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China promises to become an economic superpower in the 21st century, but it faces formidable environmental problems, such as acid rain, air and water pollution, desertification and soil erosion. According to a recent report from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, the world’s most populous nation could surpass Japan in GDP in 2015, but regional disparities like water shortages and chronic poverty in the western provinces would hamper development.

The difficulties that China faces in its quest for prosperity are already being acutely felt in development projects in its western region, particularly in arid areas ruined through centuries of desertification and soil erosion. About 17 percent of China is desert, most of which is found in the west, where poverty and drought are common.

Deserts already cover one-quarter of the earth’s surface and pose growing a threat to human existence. Desertification — the change of arable land into desert — is caused by a variety of natural and human factors, including reduced rainfall due to climate change, unrestricted logging, overgrazing, reckless land cultivation and excessive gathering of wood for fuel.

For Japan, desertification is a remote concern. About the only fallout the Japanese know of at first hand is yellow sand — wind mixed with sand that comes from China’s desert areas in the spring. No wonder the Japanese are much less concerned about desertification than about, say, global warming and acid rain. But there may be serious problems in store in the future. There is the possibility that food and refugee problems in China might destabilize that country’s political situation, with dire consequences for its neighbors.

Well aware of the difficulties involved in developing its western region, Beijing gives top priority to environmental protection in its efforts to build infrastructure in that region. Beginning last spring, it embarked on a large-scale reforestation project to develop low-grade arable land into verdant forests and fields. While these efforts are encouraging, the task of achieving “sustainable development” remains a daunting challenge. This is true in virtually every respect, including funding and technology. Natural impediments like drought must also be faced.

Japan has both directly and indirectly supported various programs to prevent desertification around the world, such as those for afforestation, rural development and soil enrichment. In 1996, an international treaty for coping with desertification took effect.

In China, tree-planting by Japanese volunteer groups has contributed to the greening of the country. These volunteer programs, which started ahead of official projects such as those involving government loans on easy terms and technical assistance, have also helped to increase environmental awareness among the Chinese people. In financial and technical terms, however, these private efforts fall short of expectations.

In this regard, hopes are pinned on a 10 billion yen Japan-China “green fund” that started a year ago at the initiative of the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. The fund, established to help finance bilateral, private afforestation projects, provides up to 10 million yen for each project, subject to official approval. In fiscal 2000, as many as 23 projects, all of them worked out by Japanese tree-planting volunteer groups in consultation with Chinese partners, received the green light.

The responsibility for these programs, says a private, bilateral “green committee,” is borne by “well-organized groups” selected by the committee, not so much on the basis of their track record as in the hope that they will cooperate in China’s afforestation efforts for decades to come. Of course, while the projects may be subsidized by Japanese taxpayers, it is still the Chinese, not the Japanese, who are ultimately responsible for the greening of China. The chief Chinese partner, a Communist youth organization, has its work cut out: taking good care of the young trees planted so as to ensure their growth.

From now on, official development assistance should be provided more to meet China’s environmental needs and to help correct disparities between the poor hinterland and the rich coastal region, rather than financing traditional civil-engineering projects, such as airports and expressways.

So far, China has enacted 19 different laws for environmental protection, but it is reported that they have been ignored in the central and western regions. This could discourage Japanese taxpayers from actively supporting China’s development projects in the west even if they know that those projects go a long way toward protecting the Chinese environment and the global ecosystem.

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