China’s Belt and Road: Environment’s Enemy?

To all of the other problems that have cropped up recently with China’s massive multi-trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative development scheme, add one more: the possibility of global environmental damage, according to a new 88-page policy research working paper released recently by the World Bank.

Produced by five academicians from Duke University in the United States, the paper says that new road or rail access to frontier forests to aid development “typically leads to the greatest absolute deforestation and eco-service losses, at least in the short term. These forests are close to infrastructure yet not cleared, and conditions are ripe for expansion of economic activities.”

In recent months, as Asia Sentinel has reported in a series of stories, there is growing concern that China is offering too many countries too much of a good deal – that the extensive development touted both across Asia and Africa comes at a considerable price. Sri Lanka and Pakistan notably – among many other countries – have found themselves heavily indebted for dubious projects built by Chinese labor that has nearly bankrupted them and provided little economic uplift.

In fact, according to academic Christopher Balding, writing in the prestigious Foreign Affairs in October 2018, “ China faces a backlash to BRI at home and abroad,” with resentment rising domestically over what is considered wasteful spending. As Balding writes, “China does not require its partners to meet stringent conditions related to corruption, human rights, or financial sustainability. This no-strings approach to investment has fueled corruption while allowing governments to burden their countries with unpayable debts. And citizens of many BRI countries have reacted with anger toward China—an anger that is now making itself felt in elections. Far from expanding Chinese soft power, the BRI appears to be achieving the opposite.”

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad recently opted out of several BRI projects signed onto by his predecessor, Najib Razak, concerned that the country was becoming an economic hostage to China. The latest report has Kenya on the edge of defaulting on a €2 billion debt to China’s Exim Bank over the construction of its Mombasa port. An auditor’s report has Kenya set to spend as much as €6.8 billion to service debt in 2019.

Nor, largely, do Chinese BRI projects pay much – or any – attention to mitigating environmental risk. Because so many of the BRI economic corridors pass through steep terrain, according to the working paper, “transportation projects are especially vulnerable” to destructive landsides that damage nearby communities and economic system. Poorly constructed roads on mountainous terrain can generate increased sedimentation in rivers and streams, creating long-term effects on downstream aquatic communities and producing widespread flooding risk.

On two proposed BRI road projects in Myanmar, the study found some 25 million inhabitants living downslope are potentially at risk of environmental degradation. This “road effect,” in which both railways and highways generate noise, air pollution, exhaust emissions, direct loss of habitat, including tropical deforestation, is typically 1‐2 percent of the land cover of most countries.

Habitat loss is closely correlated with many accompanying environmental risks that are related to loss of ecosystem services such as biodiversity, carbon storage and sequestration, water provision and quality, soil stabilization and erosion protection.

“Roads are considered one of the leading proximate causes of habitat destruction, especially tropical deforestation,” the study found. The writers cite a study which found that the extension of road infrastructure was a proximate cause of deforestation in 61% of cases studies, while rail expansion was a proximate cause in 11 percent.

The "road effect" (also known as the "edge effect") is the area over which the ecological effects of a road and traffic extend into the adjacent landscape due to habitat disturbance effects. This is a more subtle but pervasive ecosystem effect of a road that extends well beyond the initial loss in habitat from the transportation corridor, the study says.

The newly created edges along a roadside allow penetration of light, wind, and chemical pollution and modify microclimatic conditions. Such alterations "affect the distribution and abundance of plant and animal species." Specialized "habitat interior" species of plants and animals are often outcompeted by "edge‐adapted" generalist or weedy species. The edge effect, they write, "can also lead to cascading abiotic effects."

In the Amazon, edges are particularly vulnerable to fires initiated in adjacent burned pastures and/or selective logged forests with their built-up fuel load. Once forest fires get a start, they can burn deep into the interior. In general, the road effect zone can be felt as far as 1,500 meters from a highway. The authors estimate that 15‐20 percent of the earth’s land cover is influenced by this road effect.

“Given that most BRI road projects are relatively large, the authors write, “we can estimate that the “road effect” will extend on average at least a kilometer into the adjacent roadside habitat, with the proposed China-Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor in Southeast Asia particularly vulnerable to edge effects, which are especially pronounced in tropical ecosystems.”

The edge effect, according to the study, is exacerbated by fragmentation of the landscape, with roads often fragmenting large habitat expanses into smaller patches, leading to “dramatic landscape transformation and loss of the ability to support healthy ecosystems, populations of plants and animals, and other ecosystem services.”

Such fragmentation reduces biodiversity by anywhere from 13 percent to 75 percent, decreases biomass and carbon storage and alters nutrient cycles.

“From a BRI perspective,” the authors write, “it is important to distinguish the impact of fragmentation for different classes of roads, since approximately half of BRI road projects are large divided highways and most of the rest are relatively large, paved two-lane roads. Many of these road or rail projects represent upgrades rather than new transport corridors, so may not be fragmenting additional habitat.”

But minor roads can also have a damaging impact, the study found, citing the expansion from 1970 to 2008 of a Yunnan Province road that found that increases in road density from such minor roads actually result in significantly greater levels of landscape fragmentation than do larger roads.

A complementary concern is that, as road networks fragment more of the landscape into smaller tracts, fewer large undisturbed tracts remain, with their ecological importance increasing, since they create critical refuges for plant and animal species that can’t survive in smaller fragments. They also provide significant benefits such as carbon storage and sequestration, climate stabilization, water provision, indigenous culture, etc.

Called “intact forest landscapes,” they are connected mosaics of forest and treeless ecosystems with no remotely detected signs of human activity and a minimum area of 500 sq. km. As long ago as 2013, such IFLs, as they are called, represented less than 21 percent of once-forested land cover globally.

Because of the outsized role that IFLs serve in protecting biodiversity and generating ecosystem services, encroachment by transportation projects “creates straightforward risks to these environmentally critical areas.”

Given how few IFLs remain, “it is especially critical to safeguard the integrity of the few remaining in those two BRI economic corridors.”

Understory birds in Amazonia, the styudy says, are particularly vulnerable to edge effects, road‐induced fragmentation, fire, selective logging, hunting and traffic disturbance. “While populations of many habitat‐interior species may be diminished in the roadside buffer, other animal species are attracted to the open canopy and thick understory. These tend to be edge‐adapted species – secondary forest species with life history traits to maximize growth rates.”

Wildlife are vulnerable to a range of additional road-related conditions beyond ecosystem effects, the report says, particularly vehicle collisions with them -- roadkill. The situation is exacerbated for wildlife that are attracted to open flyways and paths, further increasing their risk.

Then there is the issue that roads and rail endanger animal populations by disrupting migration, splitting populations and thus reducing genetic variability. The Qinghai‐Tibet Railway, for instance, created a barrier to the migration of the endangered Przewalski’s Gazelle, which has reduced the genetic viability of the species, the authors write.

Roads and railways not only create conduits for wildlife travel, but they also often increase access for hunters, including poachers. Both roads and rail pose a second and perhaps more serious threat to wildlife – they can facilitate the movement of illegal wildlife traffic.

“This is an especially serious concern for the CICPEC in Southeast Asia, one of the world’s most active centers for illegal wildlife trafficking.” Ultimately, the authors write, “it is this improved transportation efficiency – ironically a key goal of the BRI Economic Corridors – that presents perhaps the greatest threat for some of the wildlife species highly prized in East Asian markets.