China Dialogue Interview – China’s Environmental Crisis

A young Tibetan man lies on the grassland of his family farm in the Sanjiangyuan or Three Rivers Headwater region of western China. The region contains the sources of the Yangtze, Mekong and Yellow Rivers.
A young Tibetan man lies on the grassland of his family farm in the Sanjiangyuan or Three Rivers Headwater region of western China. The region contains the sources of the Yangtze, Mekong and Yellow Rivers.

A Tibetan monk walks through a snowstorm in August. Snowstorms are rare at this time of year on the Tibetan Plateau, but climate change is leading to more extreme weather occurring at unexpected times.
A Tibetan monk walks through a snowstorm in August. Snowstorms are rare at this time of year on the Tibetan Plateau, but climate change is leading to more extreme weather occurring at unexpected times.

Harsh afternoon sun causes shadows to fall through the town of Zaduo, in the far interior of the Tibetan Plateau. Temperatures here are rising faster than anywhere else in Asia, having far-reaching implications for people across the region.
Harsh afternoon sun causes shadows to fall through the town of Zaduo, in the far interior of the Tibetan Plateau. Temperatures here are rising faster than anywhere else in Asia, having far-reaching implications for people across the region.

A young Tibetan monk stands next to a river in the town of Sershul in Sichuan Province.
A young Tibetan monk stands next to a river in the town of Sershul in Sichuan Province.

Tibetans inside a "relocation town," created to house nomadic herders moved from the highland grasslands.
Tibetans inside a “relocation town,” created to house nomadic herders moved from the highland grasslands.

Severe pollution in a waterway in the Tibetan town of Donda, in China's western Qinghai Province. Little education is given to the locals about how to dispose of waste. Failure by the authorities to collect refuse has led to the contamination of many urban water resources.
Severe pollution in a waterway in the Tibetan town of Donda, in China’s western Qinghai Province. Little education is given to the locals about how to dispose of waste. Failure by the authorities to collect refuse has led to the contamination of many urban water resources.

A heavy-machinery operator takes a break. Construction in the region is increasing rapidly as the government implements its "western development strategy," aimed at bringing prosperity to the region.
A heavy-machinery operator takes a break. Construction in the region is increasing rapidly as the government implements its “western development strategy,” aimed at bringing prosperity to the region.

A child sleeps in her family's tent on the grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau. Few nomads remain in the region, as many have been relocated into towns as part of large-scale relocation projects.
A child sleeps in her family’s tent on the grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau. Few nomads remain in the region, as many have been relocated into towns as part of large-scale relocation projects.

The ribcage of a yak lies in the highland grasslands 5,000 meters above sea level.
The ribcage of a yak lies in the highland grasslands 5,000 meters above sea level.

A young man walks up a plank near Tsyaring Lake, the official source of China's second mightiest waterway, the Yellow River. Temperatures are rising on the Tibetan Plateau twice as fast as anywhere else in Asia, causing concern in scientific circles as to how this will affect the sources of some of Asia's most important rivers.
A young man walks up a plank near Tsyaring Lake, the official source of China’s second mightiest waterway, the Yellow River. Temperatures are rising on the Tibetan Plateau twice as fast as anywhere else in Asia, causing concern in scientific circles as to how this will affect the sources of some of Asia’s most important rivers.

A contaminated pool of water by the side of one of the major highways that runs through the northeastern region of the Tibetan Plateau. Development in the region is having severe environmental consequences.
A contaminated pool of water by the side of one of the major highways that runs through the northeastern region of the Tibetan Plateau. Development in the region is having severe environmental consequences.

A Tibetan pilgrim prostrates himself during a pilgrimage to Lhasa.
A Tibetan pilgrim prostrates himself during a pilgrimage to Lhasa.

