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Filthy as well as rich July 17, 2007

Posted by tkcollier in Economy & Business, Enviroment, In The News.

Filthy as well as rich | Special reports | Guardian Unlimited
Blue-green algae blooms choked Lake Taihu – China’s third biggest source of freshwater – in May, forcing 5 million people to use bottled water for drinking and bathing.

Soon after, local media were reporting outbreaks across the country. Rancid blooms contaminated Dianchi Lake in southwestern China, then Xinlicheng reservoir, the main source of water for Changchun – a northern city of almost 3m people. In every case, pollution – either from factories, fertilizer or untreated sewage – was to blame.

Algae blooms are nature’s response to discharges of nitrogen and phosphorus. Grown to excess, they choke waterways of oxygen, killing fish and fouling the air with a putrid smell.

When China’s prime minister, Wen Jiabao, visited Lake Taihu, he reportedly described it as an environmental wake-up call to the nation.

It is not the first. In recent years, China’s leaders have stressed the need to shift national priorities away from runaway economic growth towards a more sustainable model of development.

But central government calls for greater energy efficiency and tighter controls on polluting industries are often ignored by local officials who push for industrial expansion regardless of the costs to human health and the environment.

People in China do not need the OECD to tell them that their country has grown filthy as well as rich. Almost every day, the newspapers carry stories of toxic discharges, air quality warnings, health scares or disputes over pollution.

Even the capital city, Beiing – which is being dressed up for a “green Olympics” – cannot escape the dire consequences of breakneck growth.

Today – like yesterday and the day before – the city’s skies were dark with a sulpherous smog that was so thick that is seemed to swallow up skyscrapers. The air quality is sometimes so poor that schoolchildren are warned to stay indoors at break times.

Fly across the country and you find city after city enveloped in the same seemingly endless grey haze. Officials blame cement factories, coal plants and burgeoning traffic on the roads.

Pollution is increasingly the source of friction. Domestically, it is seen as a cause for the rise in mass demonstrations. Among the most recent incidents was a confrontation earlier this month between police and farmers near Mount Emei in Sichuan province who blocked a highway to protest against an aluminium company they blamed for contamination of their crops.

Last month, thousands took to the streets in Xiamen, Fujian province, to oppose plans for a chemical plant that they feared would destroy air quality. China’s environmental problems have also spilled across its borders, creating unease in neighbouring countries. In 2005, alarms were raised in Russia after a toxic spill downstream in the Songhua river forced millions of people in Harbin to do without tap water for several days.

The government has set ambitious targets to improve energy efficiency and cut pollution. But the goals are far from being reached and there is no sign that the economy is slowing down. In 2006, GDP grew by 11%. Maintaining that breakneck pace, China is expected to overtake Germany before the end of the year to become the world’s third largest economy.


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