Briefing: water, air and health

Pollution control is vital if China is to fulfil its development goals, writes Maryann Bird, in the fourth of a series of guides to hot topics in a warming world.

When a country is developing as quickly as China is, it produces an immense amount of pollution of its air and water. Ultimately, such pollution affects the health of both the environment and the citizenry. Zhu Guangyao, deputy director of China’s State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), in releasing China’s second “white paper” (a report stating the agency’s position) on environmental protection since 1996, said on 5 June 2006 that economic losses as a result of environmental pollution may account for as much as 10% of China’s gross domestic product (GDP).

Entitled Environmental Protection in China (1996-2005) and released by the information office of the State Council, China’s cabinet, the report says the environmental-protection situation in the county remains “grave”. Zhu acknowledged that the 10% figure is not very precise, given the immense difficulties in conducting research and analysis, but he emphasised that in China’s future development, environmental protection will be a brake on the government’s economic macro-control policies.

The World Bank, in fact, reached a similar statistical conclusion years earlier, finding that pollution was costing China 8 to 12% of GDP annually in direct damage. In a 2004 article entitled “The Great Wall of Waste”, the Economist reported that such damage was arising from the impact of acid rain (droplets containing sulphur or nitrogen oxides) on crops, medical bills, lost work from illness, money spent on disaster relief following floods and the implied costs of resource depletion. As health costs rise, so too will the effect on China’s GDP – now the world’s sixth largest.

China’s current (11th) five-year plan lays out its main goals for environmental protection, emphasising improvement in the environmental quality of key cities and regions and reining in the trend toward ecological deterioration. China’s most important environmental task, says Zhu, is control of water pollution, with a focus on providing drinking-water security to its population.

According to the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2006 report, China has just 8% of the world’s fresh water to meet the needs of 22% of the planet’s population – “and virtually the entire northern half of the country is drying out. Extreme pollution exacerbates water scarcity by rendering some water virtually useless. Of 412 sites on China’s seven main rivers that were monitored for water quality in 2004, 58% were found to be too dirty for human consumption.”

The air pollution problem is also critical, and another casualty of rapid growth and heavy dependence on energy produced by coal. Sandstorms and the boom in urban construction projects – which have multiplied since China was awarded the 2008 Olympic Summer Games — add to the pollution. So do the increasing number of vehicles on China’s traffic-congested streets. After the United States and Japan, China is the world’s third-largest car market – and, as is frequently mentioned, the second-largest oil consumer after the US. Beijing’s dirty skies often block out the view of nearby mountains, and pollution-related airline flight delays are not uncommon. As one measure to curb auto-related energy consumption, the government has raised levies on highly polluting vehicles with larger engines.

As the Worldwatch study indicates, of the 20 most-polluted cities in the world, 16 are in China, and SEPA estimates that some 200 cities “fall short of World Health Organisation standards for the airborne particulates that are responsible for many respiratory diseases.” The Worldwatch report continues: “China’s air is also filled with sulphur dioxide, which has given it some of the world’s worst acid rain. An estimated 30% of China’s cropland is suffering from acidification, and the resulting damage to farms, forest and human health is projected at $13 billion. In coming decades, the health and ecological burdens of polluted air are likely to grow steadily, as coal-fired air pollution is complemented by a growing brew of automotive emissions.”

Environmental problems that afflicted developed countries in various phases of their century-plus period of industrialisation have occurred in China all at the same time – in the relatively short time since the country’s economy began to boom in the late 1970s. Although resource consumption and pollutants are increasing greatly, the trend toward aggravated environmental pollution and ecological destruction is actually slowing, the Chinese white paper maintains. New or revised laws have been formulated since 1996 – laws on prevention and control of air and water pollution, protection of the marine environment, and evaluation of environmental impact. In the last few years, SEPA says, some 16,000 enterprises have been closed down, as a result of the state’s special environmental protection campaigns to protect human health and to deal with those who illegally discharge pollutants.

Judging by statistics in the white paper, the Chinese news agency Xinhua says, the amount of industrial waste water, oxygen for industrial chemicals, industrial sulphur dioxide, industrial smoke and industrial dust discharged in generating one unit of China’s GDP declined – respectively — by 58%, 72%, 42%, 55% and 39% from 1995 to 2004.

Still, the government is aware that a grave environmental-protection situation persists. The fragile environment and relative shortage of resources has led a worried China to invest heavily in environmental pollution control – 238.8 billion yuan ($29.9 billion) in 2005 alone. Earlier statistics show that rivers that go through cities are polluted in sections of their downtown areas, Xinhua reports, with one-fifth of Chinese cities suffering from serious air pollution, one-third of the land area affected by acid rain, and millions of square kilometres of land sustaining soil erosion and desertification. Natural grasslands and biodiversity also have severely declined.

China has set a number of optimistic goals under the five-year plan (up to 2010), including keeping annual growth at 7.5%, which Zhu maintains “will keep the country’s development at a stable pace.” But some local governments, particularly in “remote or backward areas” are still pursuing faster growth, which is putting pressure on local environments and resources. Plans also call for the reduction of major pollutants by 10%, a drop in energy consumption per GDP unit by 20%, and growth in forest cover to 20%. To fulfil the goals, Zhu says, pollution control is vital.