Focusing a Lens on China's Environmental Challenges

Workers with the conservation group Roots and Shoots carry tree saplings to be planted on the fringes of a desert in Inner Mongolia. China has stopped the widespread logging that hastened desertification in the 20th century, but a changing climate, coupled with increased water demands as China’s economy continues to grow, still threatens many of northern China’s arid regions. Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2012.

A worker naps in a grove near the Shapotou desert resort in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in northern China. This is one of the areas most affected by desertification, which worsened in the latter half of the 20th century as deforestation and agriculture spread in the north of China. Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2012.

Workers with the NGO Roots and Shoots plant tree saplings near farmland in Inner Mongolia. To combat desertification, China has launched its “Great Green Wall” program, designed to eventually plant nearly 90 million acres of new forest in a band stretching 2,800 miles across northern China. But one study showed that up to 85 percent of some plantings fail, and critics say that the reforestation concentrates on creating monoculture tree plantations that harbor little biodiversity. Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2012.

A lake fed by glacial melt at the base of the Dagu Glacier, which lies at 16,700 feet on the Dagu Snow Mountain, on the southeastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. Temperatures on the Tibetan Plateau have been increasing at about 0.5 degrees F since the 1970s, leading to the widespread retreat of glaciers. That glacier loss could eventually further exacerbate China’s growing water problems. Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2012.

A waterway in the Tibetan town of Donda, in China’s western Qinghai Province. Local people receive little education about waste disposal, and the failure of municipalities in many parts of China to collect refuse has led to the contamination of urban streams and rivers. Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2012.

Qinghai Lake, China’s largest inland body of water, lies at 10,500 feet on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. The lake has been shrinking in recent decades, the result of increased water usage for local agriculture. Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2012.

A man gazes at the reservoir created by the Maoergai Dam near the town of Heishui in Sichuan Province. The 482-foot dam flooded three villages and displaced hundreds of residents. China’s hydroelectric dam-building boom — exemplified by the massive Three Gorges Dam, which displaced 1.3 million people — has provided large amounts of low-carbon electricity but has taken a heavy environmental toll on scores of river ecosystems. Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2012.

Thick air pollution obscures the view from Coal Hill in central Beijing on a winter day in 2012. Air pollution in major cities, particularly Beijing, often far exceeds safe levels recommended by global health authorities. Rising anger over air pollution is forcing officials to scramble to reduce coal consumption, which has fed China’s economic boom but is a major contributor to the country’s foul air. Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2012.

A giant panda in the Chengdu Panda Breeding Center in Sichuan Province. Giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) once ranged as far south as northern Vietnam and Myanmar, but habitat destruction and earlier decades of poaching have confined wild pandas to several mountain ranges in central China. Captive breeding has been of limited success to China’s panda population and, with an estimated 1,600 to 3,000 pandas existing in the wild, the species is classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as endangered. Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2012.

A Chinese alligator (Alligator sinensis) at the Anhui Research Center for Alligator Reproduction in Anhui Province. Fewer than 100 Chinese alligators are believed to remain in the wild, the result of large-scale wetlands reclamation that has destroyed the alligators' habitat. Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2012.

A tourist photographs the red-crowned crane (Grus japonensis) at the Zhalong wetlands in Heilongjiang Province. The birds' wetland habitat has been steadily destroyed and is threatened by hydroelectric dams and water diversion projects. An estimated 2,500 red-crowned cranes are believed to exist in the wild, including a resident Japanese population of about 1,000 birds. Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2012.

A warden leads an ecotour in the Jiuzhaigou National Park in Sichuan Province. The tours are designed to educate visitors about the importance of preserving the region’s unique flora and fauna. Protecting China’s remaining wild areas has become a huge task as its population approaches 1.4 billion and its rapid economic development places major stresses on ecosystems. Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2012.

Photographer Sean Gallagher has lived and worked in China for seven years, visiting nearly all of its provinces as he documents the country’s daunting ecological problems and its widely varied landscapes. In a Yale Environment 360 photo essay, the Beijing-based photojournalist chronicles China’s widespread water and air pollution, the battle against the desertification that has spread across the country's northern regions, and the threats to the nation's biodiversity.

"The current state of many of the country's ecosystems is really quite dire," says Gallagher. "The general public is starting to wake up to the crisis at hand, but I fear it's too late. China's rise has caused irreparable damage in many places."