ALN logo; link to Arid Lands Newsletter home page No. 49, May/June 2001
Linkages between Climate Change and Desertification

China's western region development strategy and the urgent need to address creeping environmental problems

by Michael H. Glantz, Qian Ye and Quansheng Ge

"... it is important, if not imperative, that planners take the time to seriously consider many of the potential obstacles they are likely to face and that could derail their western development goals."


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A Japanese researcher, Professor Yabuki, has compared China's provinces to various countries around the globe in terms of geographic area, per capita income and population size. While China covers about 7 percent of the Earth's land surface, it has about 20 percent or so of the Earth's human population. A look inside the country along various demographic and natural land features shows that there is an invisible line that divides the country along several dimensions: eastern (coastal) and western provinces, ethnic Chinese and ethnic minorities, high population density in the east and low density in the west, relative affluence in the east versus the west, upper reaches of major water resources in the west and major downstream users in the east, favored economic development plans for the east as opposed to the western provinces (until recently), and so forth.

map of China with 'hotspots' and 'glass wall'
Thumbnail link to map of China showing 'hotspots' and 'glass wall'

Such an invisible line, a virtual glass wall based on economics, politics, raw materials, levels of development, and ethnicity, tends to reinforce regional differences or cleavages between those who inhabit the region to the east of the line and those to the west of it. During the past two decades under Deng Xiaoping's "Open Door" policy, China has been developing rather rapidly by most standards, particularly its eastern, coastal regions. The western region, however, has been left behind with widening disparities between the east and west with regard to such conditions as education, economy, infrastructure, and social development. Enlightened governments do not like to see such reinforced cleavages in their country and often seek to level the economic playing field through partnerships and enhanced meaningful cooperation and interaction.

China's western region

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China's western region includes 11 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities under the direct administration of the central government. These include the following: Shaanxi, Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou, Ningxia, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Gansu, Tibet and Chongqing. The region covers 5.4 million square kilometers, 57 per cent of the country's land area, and has a population of 285 million people, 23 per cent of the total population of the nation. More than half of the country's identified natural resources are in the western region.

Despite its relatively vast size, the region is not very fertile. Water resources are in scarce supply, and are dependent on the vagaries of climate variability from year to year and decade to decade. Speculation aside, it is not yet clear what influence global warming has had or will have on inter-annual climate variability in western China. Thus, the paucity of fertile soil combined with the uncertainties of precipitation makes it a difficult region for widespread agricultural production activities. Making things even worse is the fact that severe wind erosion is a constant occurrence in the region; in fact, eroded areas in the western region are estimated to make up 80 per cent of the country's total eroded land. In addition, the resulting dust-laden winds can worsen environmental conditions thousand of kilometers or more downwind--as evidenced by the several sandstorms that have plagued Beijing in recent years. More dramatic in a global sense has been the spread, notably since at least the late 1990s, of major dust storms across the Pacific Ocean to regions as far distant as North America. Furthermore, meteorological observations show that the strength and frequency of these sandstorms, which are mainly generated in the western desert and semi-arid regions, have increased significantly in recent times.

The bottom line is that the western provinces, as defined geographically by China, are the least populated but have considerable untapped human and natural resources. These provinces also happen to have the largest share of China's minority cultures. How then to dismantle that invisible wall for the betterment of all concerned?

This task is rendered even more difficult by the fact that along with the rapid development of its economy in recent years, China is also suffering from the degradation of its natural environment (water, land and air). That degradation has been well recorded and reported: Water and air pollution due to the increasing number of factories, cars, and people as a result of increasing affluence and a lack of enforcement of environmental laws; soil erosion due to uncontrolled deforestation, grazing activities and other improper land use activities; intermittent as well as chronic water shortages as well as declining water quality; longer periods of low or no flow in the country's major rivers due to waste and mismanagement of water; desertification and an increase in the frequency and intensity and duration of dust transport due to poor land use practices, and so forth. These problems lie squarely at the intersection of naturally occurring climate change and human-caused land-use changes that also affect regional climate, and clearly need to be taken into account, if China is to be able to successfully and develop its western provinces in a sustainable way.

Indeed, the Chinese government has chosen to vigorously pursue the economic development of its western provinces. It seeks to raise the standard of living of people in its west, to bring about more interaction between west and east, and at the same time to raise the level of development of the entire country.

China's Western Region Development Strategy

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In 1999, the Chinese government publically announced its official plan to develop western China. Its goal is to try to achieve a satisfactory level of economic development in the western part of the country in a five- to ten-year time-frame and to establish a "new western China'' by the middle of the 21st century. In its view, at the end of the period, all people in the region will enjoy economic prosperity, social stability, ethnic unity and an ecologically healthy and sustainable landscape. To achieve such results, China has already begun to speed up the building of extensive infrastructure projects in the western region. Water conservancy, energy, telecommunications and urban facilities have been placed at the top of the government's "Western Region Development Strategy" agenda.

So, the multi-billion dollar, multi-year western region development strategy is apparently being pursued with the idea in mind to erase existing political, economic, social and cultural cleavages between east and west. In addition to committing its own resources to this Herculean economic endeavor, Chinese leaders are seeking investment in their western development plans from international sources such as the World Bank, the Asia Development Bank and international corporations such as the Ford Motor Company and various oil companies. As stated by a Ford Motor Company representative, the western provinces have the right conditions for foreign investment: abundant natural resources and cheap labor. In addition to financial support for this long-term development effort, the government is also seeking moral and political support . Each new foreign investment supplies some of that.

