The disappearing sand of Yimengshan

China's relentless push for construction is depleting vital natural resources, writes Jiang Gaoming. The country must look beyond the high-rise, and consider a new approach to housing.

China’s push to construct "new villages" has given rise to a flurry of rural construction. I saw for myself how residents in villages around a city in northern Shandong province have almost all been moved into high-rises, with plans to flatten even more low-rise buildings in the future. The space this frees up is used to build industrial parks, where local farmers can become workers. This is what a "new village" really means.

Meanwhile, China’s urbanisation continues apace. A news programme on China’s state broadcaster, CCTV, recently reported that local governments are building luxurious offices for themselves, with the average space per employee reaching 300 square metres. The ornate atriums of some government buildings would likely have politicians from developed countries looking on aghast. Astonishingly, one local government in Guangxi province went so far as to claim its offices housed a funeral parlour, in order to justify the great size of the building.

The trend for oversized buildings started with politicians, but it has spread to schools, hospitals and research institutes — almost anyone with some money and power. Visit any city in China and the government offices will be the most impressive building in town, followed by the universities and major schools. And does it end there? Not at all; they just keep outdoing one another. The head of one Beijing district enjoys 300 square metres of office space, and the director of a particular research institute has 100 square metres. Some politicians, despite living in crowded cities like Beijing and Shanghai, have apartments of 200 square metres, enough space for several, smaller apartments.

Moreover, the building materials needed for all this construction – concrete, sand, stone, bricks, lumber and even living trees – all come from rural areas, underlining how the growth of the cities is taking place at the cost of the rural environment.

In my hometown of Yimengshan, I was shocked to find that rich locals have been buying up rights to riverside land at discount rates for 30 years, in the name of “tree-planting”. In reality, they are making off with the sand. They hire excavators to remove the sand and sell it on cheaply to local merchants, who then sell it on at higher prices in the cities. This started in the spring of 2005, and according to locals, 10 mu (6.7 square kilometres) of riverbank can provide over 100,000 yuan (US$13,210) worth of sand in a year. With huge profits to be made, it is becoming an ever more frequent occurrence, and besides sand, the local stone is also being sold off. Stone merchants’ trucks can be seen driving back and forth, plying their trade.

China’s "fast-food" urbanisation is destroying our villages and consuming precious, non-renewable resources like sand, soil and stone. There is plenty of profit to be made in building high-rises, but when people are rich enough to move out of these aerial bird-cages, they will be knocked down and replaced with low-rise buildings again. The tall buildings are nothing to be proud of, and are mostly crudely constructed. Rural residents are no keener on them than anyone else, and would prefer to live closer to the ground. Developed nations in the west have already gone through these changes.

Farmers are used to being close to the earth and would rarely choose to live in such high places. Their compounds may be old and rough around the edges, but they embody a history and a culture. A cluster of compounds form a village, and villages are at the foundations of Chinese society. Even if China does become completely urbanised, there is no need to package rural residents into little boxes. We should consider how to make rural homes better to live in while retaining the contentment that comes from living close to the ground. The new villages are discarding the best features of the old, and taking with them the worst aspects of the cities.

Sand, stone and clay are all formed by slow, natural processes, and cannot be replaced in a hurry. The management of China’s waterways is also poor. Even though local government has control over them, licenses to remove sand are easily obtained at little cost. Excavators and trucks are hired and the sand is taken away. An excavator can be hired for 200 yuan (US$26) an hour and remove a tonne of sand every five seconds. It is theft, pure and simple. Rivers and wetlands are stripped bare: near my hometown there used to be hundreds of metres of sand and wetland vegetation alongside the rivers, and now there is almost none. The sand is now in the concrete of buildings, and without this sand, the rivers are no longer able to withstand floodwaters or cleanse themselves.

Stone is suffering a similar fate. Near Ji’nan an entire mountain has been cut into chunks and sold off. In Tai’an 10 tonne blocks are regularly sold by the road as "Taishan stone", and there is little shortage of buyers. Even worse, precious deposits of granite and marble are being processed into "works of art" and sold overseas. If this is not stopped, our reserves of non-renewable resources will be stripped bare. Good clay soil is being made into bricks, which are used to construct low-quality buildings likely to be demolished and rebuilt, reducing yet further the amount of resources available.

Regardless of whether it is in villages or cities, construction must be long-lasting: we need quality buildings of value, which will last for a century or longer. The average living and work space per person should be limited: the less the better. Only that way can we save some of these non-renewable resources — and leave them for future generations.

But tragically, buildings in rural China are demolished and rebuilt once a decade on average. An urban building’s lifespan is around 20 or 30 years. In developed countries the average lifespan of a building is 100 years, but we can’t even manage half of that. In some places it is common to hear of a brand-new building being demolished. If this continues, we will first run out of sand, then clay and finally stone. There is no time to waste if we are to save these precious materials.

Homepage photo by © Rob Welham 

Jiang Gaoming is a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Botany. He is also vice secretary-general of the UNESCO China-MAB (Man and the Biosphere) Committee and a member of the UNESCO MAB Urban Group.

More stories about urbanization in China on chinadialogue:

1.  China’s urban fever

2.  Unforbidden cities