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Natural Resources, Land and Water Resources

Gorges Dam, Crop irrigation, Yellow River, water tables, food grain

Compared to most countries, China has extensive land and water resources because it covers such a vast area. However, much of the country is unproductive. According to government statistics, only 13 percent of the country’s total area is arable, or suitable for cultivation, although unofficial estimates suggest that this percentage is too low. Slope land and other farmland may escape official counting because local farmers may underreport the size of their leased land. Farmers must meet government quotas for food grain based on the size of their leased land, so those who underreport their land size would deliver a smaller percentage of their harvest to the government. Such activity is illegal, however, and the extent to which it is practiced is unknown.

Over centuries China’s large population has placed tremendous pressure on forest resources. The Huabei Pingyuan (North China Plain), for example, once contained large deciduous forests, but most of the plain was cleared for agriculture long ago. Local forests have long served as a source for firewood in rural areas and for lumber and other wood products used in construction and furniture making. More recently, an increased demand for paper has also pressured forestland. As a result of these pressures, forests now cover only 17 percent of the country’s total area, compared with 25 percent in the United States and 27 percent in Canada. The limited forestland in China has serious consequences. Without sufficient forest coverage, soil is more easily saturated by precipitation and runoff from melting snow. The saturation causes accelerated soil erosion and flooding, which in turn increases the amount of sediment that accumulates in deltas and reservoirs. However, China has an aggressive tree planting program, and in recent years the amount of forestland has actually increased.

China’s water resources are enormous, especially in central, southern, and southeastern China, but the pressure on these resources is also great. Crop irrigation and the demand for water in urban areas reduce the supply. The tapping of groundwater has lowered water tables and led to an invasion of salt in groundwater near coastal areas. In recent years, so much water has been taken from the Huang He (Yellow River) for irrigation that at times the river runs dry near its mouth. Some major dam projects, such as the Three Gorges Dam, may have unforeseen environmental consequences and are controversial within the country.

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