzhou New Zone.

It’s an approach that has gained popularity in China as the drive to develop bumps up against a limited amount of easy space on which to build. In cities such as Chongqing, Shiyan, Yichang, and now Lanzhou, tens of square kilometres of flatlands have now been created from hills.

Another recent large project has been in in Yan’an, Shaanxi province, where planners aim to double the city’s area by creating nearly 80 sq km of level ground. The motive is strong. Local officials hope that selling or leasing the "new" land will net them fortunes, and levelling mountains also eases pressure on scarce arable land.

But now three Chinese academics, writing in the journal, Nature, have said that the environmental and other impacts of these massive engineering schemes have not been properly assessed. They call calling for the Chinese government, private companies and universities from around the world to pool their resources to study the issue.

Peiyue Li, assistant professor of hydrogeology and environmental science, along with Hui Qian and Jianhua Wu, researchers, all from China’s Chang’an University, argue that the environmental, technical or economic consequences of these unprecedented programmes "have not been thought through".

"There has been too little modelling of the costs and benefits of land creation," they write. "Inexperience and technical problems delay projects and add costs, and the environmental impacts are not being thoroughly considered."

The project at Yan’an, for example, is the largest project ever attempted on "loess", which is thick, million-year-old deposits of wind-blown silt. They say that such soft soils can subside when wet, causing structural collapse.

"Environmentalists, ecologists, hydrogeologists, engineers and decision-makers must collaborate to find solutions to environmental problems," they write, "including the disappearances of small creeks, endangering of wild animals and birds and altered groundwater flows."

"Research into land creation is insufficient. A lack of expertise, collaboration and funding means that scientists have not been able to conquer technical problems or provide tested, efficient or timely support for the engineering projects."

Their article can he read here

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