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Great Wall Under Threat

Great Wall China

First Posted: 10/23/11 10:16 PM ET Updated: 12/23/11 05:12 AM ET

By Jason Miks, The Diplomat

It has been voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World (although despite the myth, it can't usually be seen from space) and snakes almost nine thousand kilometres across 17 of China's provinces. But after facing hundreds of years of conflict, upheaval and devastating sandstorms, large stretches of the Great Wall are now facing a new threat.

China's official Xinhua News Agency has reported that part of the Wall has collapsed as a result of illegal mining. The damaged section of the Wall is located in a remote part of Hebei Province, about 200 kilometres southwest of Beijing, Xinhua says, adding that the region is dotted with a dozen small mines, some of which operate as close as 100 metres to the wall.

"Damage to the Great Wall by mining had previously been reported in recent years in Inner Mongolia, China's main coal reserve region, but the Hebei case suggests the problem might be common across all regions, experts say," Xinhua notes.

"In Hebei, about 20 percent of the walls and towers can be rated “well or fairly preserved,” while more than 70 percent have cracks, stand on shaky ground, or are about to collapse, provincial cultural protection officials said."

The problem adds a new dimension to the debate over the extent of the damage that China's rapid economic development and urbanization has caused, and where the country should go next. Decades of poor agricultural practices such as overgrazing have speeded up desertification in the country, which in turn has made sandstorms an increasingly regular occurrence. Earlier this year, a senior Chinese official warned that it could take 300 years for the country to turn back the country's advancing deserts. As a result of the storms, miles of the Wall have been turned into what Xinhua has previously described as 'mounds of dirt.'

"The exploitation of the mineral resources falls under the jurisdiction of the Land Resources Bureau, so if the bureau issues mining permits to the mining companies, they can legally extract the mineral resources within areas designated in the contract," Reuters quoted Dong Yaohui, vice chairman of the Great Wall Society, as saying on the mining issue.

"But in this process the Land Resources Bureau does not take into consideration the Great Wall as a factor, or consult the opinion of the Department of Cultural Heritage as there is no rule requiring a consultation as such. So this creates the mess in organization."

Officials have long recognized the problem, and the Cultural Heritage department is given funds to help protect the Wall. But according to Dong, money isn't the issue.

"If you just put down a rule requiring that mining cannot take place within a specific distance from the Great Wall, would that cost money?" he said. "No, it wouldn't cost anything."

In 2007, the Great Wall was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World after a vote that the organizers said attracted more than 100 million participants.

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Filed by Clare Richardson  |