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Great Leap Backward

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If a billion people in China jumped at the same time, would the earth shake off its axis and kill all of humanity? No. But then, the Chinese are taking monumental leaps in the name of development, causing disturbing changes in the environment that have the potential to script tragedies of apocalyptic proportions, says Jonathan Watts, Asian environment writer for the Guardian and author of When A Billion Chinese Jump. His country-wide travels and research on the precarious condition of environment unravels the appalling record of the world's most populous country.

His journey begins with Shangri-La in northwest Yunnan. Appropriated from the Western paperback fantasy "Lost Horizon" of 1933, the world Shangri-La is meant to convey the comforts of an idyllic retreat where nature's bounty exceeds human demand. But in China, the competition among towns and cities to own a Shangri-La has unleashed development in such rapid strides that age-old values attached to tranquility, peaceful living and respect for nature are comfortably being consigned to the backburner. Rampant deforestation, onslaught of tourism, overdependence on cash crops, ever-growing demand for fungal products and search for the fabled Land of Peach Blossoms have brought about a swell in human traffic, road construction projects and timber-and-concrete structures in places once known as the remotest parts of China. Home to more than half of the country's vertebrates, high plant species and orchids and 72 per cent of the country's endangered animals, Yunnan's forest cover has halved since 1950, thanks to the steady work of loggers and modernisation. In the ancient times, poet Li Bai described the journey to the Tibetan plateau as "harder than the road to heaven".

Today, the arduous climb is nothing more than a long, long ride, either by road or by the world's highest railway line, from Xining to Lhasa. Construction of the railway line has brought about relocation of the nomads, grassland degradation, overgrazing and exploitation of the region's mineral wealth. On the other hand, Chinese climatologists predict that a rise in the temperature by 3.4 degree Celsius  by 2050 would cause shrinkage of the permafrost in the region, which raises the risk of release of billions of methane hydrates (contained in the ice) into the atmosphere. Methane's greenhouse gas impact is 50 times than that of carbon dioxide. There were other warnings as well. Yao Tandong of the Chinese Academy of Sciences says glaciers in the region had been shrinking at the rate of four metres a year since he started monitoring in 1989. But what threat does all this pose for the rest of the world? Xiao Ziniu, director general of the Beijing Climate Centre, says: "Changes in the Tibetan soil fed back rapidly into the atmosphere affecting global air circulation just as rising ocean surface temperatures affected storm patterns."

Disaster-spawning hydro-engineering feats, such as the Three Gorges Dam and the Zipingpu Dam, dependence on heavy polluting energy-intensive industries, flourishing trade of animal organs, poor treatment of toxic waste and illegal mining are a few other indicators of China's steady run towards more tragedies. Put it simply, a billion Chinese are taking the apocalyptic jump today and the ground is already shaking.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 29-08-2011)