Since 1949, the city of Lanshou, once a former Silk Road trading post, has morphed from the capital of a poverty-stricken province into the heart of a major industrial area. It is the center of the country’s petrochemical industry and is a key regional transport hub between eastern and western China. Among the country’s 660 cities, more than 400 lack sufficient water, while over 100 suffer from severe shortages.

Lanzhou is the largest and first city on the Yellow River but is often better known for its massive discharge of industrial and human waste. According to recent reports by the Chinese government and international NGOs like the Blacksmith Institute, Lanzhou is China’s most polluted city and one of the 30 most polluted cities in the world.

Desert. Bayin, Gansu, China, 2011.

A man from an illegal mine walks on a dirt track leading out of the mountains. Desertification is a serious problem, consuming an area greater than that taken by farmland.

Nearly all of China’s desertification occurs in the west of the country and approximately 30 percent of the country’s surface area is desert. China’s rapid industrialization, overgrazing, and the expansion of agricultural land accelerate the advance of deserts that are now swallowing up a million acres of grassland each year.

Banks of the Yellow River. Hejin, Shanxi, China, 2011.

A couple sits by the banks of the only remaining undeveloped section of the Yellow River on the outskirts of the small city of Hejin. Although China has roughly the same amount of water as the United States, its population is nearly five times greater, making water a precious and increasingly sought-after resource.

The heavily industrialised area around Hejin contains some of the most polluted waters in the river. In 2007, after surveying the river, the Yellow River Conservancy Commission stated that one third of the river system had pollution levels that made the water unfit for drinking, aquaculture, industrial use, or even agriculture.

Highway construction. Lanzhou, Gansu, China, 2011.

The goal of the “Go West” policy, launched just before China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001, was to develop the economies of China’s western regions. While massive investment has boosted output and effectively raised GDP in the western regions, the project failed to achieve its goal of eliminating the economic gap between eastern and western China. Over $325 billion has been invested in major infrastructure projects in the west, making it one of the biggest economic regeneration programs of all time.

Farmer’s Backyard. Lanzhou, Gansu, China. 2011

The incongruity of a coal-fired power station located next to farmland is a common sight in China. Land is the only asset farmers have and is typically their only source of economic stability. However, Chinese farmers do not have property rights and the government is able to reallocate land, often to big businesses that will drive the economy or those with better political connections. The state is supposed to pay farmers fair compensation, but often the price they set is far below market value. Environmental laws exist but they are often not enforced.

Quarry and temple. Bayin, Gansu, China, 2011.

A private temple set above a quarry. Quarries producing limestone, used for construction and as flux for the process of steel making, are among a number of common features found in industrial towns. Mining industries set up near mountains that provide coal and other valuable mineral deposits. Coal-fired power stations are located in the same area and steel plants that need energy also locate near the power stations. Coking plants are located nearby to convert coal into coke, which is also necessary for steel production.

Brick Factory. Lanzhou, Gansu, China. 2011

A factory making concrete bricks is located on the outskirts of the city centre. Since 1949 Lanzhou has morphed from the capital of a poverty-stricken province into the heart of a major industrial area.

The northern regions of China are poorly endowed with water and at the same time are rich in coal reserves. The 12th Five-Year Plan by the Chinese Government has set up most of the coal power bases in the north, north-west and north-east of the country.

Heavy industry in this area has meant a high consumption of coal and water. Based on current figures, it is estimated that the 2015 development of the coal industry in the west will consume up to 10-billion cubic metres of water, approximately a quarter of the annual flow of the Yellow River.

New highway. Xian, Shaanxi, China 2011.

In 2011, China’s highway system became the longest in the world—longer than the United States, which had been the undisputed leader for at least 50 years.

In 1990, China produced 42,000 passenger cars. By 2004, the number hit one million, with 16 million cars on the nation’s roads. By 2000, motor vehicles were the leading cause of China’s urban air pollution and in 2010 it overtook the United States as the world’s largest market with the sale of 13.8 million new cars.

