Traces : Landscapes in transition on the Yellow River Basin

Ian Teh

Few rivers have captured the soul of a nation more deeply than the Yellow River in China. It is to the Chinese what the Nile is to Egypt: the cradle of civilization.

Historically a symbol of enduring glory, a force of nature both feared and revered the river in the1990s, for many days, ceased to reach the sea at all. The environmental decline of this famous river is a tragedy whose consequences extend far beyond the 150 million people it directly sustains. Its plight also underlines the dark side of China's economic miracle, an environmental crisis that has led to a scarcity of the one resource no nation can live without: water.

Over the years, working on the coal industry in China, I became increasingly interested in how economic development in China was affecting the country’s landscape. What intrigued me was the marks that were left behind by man’s industrious efforts to acquire material wealth and the ways in which that would, in turn, affect communities living in the areas undergoing radical transformation.

My photographs play with the tension between the Yellow River's place in Chinese culture and history (it is sometimes called the "Mother River") and China’s resurgence as a major economic power. It has struck me that the focus of the nation and its people on getting ahead has meant that other concerns have fallen by the wayside. I’ve tried to show the resulting consequences for the landscape in this region, from an area that was once predominantly rural to one becoming increasingly urban and industrial. I’ve attempted to explore and suggest abstract ideas within the work. By depicting these landscapes as predominantly beautiful, almost dream-like, I look for a resonance with some of the romantic notions about this once great river that are inherent in the Chinese psyche. At the same time, these scenes also depict signs of economic development. There is a disconnect that I am looking for in my images, that I hope provides a clue to the transactional cost that is exacted on the environment and its communities far beyond its immediate surroundings.

It is these transactional costs that bring great economic value to the countries development but at the same time there is a gradual creep of destruction that has been largely ignored until recent years. That transition, which has had a major impact on the health of the population and its emissions, has come about by policy making. There is a larger question that I’m interested in that cannot be depicted visually but that I try to suggest with my photos. How has this come about? There are obvious answers, but it is the forces at play that help to organise this country that I’m interested in. China has a very good legal system that protects the environment and its people, but the country's laws are often superseded by the priorities of the state. Officials are consistently rewarded for fulfilling these mandates. So laws that protect the environment but are not high on the nation’s agenda tend to be ignored and even abused.The ability to see these connections, and through photography look at some of these larger issues is what makes the dialogue interesting to me.

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  • The incongruity of a coal-fired power station located next to farmland is a common sight in China. Land is the only asset farmers have and is typically their only source of economic stability. However, Chinese farmers do not have property rights and the government is able to reallocate land, often to big businesses that will drive the economy or those with better political connections. The state is supposed to pay farmers fair compensation, but often the price they set is far below market value. Environmental laws exist but they are often not enforced.

  • In 2011, China's highways became the longest in the world - longer than the United States, which had been the undisputed leader for at least 50 years.
    In 1990, China produced 42,000 passenger cars. By 2004, the number hit one million, with sixteen million cars on the nation’s roads. By 2000, motor vehicles were the leading cause of China's urban air pollution and in 2010 it overtook the US as the world's largest market with the sale of 13.8m new cars.

  • A private temple set above a quarry. Quarries producing limestone, used for construction and as flux for the process of steel making, are among a number of common features found in industrial towns. Mining industries set up near mountains which provide coal and other valuable mineral deposits. Coal fired power stations are located in the same area and steel plants that need energy also locate near the power stations. Coking plants are located nearby to convert coal into coke that is also necessary for steel production.

  • The Yellow River viewed from the top of the controversial Sanmenxia dam. Heralded as a great engineering feat, it was built in 1960 to tame the river. Its image was subsequently printed on the country's bank notes. But it was ultimately a failure. Within four years of opening, the dam had lost 40 per cent of its water storage capacity because of silt, and its turbines were clogged. It has been renovated several times but today has less than 10 per cent of its original storage capacity and generates only about 25 megawatts, compared to the 1160 megawatts originally planned. The dam has failed to prevent severe flooding upstream and is still the subject of much controversy with some of its more outspoken critics having been arrested by the government.

  • A polluted pond hidden from public view in an industrial district near the newly landscaped banks of the
    Yellow River. Factories disposing of waste illegally often pipe effluent deep underground or late at night to avoid being caught. Illegal dumping of chemical waste has become a widespread problem. About one third of the industrial wastewater and more than 90 percent of household sewage in China is released into rivers and lakes without being treated.

    As China continues to prosper, the public fueled by a sense of individual rights related to increasing openness and prosperity have shown an increased concern for the environment which has lead to more public disputes. In 2006 the government received six hundred thousand environment-related complaints, a figure that has risen roughly 30 percent each year since 2002.