A young boy stands near the banks of a small river running through the town of Sershul, in northern Sichuan Province on the Tibetan Plateau. The region is known as Sanjiangyuan, or Three Rivers Headwaters, as it is the source of the Yangtze, Mekong and Yellow Rivers which feed millions of people who live downstream.
A young boy stands near the banks of a small river running through the town of Sershul, in northern Sichuan Province on the Tibetan Plateau. The region is known as Sanjiangyuan, or Three Rivers Headwaters, as it is the source of the Yangtze, Mekong and Yellow Rivers which feed millions of people who live downstream.

A Tibetan monk carries water cans toward a river on the grasslands. The water is for the local monastery in Sershul, in Sichuan Province on the Tibetan Plateau.
A Tibetan monk carries water cans toward a river on the grasslands. The water is for the local monastery in Sershul, in Sichuan Province on the Tibetan Plateau.

A gnarled sheep looks out onto a degraded grassland at the edge of the town of Donda, in Qinghai Province on the Tibetan Plateau. Development in rural areas has had detrimental effects on many local ecosystems as pollution connected with development contaminates local land.
A gnarled sheep looks out onto a degraded grassland at the edge of the town of Donda, in Qinghai Province on the Tibetan Plateau. Development in rural areas has had detrimental effects on many local ecosystems as pollution connected with development contaminates local land.

A Tibetan man near one of the first bridges that crosses the Mekong River, in the town of Zaduo on the Tibetan Plateau. The Mekong River quickly leaves China after originating on the plateau. However, China's management of this important resource will have implications for its future relationships with its neighbors who rely on water from this river.
A Tibetan man near one of the first bridges that crosses the Mekong River, in the town of Zaduo on the Tibetan Plateau. The Mekong River quickly leaves China after originating on the plateau. However, China’s management of this important resource will have implications for its future relationships with its neighbors who rely on water from this river.

A young boy playing in an irrigation channel in the town of Sershul in Sichuan Province.
A young boy playing in an irrigation channel in the town of Sershul in Sichuan Province.

A Tibetan boy looks out of a car window and onto the blue skies of the Tibetan Plateau.
A Tibetan boy looks out of a car window and onto the blue skies of the Tibetan Plateau.

A Chinese construction team at the side of a road on the Tibetan Plateau.
A Chinese construction team at the side of a road on the Tibetan Plateau.

A Tibetan man throws small pieces of paper, called "wind horses," into the air, next to a stupa on top of a mountain on the Tibetan Plateau. This practice is is said to bring good luck and a safe journey..
A Tibetan man throws small pieces of paper, called “wind horses,” into the air, next to a stupa on top of a mountain on the Tibetan Plateau. This practice is is said to bring good luck and a safe journey..

China is growing fast and, as it grows, it is faced with urgent environmental challenges. Climate change, species loss, pollution, water scarcity and environment damage are not problems confined to one country: they are challenges that concern all the world’s citizens, but the rise of China gives them a new urgency. Tackling these challenges will require a common effort and common understanding. Here at chinadialogue we aim to promote that common understanding. chinadialogue is devoted to the publication of high quality, bilingual information, direct dialogue and the search for solutions to our shared environmental challenges.
– China Dialogue

The interview below originally appeared on the China Dialogue website last week. Many thanks to the CD team for helping spread the word about the project and new eBook.

NH: Your new e-book, Meltdown – China’s Environment Crisis, is a visual journey through China’s deserts, forests, wetlands and the Tibetan Plateau. How did your interest in China’s environment begin? What was your first assignment?

SG: In 2005, I was undertaking an internship at a photojournalism agency in London and discovered the book ‘The River Runs Black’, by Elizabeth C. Economy. The book vividly recounted the state of China’s environment and I was shocked at what I read. At the end of the internship, I received a grant which I decided to use to make my first trip to China.

The first environmental project I undertook was looking at the issues of desertification in western China. After I moved to Beijing, I travelled to Dunhuang in Gansu province. I spent a week documenting the lives of communities on the fringes of the deserts there. I was lucky enough to receive another grant as a result of this work which helped me continue my focus on environmental issues.

NH: What kind of obstacles have you faced when trying to document China’s environmental issues?