Residential estate under construction. Linfen, Shanxi, China, 2011.

A new residential estate built on the edges of farmland, close to nearby factories. In the 1970s, Linfen was famous for its spring water, greenery, and rich agriculture, and was nicknamed “The Modern Fruit and Flower Town.” More recently, Linfen’s rich coal seams have transformed it into a center for the mining industry. The development has had a devastating impact on the city’s environment, air quality, farming, and health. According to a 2006 study by the Blacksmith Institute, Linfen was one of the top 10 most-polluted cities in the world.

Industrial site. Lanzhou, Gansu, China, 2011.

A polluted pond hidden from public view in an industrial district near the newly landscaped banks of the Yellow River. Factories disposing waste illegally often pipe effluent deep underground or late at night to avoid being caught. Illegal dumping of chemical waste has become a widespread problem. About one third of the industrial wastewater and more than 90 percent of household sewage in China is released untreated into rivers and lakes.

As China continues to prosper, the public—fueled by a sense of individual rights related to increasing openness and prosperity—have shown an increased concern for the environment, which has led to more public disputes. In 2006, the government received 600,000 environment-related complaints, a figure that has risen roughly 30 percent each year since 2002.

Pipes to a Rare Earths Lake. Bayin, Gansu, China. 2011

Pipes carry sludge-like effluent to a tailings pond on the outskirts of this medium sized city. The grey, greenish patches on top of the hill are the dried-up particles of industrial waste that have blown out off the rare earths lake.

From smart phones to wind turbines, the term rare earths refers to a group of minerals important in the manufacture of a wide range of everyday high-technology products, including the latest clean energy technologies. Once a nation that focused on exporting rare earths in their raw forms, China has shifted its end goal from production to innovation. With government support, cheap labour and lax environmental regulations, its rare earth industries have undercut all competitors worldwide. China now accounts for 97% of the global output of rare earths. On 13 March 2012, the United States, Japan, and European Union filed a World Trade Organization complaint against China for restricting exports of these minerals and driving up prices.

The effluent in the lake contains toxic chemicals, but also radioactive elements such as thorium, which if ingested, cause cancers of the pancreas and lungs, and leukemia. Nearly two-thirds of China’s rural population, more than 500 million people, use water contaminated by human or industrial waste making gastrointestinal cancer the number one killer in the countryside.

Industrial Waste. Bayin, Gansu, China. 2011

A view of a slagheap at an industrial site seen from the back garden of a local living on the outskirts of the city. The train tracks lead into the city’s railway station, a 5 minute journey from this scene. A growing public awareness and frustration with environmental pollution has meant that factories failing to meet environmental standards have been shut down by the state.

China’s roughly two thousand independent environmental NGOs now form the largest segment of the country’s civil society. At the same time, the number of student environmental groups on campuses has been on the rise, reaching approximately two hundred across the country. These NGOs make crucial environmental information available to the public, a difficult undertaking in a society whose access to information is often very restricted.

Desert II. Bayin, Gansu, China, 2011.

An illegal, makeshift plant operates in the desert. Power lines lead to new industrial factories over the horizon. The new factories beyond the mountains are set far away from cities and have given birth to new small towns that have sprung up to support the new expansion in heavy industry such as cement factories and steel plants. Many of the heaviest polluting factories near the Bayin have been shut down in recent years as the state attempts to deal with environmental pollution in highly populated areas.

Yellow River. Sanmenxia, Henan, China, 2011.

The Yellow River viewed from the top of the controversial Sanmenxia Dam. Heralded as a great engineering feat, the dam was built in 1960 to tame the river. Its image was subsequently printed on the country’s bank notes. Yet within four years of opening, the dam had lost 40 percent of its water storage capacity because of silt, and its turbines were clogged.

Despite renovations, the dam currently has less than 10 percent of its original storage capacity and generates only about 25 megawatts, compared to the expected 1,160. The dam has failed to prevent severe flooding upstream and still prompts much controversy, including government arrests of the project’s most outspoken critics.