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Aug 24, 2007

China's environmental issues

Great article in Foreign Affairs you can read on China's most serious environmental problems and their likely impact. Some of the facts from the article I found most fascinating:

AIR POLLUTION: "The country is home to 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities.... Particulates are responsible for respiratory problems among the population, and acid rain, which is caused by sulfur dioxide emissions, falls on one-quarter of China's territory and on one-third of its agricultural land, diminishing agricultural output and eroding buildings.... Levels of airborne particulates are now six times higher in Beijing than in New York City."

WASTING POWER: "Chinese buildings are not energy efficient -- in fact, they are roughly two and a half times less so than those in Germany. Furthermore, newly urbanized Chinese, who use air conditioners, televisions, and refrigerators, consume about three and a half times more energy than do their rural counterparts."

FOOD SAFETY: "Meanwhile, much of China's arable soil is contaminated, raising concerns about food safety. As much as ten percent of China's farmland is believed to be polluted, and every year 12 million tons of grain are contaminated with heavy metals absorbed from the soil."

(You think they throw 12 million tons of grain away? I don't think so. Someone's getting the short end of that stick.)

DESERTIFICATION: "The Gobi Desert, which now engulfs much of western and northern China, is spreading by about 1,900 square miles annually; some reports say that despite Beijing's aggressive reforestation efforts, one-quarter of the entire country is now desert."

WATER SHORTAGE: "... two-thirds of China's approximately 660 cities have less water than they need and 110 of them suffer severe shortages. According to Ma Jun, a leading Chinese water expert, several cities near Beijing and Tianjin, in the northeastern region of the country, could run out of water in five to seven years."

WATER WASTE: "The agricultural sector lays claim to 66 percent of the water China consumes, mostly for irrigation, and manages to waste more than half of that. Chinese industries are highly inefficient: they generally use 10-20 percent more water than do their counterparts in developed countries. Urban China is an especially huge squanderer: it loses up to 20 percent of the water it consumes through leaky pipes."

WATER POLLUTION: According to one report by the government-run Xinhua News Agency, the aquifers in 90 percent of Chinese cities are polluted. More than 75 percent of the river water flowing through China's urban areas is considered unsuitable for drinking or fishing, and ... 30 percent of the river water throughout the country to be unfit for use in agriculture or industry. As a result, nearly 700 million people drink water contaminated with animal and human waste."

SEWAGE DUMPING: "A 2005 survey of 509 cities revealed that only 23 percent of factories properly treated sewage before disposing of it. According to another report, today one-third of all industrial wastewater in China and two-thirds of household sewage are released untreated.... The Yangtze River, which stretches all the way from the Tibetan Plateau to Shanghai, receives 40 percent of the country's sewage, 80 percent of it untreated."

BIO-DIVERSITY: "In early 2007, Chinese officials announced that over one-third of the fish species native to the Yellow River had become extinct due to damming or pollution."

GLOBAL WARMING: "Chinese and international scientists now warn that due to rising sea levels, Shanghai could be submerged by 2050."

IT'S EXPENSIVE! "Several studies conducted both inside and outside China estimate that environmental degradation and pollution cost the Chinese economy between 8 percent and 12 percent of GDP annually."

CANCER: "a 19 percent rise in urban areas and a 23 percent rise in rural areas since 2005." Holy shit, that's a lot of cancer! People who die of respiratory diseases related to air pollution number between 400,000 and 750,000 a year.

POLITICAL IMPACT: "In the view of China's leaders, however, damage to the environment itself is a secondary problem. Of greater concern to them are its indirect effects: the threat it poses to the continuation of the Chinese economic miracle and to public health, social stability, and the country's international reputation. Taken together, these challenges could undermine the authority of the Communist Party."

PROTESTS: "... 51,000 pollution-related protests in 2005, which amounts to almost 1,000 protests each week..... in 2005, 30,000-40,000 villagers from Zhejiang Province swarmed 13 chemical plants, broke windows and overturned buses, attacked government officials, and torched police cars. The government sent in 10,000 members of the People's Armed Police in response."

And of course, underlying all these problems are local officials unwillingness to do much about pollution regardless of the central government's orders because of the race for economic development. If you're a Chinese (or international) manufacturer, do you build your plant in the city that requires treating water, or the one that winks and looks the other way?

In any case, China's gonna have to do a lot to deter a potentially total disaster.

1 comment:

Anna said...

The problems are indeed enormous, but as to drinking water I don't think it's as bad as this article suggests. I believe Chinese know very well their tap water is not drinkable (potable?), so they drink either bottled water, or cook their water before they drink it (tea).