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Growing Golf Courses in China and Environmental Degradation

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

Recently there was a report that some villagers in suburban Dalian, Liaoning province in China were suffering from a tap water shortage. Many people had to rely on bottled water or had to wait for water rationing twice a day. What made them angry was that the neighboring golf course didn’t have the same problem. According to a Chinese newspaper report, the 36-hole golf course consumed more than 3 million tons of water each year, which is the same as the annual consumption of 1 million households. While people were waiting for water rationing, the golf course’s sprinklers were spraying the grass 24 hours a day.

Even worse, another golf course in the area consumes water from a reservoir for drinking water and has discharged untreated sewage into the reservoir, making the water polluted and smelly. The sewage contained a high level of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, which were used to make the grass look greener and healthier in the golf course.

As China’s newly-minted rich enjoy the gentleman’s game of golf, a lot of side effects tag along too. Although there is no exact data about the number of Chinese golf courses and golfers, experts in the industry assume that there were more than 600 golf courses and about 3 million golfers in China by the end of last year. The number of golfers is much lower than most developed countries, but it’s increasing at very fast speed.

The first golf club in China was established in Shanghai in 1896 by British expatriates. Then Mao communists condemned golf as a bourgeois sport and a few golf courses were closed. After the nation opened the door to the world again, a golf course was constructed in 1984. With the increasing number of new rich in China, golf is becoming one of the most popular sports in many urban cities.

It is also surprising that despite a series of new golf courses being built, only 10 golf courses were approved by the government and given business licenses. That shows that most Chinese golf courses were illegally built according to the recent Xinhua agency’s report. To protect farmland resources and the natural environment as well as water reservoirs, the Ministry of Land Resources (MLR) imposed a ban on golf course construction in 2004, which required any new golf course planning to use more than 67 hectares of farmland to be approved by the state council before construction. However, Chinese golf course developers found ways to sneak under these regulations. For example, golf course developers never use the word golf in their project document; instead they use parks, country clubs, and green belts for the documents submitted for approval. Some developers illegally rent rural land to build golf courses. Since the ban in 2004, 430 new golf courses were developed in the nation.

Experts who are familiar with the matters claim that local governments turn a blind eye to illegal golf courses. Building a golf course in a rural area could be a way to boost the property price and the land price around the golf course, not to mention attracting more tourists. Such prospects are very attractive for many cash-strapped local governments. The local officials also are often entertained by golf course developers and become regular players on the greens.

Called China’s Hawaii, the tropical island of Hainan is having a similar fate. The holiday resort Hainan has many 1000-year-old trees, bamboo, and palm trees in its tropical rainforest. This rare conservation success in the world now accommodates many golf courses.

About 30 years ago, there was only one golf course in the whole nation, but now there are about 30 golf courses in Hainan alone. The Hainan local government wants to expand the number of golf courses to 100 and eventually to 300 to attract tourists from all over the world.

To make the island into the Hawaii of East Asia, there are many things that must be sacrificed. One is food security, because golf courses eat up farmland. But the environmental impact goes beyond land possession. The chemical pesticides and fertilizers pollute nearby lakes and soil. The imported soil for the greens and fairways also brings in foreign insects and pests. To kill these pests, golf courses need to use stronger insecticides which also contaminate soil and trees. Also, with no more trees to absorb water, this leads to neighboring villages flooding every year. One villager near a golf course claimed that they never had a flood until the golf course constructors cut down all the trees to build greens and fairways. Even worse, plastic sheeting under the green courses, which is supposed to prevent soil contamination, helps water to run down faster when it rains.

It’s not just about nature conservation. Big cities also face problems from golf courses. The capital city Beijing, as a parched city, is not the best location to accommodate golf courses in China. Yet the city is home to more than 60 golf courses. According to industry experts, half of these golf courses were built after the 2004 golf course ban, and only a few of them were built in compliance with the policy. These golf courses also consume 40 million tons of ground water yearly. This kind of groundwater overuse is unsustainable and also very dangerous. It gives people fewer options to obtain water and it also causes the ground to sink.

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