China Reportedly Acknowledges
Human Responsibility
For Flooding
By Paul Eckert
BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese officials have acknowledged that the worst flooding in decades is largely man-made, the result of environmental degradation, a United Nations expert said on Tuesday.
"All of my partners here in China underlined that these disastrous floods are to quite an intensive part also home-made -- that they are man-made problems," said Klaus Topfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program.
Topfer said the floods were "a national disaster of outstanding quantity and quality" and that they dominated his two days of talks with cabinet officials in Beijing.
The last nationwide tally issued nearly three weeks ago said the worst floods in decades had killed more than 2,000 people and left millions homeless.
State media have estimated the damage will top $24 billion.
The floods were an "eye-opener" for China's leaders on the costs economic growth imposes on watershed land, forest cover and soil quality, he told a news conference.
Topfer said his meetings with senior Chinese environmental and construction officials convinced him that Beijing was aware that the worst flooding since 1954 could not be blamed solely on heavy rains.
"I was told more than once that it was the highest flood but not the highest rainfall," he said.
Beijing appeared keen to work with the Nairobi-based UNEP on projects involving reforestation, wetland preservation, human settlement issues and biodiversity, Topfer said. No specific projects were agreed, he added.
"All my Chinese partners were really aware of the need to be very honest in the follow-up with regard to the man-made consequences," he said.
However, China's leaders also expressed serious concern about job losses that would likely accompany changes in land-use and forestry policy, Topfer said.
"You have a lot of repercussions to the job opportunities in agriculture -- this was mentioned more than once," he said.
Rising unemployment has been among China's most difficult political and social issues in its transformation from a planned economy to a market economy.
China's state-run media have been increasingly candid about environmental causes of the flood such as unchecked deforestation and land reclamation.
The central and local governments have also cracked down on logging in watershed areas.
Sichuan province officials said on Tuesday they had banned logging in natural forests surrounding the upper reaches of the Yangtze River effective September 1.
Wei Shoucai, an official of the Sichuan Provincial Forestry Department of Forestry told Reuters the central government would invest $58.3 million per year for 13 years to help rebuild and protect the forest in the Yangtze's upper reaches.
"The province's 45,600 loggers and sawmill workers will be re-employed to plant trees, to protect trees or to work in the service sectors," he said.
Sichuan government plans to plant 2.6 million acres of trees during 1999-2010, increasing the forest coverage in the area to 23.9 percent from the current 19.l4 percent, he said.
Beijing in 1995 launched a major reforestation plan which aims to raise the percentage of its forested land to 20 percent of the total, from the current 12-14 percent. The global average forest cover is 31.3 percent.
China's per capita average is only one-sixth of the worldwide figure, according to forestry officials.