Albion Monitor /News

China's Growing Cities Face Enviro Crisis

by Antoaneta Bezlova

on crisis facing many world cities
(IPS) BEIJING -- When the United Nations chose Shenyang and Wuhan in China as laboratories for its study of cities, it was not holding them up as examples to be emulated by the developing world.

That is because Shenyang, the biggest city in northeastern China, and Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province in central China, are among the most polluted urban areas not only in Asia but in the world.

In fact, a study by the World Health Organization in 1988 describes Shenyang as the second most polluted city in the world after Milan in Italy.

Mushrooming cities are spewing pollutants into the air and water, blighting the lives of their own inhabitants as well as millions living elsewhere
Both industrial hubs, Shenyang and Wuhan are smog-locked for long periods of the year, and their emissions of sulphur dioxide contribute to pollution and global warming as few other Chinese cities do. Some years ago, a World Bank report said it would take herculean task to clean up its rivers and lakes which were in effect "waste sinks."

China is the only country to have two cities, Shenyang and Wuhan, among 20 demonstration cities worldwide identified under the UN's Sustainable Cities Program. The 1992 program, directed by the UN Center for Human Settlements and the UN Environment Program, seeks strategies for better urban environments.

China's inclusion in the program is also recognition that the pace and nature of urbanization in the country would have a key bearing on the nature of cities in the future.

After all, increases in China, which has the world's biggest population, are linked to the growth of the world's largest and fastest growing economy. A two-decade economic boom has spurred fast urbanization, powering a vicious circle that is devouring land resources badly needed to grow crops to feed China's 1.2 billion people.

The percentage of people living in Chinese cities topped 29 percent last year, but that is still way below the urbanization level of countries like Japan, for instance. Still, the pace of urbanization is progressing at 0.5 percent yearly, one of the highest rates in the world.

As Shenyang and Wuhan show, rapid urbanization places tremendous stress on the environment. Mushrooming cities are spewing pollutants into the air and water, blighting the lives of their own inhabitants as well as millions living elsewhere.

"It is an imminent task for the nation to strike a subtle balance among population, environment and resources in cities and towns, considering the urbanization rate will rise to 45 percent by 2010," minister of construction Hou Jie said here recently.

China had 467 cities in 1990, but the figure has now risen to 666 cities and about 17,000 towns where some 350 million people live. China's cities are expected to number 800 by the turn of the century. By the early 21st century, some 630 million people would be living in urban areas.

China must feed one-fifth of the world's population on just seven percent of the world's arable land
Three Chinese cities -- Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin -- are among the world's megacities, those with more than 10 million residents.

But though more and more people are living in cities, living conditions have not always kept up with urbanization. Hou said China should "ease the severe housing shortage, upgrade the backward public welfare facilities and increase the green coverage."

Studies suggest that amenities associated with city life are still lacking. The first nationwide survey of "municipal facilities and urban ecology" of more than 600 cities completed last year showed that China's cities by and large resemble cities of developed countries in the mid-1960s.

Only 70 percent of urban households use gas. The rate of "safe disposal" for garbage stands at only 40 percent, and for treatment of water, just 19 percent. Public green areas average 5 square meters per person. In urban transportation, there are an average seven public vehicles per 10,000 persons.

Experts say the complex picture of Chinese cities has historical roots.

China was one of the first countries in the world to have cities, but these remained "walled cities" and administrative centers and did not develop into trading centers.

After the founding of Communist China in 1949, the years of fast urbanization came to a halt when Chairman Mao Zedong proclaimed the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. Thousands of young intellectuals were forced to go to the countryside and learn from peasants how to build a socialist life, creating a tide of "reverse urbanization."

Urbanization picked up again in the early eighties, when China's late patriarch Deng Xiaoping launched economic reforms that by some accounts heralded one of the world's largest migrations of people from the countryside to the towns.

In the years of Deng's reforms, the country favored smaller, not larger, cities, based on the assumption that large and medium cities cannot absorb the vast surplus of rural labor force.

This sets China's urban profile apart from other big developing countries. Unlike Mexico City for example, China has a much larger number of small and medium-sized settlements.

But while small cities and towns are still hailed as the hallmark of urbanization in China, they also excel at irrational use of land, which the country cannot afford. China must feed one-fifth of the world's population on just seven percent of the world's arable land.

The loss of arable land to urban encroachment and competition for land between cities and agriculture are shaping up as one the most serious challenges China faces. Studies show that by the year 2000, Bangladesh and Egypt will be the only two populous nations with less cultivable land per capita than China.

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Albion Monitor December 8, 1997 (

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