  • The expansive cityscape of Lanzhou cloaked in a polluted haze. Since 1949, the city, once a former Silk
    Road trading post, has morphed from the capital of a poverty-stricken province into the heart of a major industrial area. It is the centre of the country’s petrochemical industry and is a key regional transport hub between the east and west parts of the country. Of the some 660 cities in China, more than 400 lack sufficient water, with more than a hundred of these suffering severe shortages. For all its pride in being the largest and first city on the Yellow River, it is better known for its massive discharge of industrial and human waste. According to the Blacksmith Institute, Lanzhou is one of the 30 most polluted cities in the world and in 2011, according to Chinese reports, it was rated as the most polluted city in China.

  • A man from an illegal mine walks on a dirt track leading out of the mountains. Desertification is a serious problem, consuming an area greater than that taken by farmland. Nearly all of China's desertification occurs in the west of the country and approximately 30% of the country’s surface area is desert. China's rapid industrialization, overgrazing and the expansion of agricultural land accelerates the advance of deserts that now swallow up a million acres of grassland each year.

  • A new residential estate being built on the edges of farmland, close to nearby factories. In the 70s, Linfen was famous for its spring water, greenery and rich agriculture and was nicknamed "The Modern Fruit and Flower Town". However, because of its rich coal seams, it has developed into a centre for coal mining industries, which has had a crippling effect on the city's environment, air quality, farming and health. According to a study by the Blacksmith Institute in 2006, Linfen was one of the top ten most polluted cities in the world.

  • An illegal makeshift plant operates in the desert where power lines lead to new industrial plants over the horizon. These new factories over the mountains are set far away from cities and have essentially given birth to small new towns that have sprung up to support these new industries. Many of the most polluting factories near the city have been shut down in recent years as the state attempts get to grips with environmental pollution in the area.

  • A view of a slagheap at an industrial site seen from the back garden of a local living on the outskirts of the city. The train tracks lead into the city’s railway station, a 5 minute journey from this scene. A growing public awareness and frustration with environmental pollution has meant that factories failing to meet environmental standards have been shut down by the state. China's roughly two thousand independent environmental NGOs now form the largest segment of the country's civil society. At the same time, the number of student environmental groups on campuses has been on the rise, reaching approximately two hundred across the country. These NGOs make crucial environmental information available to the public, a difficult undertaking in a society whose access to information is often very restricted.

  • Workers unroll sheets of plastic to line the inside of a new landfill. This cavity was once farmland and continues to be surrounded by agricultural land.

    Just over a generation ago, refuse was rarely a problem because families, then largely poor and rural, used and reused everything. Supermarkets were uncommon and as a result so was plastic packaging. As cities have grown, urban support systems that provide public services such as landfills and waste treatment plants have fallen short of demand.

    At least 85 percent of China’s seven billion tons of trash is in landfills, much of it in unlicensed dumps in the countryside. Most have only thin linings of plastic or fiberglass. These sites leach heavy metals, ammonia, and bacteria into the groundwater and soil, and the decomposing waste sends out methane and carbon dioxide. After millennia as a farming society, most of China will be urban by 2017. At 8% each year, the nation’s waste is expanding as fast as its economy.

  • A factory making concrete bricks is located on the outskirts of the city centre. Since 1949 Lanzhou has morphed from the capital of a poverty-stricken province into the heart of a major industrial area.

    The northern regions of China are poorly endowed with water and at the same time are rich in coal reserves. The 12th Five-Year Plan by the Chinese Government has set up most of the coal power bases in the north, north-west and north-east of the country. Heavy industry in this area has meant a high consumption of coal and water. Based on current figures, it is estimated that the 2015 development of the coal industry in the west will consume up to 10-billion cubic metres of water, approximately a quarter of the annual flow of the Yellow River.

  • A couple on the only remaining section of the riverbank on the outskirts of this small city that has not been completely developed. This heavily industrialised area contains some of the most polluted waters in the river. In 2007, after surveying the river, The Yellow River Conservancy Commission stated that one third of the river system registered worse than "level five" according to the criteria used by the UN Environmental
    Program. Level five is unfit for drinking, aquaculture, industrial use, or even agriculture. Water is precious in China, the country has roughly the same amount of water as the United States but nearly five times the population.

  • The goal of the "Go West" policy, launched just before China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001, was to develop the economy of its western regions. While massive investment has boosted the region’s output, effectively raising the GDP in all western regions, the project failed to achieve its goal of eliminating the economic gap between China’s East and West. Over $325 billion has been invested in major infrastructure projects in the western region making it one of the biggest economic regeneration programs of all time.