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China vows to turn island into eco-showpiece

China wants to create an environmental showpiece on an island near Shanghai, but doing so is already putting pressure on the local ecosystem.
To accompany feature Environment-China-Wetlands
China plans to turn Congming Island into a model for the country, but it is still primitive in many ways, such as this man swimming near a wetland to place a crab trap.Nir Elias / Reuters
/ Source: Reuters

Lao Yu has visions of a better life as the bulldozers rumble onto his rural island home where a new city will sprout up near marshes teeming with wildlife and wipe away cabbage and tomato fields.

But the middle-aged cabbie knows he is unlikely to swap his small home for an apartment in the new city, to be called Dongtan, and built to house a population spillover from crowded Shanghai 90 minutes away by boat.

“This new city will be good for our island’s development. The average wage in Shanghai is five times higher than here,” said Yu, driving along a rough country road.

“But local people won’t be able to just move there. It will mostly be Shanghainese.”

There is already some resentment against the island’s authorities over the preferential treatment of outsiders, notably the influx of immigrants displaced by the Three Gorges Dam project.

“Many of them have come here with government aid while we have to fend for ourselves,” said a fellow taxi driver, a portly man in his 40s.

Model city promised
The Chinese government hails Dongtan as a model for others to mimic and vows to protect the environment of the island, which is bigger than Cyprus and sits in the mouth of the Yangtze river.

All vehicles will be electric, and the construction process aims to be sustainable, while the wetlands’ ecosystem will be protected with a special buffer zone separating it from the new city, said Arup, the British engineering consultancy charged with overseeing the development.

Environmentalists are skeptical that Dongtan will be any better than many other Chinese cities, mostly because they think its very creation could destroy an important ecosystem.

China has 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, their rapid growth fuelled by years of breakneck economic expansion largely at the expense of the environment.

An estimated 8.5 million people leave the countryside each year, further driving China’s rapid urbanization and loss of farmland to build houses, roads and factories.

Wetlands eroded
Covering a tenth of the island, Chongming’s wetlands have been under pressure for years from over-grazing and excessive fishing, although they are now expanding out to sea.

In 2002, the number of whistling swans on the island fell to just 51 from 3,500 just a few years earlier, said Tang Changdong of the Dongtan Nature Reserve administration.

And the white-naped crane no longer calls Chongming home.

In the past 40 years, 13 percent of China’s lakes have disappeared and more than half its coastal wetlands have been reclaimed, according to World Wildlife Fund figures.

“Chongming has symbolic importance. Shanghai is showcasing Chongming as an environmental credential,” WWF China representative Dermot O’Gorman told Reuters.

O’Gorman said the reeds and marshes, so important for the surrounding ecosystem, would completely disappear from the Yangtze within 25 years if the current rate of destruction continued.

“They are like a sponge, preventing flooding, reducing drought, helping to purify water,” he said of the wetlands.

China has more than 165 million acres of wetlands, accounting for 10 percent of the world’s total. Yet less than half of China’s wetlands are given any official protection.

Tunnel, bridge project
Chongming is an economic backwater, where some farmers still use donkey-carts to take straw to market, but signs of a modernity dot the island.

Entering Chongming’s Baozhen port by boat, a red-and-white striped chimney of a coal-powered power plant looms over the horizon, its smoke wafting westwards along the shore.

Builders are already working on a massive tunnel and bridge project that will link Chongming and the new city of Dongtan to Shanghai and northern Jiangsu province.

Arup promises that the project will be environmentally sensitive and sustainable, citing a plan to re-use construction worker housing for low-income families.

A five-km-wide buffer zone will separate Dongtan from the wetlands, comprising around 30 percent of the allocated Dongtan site. Farmwater would be recycled, rather than drained into the Yangtze as it is now, the company said.

“Initially, there’ll be a massive service economy, plus tourism and leisure,” said Arup’s Chongming project director Peter Head.

“After that the commercial aspects related to research and development will emerge, then healthcare, green technology and other sustainable issues -- there’s a special need for that in Shanghai.”