How best to manage economic and social development in the western region, however, is still at the heart of the "Western Region Development Strategy." For example, four major projects are currently envisioned: a south-to-north water diversion, a west-to-east natural gas transfer, a west-to-east power transmission and the construction of a Qinghai-Tibet Railway. These projects are being launched successively over the next five years. While this brings to mind the early days of Chinese communism and the development strategy of "man over nature," such as Mao Tse-tung's Great Leap Forward campaign of the late 1950s, today's Chinese government is paying at least some attention to environmental impacts. However, it is not yet clear to what extent the government will forego an economic prospect in the name of environmental protection, mitigation of the effects of desertification, or its contribution to human-induced global warming.

Some environmental concerns...

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This generates great concern among some observers within China and, perhaps more vocally, outside the country, about the potential impacts on the environment and minority cultures in the west of these proposed massive infrastructure construction projects (e.g., water diversion schemes and resulting population movements to the western region ... and surely there will be more to come as components of the WRDS become fully implemented). Particularly troublesome is the fact that the Chinese bureaucracy, a command-and-control decision-making structure, does not yet have experience in the undertaking of objective, scientifically based environmental impact assessments; nor has it taken full advantage of existing assessments carried out in similar ecological settings elsewhere around the globe.

Furthermore, each of the specific climatic and environmental problems listed earlier in this article is considered a "Creeping Environment Problem (CEP)," as defined by Glantz (1994; see also Glantz 1999). CEPs are those "changes that are imperceptible from one day to the next, but over some period of time they become noticeably worse. By then, however, attempts to address them have become more difficult as well as more costly." Thus, the risk is that any government tendency to ignore CEPs in the short term might very likely have environmental and financial consequences that will eventually set back many short-term developmental gains.

Although there have been several studies on the CEPs in developed and developing countries (the United States, the Soviet Union, Vietnam, Brazil, Hungary), creeping environmental problems per se have not been studied in China. As a result, several of the above-mentioned environmental problems have not yet been successfully assessed or addressed in China. The overriding goal of dealing with CEPs is to identify potential thresholds of degradation (or more neutrally, environmental change) to enable the government to respond to them sooner than usual: that is, before the low-grade, slow-onset, long-term, cumulative environmental changes become crises.

Developing the western provinces will be a daunting task, and the Chinese authorities know it. The history of economic development efforts in many other countries as well as in China itself is strewn with scores of examples of development successes and failures, with the memories of the failures being much more enduring.

...And some suggestions

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At this early juncture in China's proposed escalation in western development activities, it is very important for its planners to pay attention to an ancient Chinese proverb: "To Know The Road Ahead, Ask Those Coming Back." Another adage that is relevant is as follows: "If you do not change your course, you will get where you are going." Thus, it is important, if not imperative, that planners take the time to seriously consider many of the potential obstacles they are likely to face and that could derail their western development goals. Only by learning from analogous past international as well as Chinese experiences of attempts at rapid economic development, especially in fragile environments, might China have a chance to avoid, in future decades, the debacles that were associated with such programs as the Great Leap Forward in the 1950s.

When you mention the western provinces to most Chinese people living in the east, the image that usually comes to mind is one of vast uninhabited lands, inhospitable mountains, arid lands and true deserts. Because of its spatial scale and the time proposed to fulfill it, the WRDS will play a significant role in the regional and global environmental changes. We emphasize this point because few people realize that several of the world's major rivers have their origins in the Tibetan-Qinghai plateau (the Mekong, Irrawadi, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Yangtze, Yellow rivers). Climatic, land use and/or desertification-related changes there are known to adversely affect the streamflow that in turn goes to meet the needs of about 3 billion people downstream.

As Chinese leaders set out to develop their country in the shortest time possible, it becomes extremely important that they trade experiences with other countries around the globe about: the costs, benefits and consequences of rapid development activities in arid and semi-arid areas; leapfrog development proposals; mega-development schemes; the impacts of increasing affluence of various segments of their population; radical population shifts; the impacts caused by such major land-use changes on the environment in general; and, more specifically, on sustainable development in the western region over the long term.

Furthermore, they must consider the potential impacts of a human-induced climate change on all of these development activities and on changes in land use.

Much information about these issues already exists and it is crucial that government leaders assure that their agents in charge of developing the west understand the needs of the fragile western environments and of the region's inhabitants. In this way, they will be able to maximize the economic, social and environmental benefits that are likely to emerge as a result of a well planned Western Region Development Strategy.


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Glantz, M.H., ed. 1999. Creeping environmental problems and sustainable development in the Aral Sea Basin. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Glantz, M.H., ed. 1994. Creeping environmental phenomena and societal responses to them. Proceedings of workshop held 7-10 February 1994 in Boulder, Colorado. Boulder, Colorado: National Center for Atmospheric Research, Environmental and Societal Impacts Group (NCAR/ESIG).

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Author information

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Michael H. Glantz is a Senior Scientist (Political Science) at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), Boulder, Colorado You can reach him for comment as follows:
Michael Glantz
Environmental and Societal Impacts Group
National Center for Atmospheric Research
PO Box 3000
Boulder, Colorado 80307
Tel: 303-497-8119
Fax: 303-497-8125
Web site:

Qian Ye is Director of the Center for Development and Application of Atmospheric Sciences, Institute of Atmospheric Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). You can reach him for comment by email at:

Quansheng Ge is Director of the China Global Change Program, Institute of Geology, CAS. You can reach him for comment by email at:

Additional web resources

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University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

Environmental and Societal Impacts Group (UCAR)

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