Flooding awakens Chinese protest

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PEKING'S ENVIRONMENTAL awakening may seem rather late in the day to a Yangtze basin farmer whose home has yet again been washed away by annual floods. But China's government is finally admitting that decades of ecological mismanagement has played a large part in the annual flood disasters. In the first indication that some good may come from this summer's inundation, a complete logging ban will go into effect today in Sichuan province in a belated effort to halt soil erosion in the upper reaches of the Yangtze, one of the main contributory factors to flooding.

All Sichuan's timber markets are supposed to close from today, and about 45,000 loggers will lose their jobs, in theory being redeployed to plant new saplings. In fact, many of them have not had much work to do recently. According to Sichuan officials, half the province's main timber companies had already run out of trees to cut down by the end of last year. Tree cover in the upper reaches of the Yangtze was once as high as 85 per cent, but by 1986 had fallen to 10 per cent. In the 53 counties in the middle of Sichuan where several Yangtze tributaries run, the cover has mostly been reduced to below 3 per cent, according to figures published in China.

Deforestation has a direct impact on flooding because, devoid of trees to soak up the water, loose soil is washed away by rainwater into rivers and reservoirs. These become clogged, and their water storage capacity reduced, while the level of the riverbed itself gradually rises. The situation is exacerbated by the draining of lakes, and encroachment on lakes in the middle reaches of the Yangtze to create agricultural land. In central Hubei province, the number of lakes fell from 1,066 in the 1950s to 325 today, according to Chinese figures. This removes nature's ability to absorb flood waters.

Yet there are more hopeful signs that this year's floods have united the environmentally concerned from across the political spectrum. The environment is one issue on which China's fledgling non-government organisations, such as Friends of Nature, have managed to mobilise, and their lobbying power is probably strengthened by the floods.

A meeting at the end of last month by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress heard forthright criticism of environmental neglect. A committee member, Luo Dian, said the floods "were caused by widespread deforestation, resulting in serious soil erosion, and inadequate water conservancy projects". Yao Zhengyan, a former vice-minister for water resources, warned of more serious floods in the future and called on the central government to step up efforts to protect the environment. Such criticism is unusual in China.

China's dissident community is also trying to make its voice heard on the environment. The largest dissident petition since the pro-democracy movement of 1989, with 309 signatures from 19 provinces, has emerged. "For so many years, by blindly following the concept that `man can conquer nature', we have built up vast, evil debts to the Yangtze River," said the petition. "We are now swallowing the bitter fruit of nature's revenge."