Baotou Lake: The tech wasteland

Recently I came across an article that affected me deeply. Companies offer a new device everyday and we get tempted to buy them almost every year. We never stop to question if our lust is putting someone else’s life at risk. I am well aware that e-waste should be discarded properly and I suppose most of the people know this but knowing that even the raw materials for technology have a grave impact on nature changed my views about technology. I would like everyone who reads this article to read the article called “The dystopian lake filled by the world’s tech lust” by Tim Maughan on It contains the horrifying first hand account of the lake of Baotou where most of the world’s technological raw material processing wastes are dumped. The article is sure to make one ponder and change the way he/she looks at the gadgets they own. Since I myself have not been to the place I have used the above mentioned article to understand about the place and put my views on it.

Baotou is the largest industrial city of Inner Mongolia in China. The mines in Bayan Obo are the greatest source of rare earth metals in the world. Most of us haven’t heard of rare earth metals or for short rare earths. They are a series of chemicals that are essential for manufacturing almost any modern day electronic equipment and Baotou is the epicenter of these highly desired metals. Baotou amounts for almost 90% of the world’s rare earths supply fetching China huge revenue and boosting its economy. The city of Baotou before the mining of rare earths had a population of only 97000 but now has reached a staggering 2.5 million. Everyone over there is present for just one reason, to process the rare earths. It is essential to acknowledge that people just want to make an honest living out of these jobs and that China also has to export these minerals to develop itself, but the question that comes to everyone’s mind is “At what cost?”

In Tim Maughan’s description the affect on the city is clearly visible. Even before reaching the lake where the wastes are dumped, Tim mentions how the city has large pipes that meander through the sidewalks and streets of the cities carrying the wastes within it. China has opted for economical advancement of its country over the protection of the city from pollution. This is evident through a report in 2015 which stated Baotou as the worst place to live.

The Lake:
If one sees the lake in person it is sure to send a shiver down the spine. Also, the acidic miasma will not allow you to stay for a long time. The lake looks like something from a movie depicting an alien land, or some infernal depiction. It is unidentifiable as a lake because no water is visible, all that is seen are dark grounds layered with coal dust and effluents being discharged contaminating it further. It is truly a painful sight and I am sure Tim Maughan was terrified by standing on its banks and looking at a panoramic view of the lake.

(Image source: The Guardian)

(Image source: The Guardian)

We ourselves can see the heinous lake using google maps which show the unnatural scenery. Initially, the place was a farmland and the lakes water helped the farmers grow crops. Then the companies started settling in the early sixties when technology innovation was starting in the world. Slowly many companies came in and then the dumping of the wastes started. The lake dried up over a period of time and now it is a wasteland. Nothing can be grown there as the ground has nothing but toxins in it. People who visit the lake report to have a major headache in less than an hour, thus one can imagine what the condition of the locals would be who take in these hazardous fumes emanating from the lake every day. The height to which China is ready to sacrifice its lands to get money is eye-popping. While every other country opted out of this madness or maintain the raw earths processing at a mediocre scale, China sacrificed an entire city. This greed destroying nature is very painful indeed.

Irony of technology:
The condition of the lake is sure to make one question about their technological needs. As almost no one has heard or read about Baotou, people are not filled with any regret. But after I read about it I realized that my greed of acquiring the greatest and latest of the tech world is not at all worth. However, the world cannot stop and the cycle will keep on repeating.

The biggest irony of it all is that these raw earths are used in clean energy technology. For example neodymium is a raw earth metal which forms a majority of the exports of raw earths. Neodymium magnets are used in wind farm turbines for generating electricity as well as in the batteries in electric cars. We always thought that clean energy would make the world a better and cleaner place, but apparently that is not the case. While this clean energy is making the world an environment friendly place in one part of the world, it is evidently destroying in another part. The advent of technology in every sector, be it aerospace, integrated circuits, T.V or eco friendly technology has surely eased our lives and made work faster for companies. But there are always two sides to a coin and Baotou is the other side, lying in the dark shadow of accomplishments of the new era of technology. We do not know why we haven’t read about it in newspapers or heard about it in news, of course there will be a higher power at play here, but we can know this, the world is still not environment friendly.

While the technology advances on, Baotou will be its unknown contributor and will continue to be so as China is still trying to increase its rare earths exports by reducing its export tax. Till when will Baotou contribute, we cannot say, hopefully before the place becomes completely inaccessible? There is no solution to be offered except this, the next time you buy an undesired piece of technology just for the sake of owning it, think about Baotou Lake, and look at its images, which have been created due to the ravenous want for technology.

Read about : How China should transition to a consumer driven economy?

Read about: Is this China’s century?

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Pritam Mukherjee

An information which was unknown to most…Thanks for sharing it. Its really disheartening to see that technology is actually becoming a curse for the society and it is to be seen for how long the Earth is going to sustain all this.

Monalisa Chandra
Monalisa Chandra

read the article.. really its disheartening to know the cost borne to supply tech-rich features to the world!

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