China Is Flattening Hundreds of Mountains. What Could Go Wrong? 

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June 5 2014 11:10 AM

China Is Flattening Hundreds of Mountains. What Could Go Wrong? 

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A view of mountains in Shaanxi ... for now.

Photo by Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

In a new paper for Nature, via the Guardian, three environmental scientists from China’s Chang’an University raise concerns about China’s practice of removing the tops of mountains to create more land for construction.

The most ambitious of these projects involves flattening 700 mountains around the central Chinese city of Lanzhou to create more than 250 square kilometers of flat ground. Another, around Yan'an in Shaanxi province, “will double the city's current area by creating 78.5 square kilometers of flat ground.” Other projects have flattened land around Chongqing, Shiyan, and Yichang, part of Beijing’s push to build up China’s less developed western regions and allow for an influx of millions of people from rural areas into cities.

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The authors write that “the consequences of these unprecedented programs have not been thought through — environmentally, technically or economically. There has been too little modeling of the costs and benefits of land creation.” 

Mountaintop removal has controversially bene done before in the United States for the purpose of strip mining, but never on the scale of what’s being done in China now. According to the authors, the process is already contributing to air and water pollution as well as soil erosion. In Yan’an, where the land is being created on soft loess, there could be a risk of structural collapse. China hasn’t been immune from the growing number of deadly landslides we’ve seen around the world in recent years.

China is still coping today with the environmental impact of the deforestation and soil erosion caused by Mao’s Great Leap Forward. The consequences of Beijing’s efforts to reshape the land tend to last for a long time.

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

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