SG: My biggest challenges have been mostly logistical. On one trip in China’s western Xinjiang province, I was travelling with a guide and driver to an abandoned city in the eastern reaches of the Taklamakan desert. The journey was completely off-road and we drove for hours to reach the site. On the way we managed to get two flat tyres. We only had one spare which meant our driver had to make his way back to town on his own, leaving us in the middle of the desert to wait. Due to the remote location, we had no cellphone coverage so had no idea if and when he would return. We waited nearly eight hours alone in the desert until he returned. He managed to get a ride with a local passing truck and got back to us just as night was falling.

NH: The book covers seven years of travelling around China- did you notice any changes in people’s attitudes to the environment?

SG: I think attitudes towards the environment are starting to slowly change in China. As the middle class grows, people’s attention is now turning more towards their quality of life.

Most noticeable, for example, has been the recent outcry at the levels of air pollution in Beijing. In January of 2013, the city was hit with extreme levels of pollution that were unique in their severity, even for Beijing. A spark seemed to light amongst the general public, who turned to blogs and social media to vent their concerns. I think this has helped kickstart more of a debate about certain environmental issues.

There is little awareness amongst the general public, however, about the state of some of the country’s ecosystems and native species.

Meltdown-Website-Banner

NH: Your book highlights China’s general environmental problems, but also has a keen eye for some of their ironies, such as the huge farm for alligators which can’t be released back into the Yangtze. Can you tell us more about that story?

SG: The Chinese Alligator is one of the most threatened species in China. According to the latest studies, it is estimated there are only 120 individuals left in the wild. Most have disappeared as their natural habitat, wetlands, have been reclaimed for new developments. They have also suffered as a result of poaching.

The Anhui Research Centre for Alligator Reproduction, in the city of Xuancheng in eastern Anhui Province, has been set up for captive breeding of this species. There are now 10,000 individuals in the centre. It has proved quite successful. The problem is that reintroduction into the wild is very difficult – much of the alligator’s natural habitat in the region has been completely destroyed.

NH: Have there been environmental stories in China you wanted to cover but been unable to?

SG: I would have liked to have covered the issue of ‘cancer villages’, especially those affected by water pollution. This is a very sensitive issue in China, so it is hard to get access to the communities most affected. A number of Chinese photojournalists have been able to get access however, so the story has been told.

NH: Do you have any professional contact with Chinese environmental photographers, such as for instance Lu Guang?

SG: I do not normally collaborate with other photographers on projects, however I am aware of the work of Chinese environmental photographers, such as Lu Guang. I admire his work.

The access that local photographers are able to get is advantageous to them and they use it to tell environmental stories from a different perspective. This is very important.

NH: What are the prospects for sustainable environmental tourism in China? How typical was your experience at Dongting lake, which people visit for its natural beauty yet are destroying what they’ve come to enjoy?

SG: I believe the most important aspect of sustainable environmental tourism is education. At the moment when people visit places of special environmental interest in China, such as national parks, there isn’t enough emphasis on educating people about why and how these ecosystems should be protected.

One place that is trying to change this is the Jiuzhaigou National Park, in northern Sichuan Province. Ten thousand people visit the park each day in peak season. They normally enter en masse, travelling around the park in buses, spending a few hours walking around taking pictures and then leave. People come to look, not learn.

A new eco-tour program has been set-up in recent years by rangers at the park, allowing small groups to go into the park with a guide for one, two, or three day hikes. The emphasis is on learning about the forest ecosystems and why we should protect them. It’s a wonderful way to learn about the flora and fauna in the park. At the moment however, 99% of visitors opt for the en masse experience, rather than the eco-tours. I hope this can change in the future.

NH: Do you have any other photo projects planned in China?

SG: Having covered China for so long, I am now looking to turn my attention to other developing nations in Asia. I recently made two trips to Indonesia, to photograph issues related to climate change there. I am also planning to travel to India later this year to begin working on similar environmental issues.

Due to their populations and stages of economic development, I believe China, India and Indonesia are the best countries in Asia to find the most vivid examples of the clashes between humanity and nature.

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