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December 16th, 2008:

Counting The High Cost Of Growth – Economic Success Has Led To A Growing Environmental Crisis, Experts Warn

Shi Jiangtao in Beijing, SCMP – Updated on Dec 16, 2008

Undeterred by the cold, a few dozen people gathered outside the Chaoyang District Court in Beijing last month to wait for a trial that was probably their last chance for redress on a government decision they say threatens the health of thousands of people.

Representing more than 15,000 residents of three housing estates in the Wangjing area, they opposed the building of a high-voltage substation next to their subdivisions.

“We don’t want pollution in our backyards,” they said.

Their suit was just one of hundreds of thousands of anti-pollution campaigns and protests across the mainland every year, a sign of rising of public awareness of environmental issues and the legacy of three decades of breakneck economic growth.

Whether in cities or rural areas, more environmentally aware people are fighting the scourge of pollution, according to Xu Kezhu of the China University of Politics and Law’s Centre for Legal Assistance for Pollution Victims.

“It also shows the extent of China’s environmental problems,” Professor Xu said.

“People used to be indifferent about pollution on their doorstep. But now they know about its adverse impact on their health and the environment, they cannot sit by and endure further suffering.”

While Beijing has good cause to celebrate 30 years of reform and opening and its robust economy despite the global recession, it cannot overlook the unfolding environmental crisis confronting the country. Pollution and other environmental problems have become the biggest byproduct of China’s economic leap forward in the past three decades.

Air pollution is common in almost every mainland city, with China accounting for 20 of the 30 cities with the worst air in the world, according to the World Bank.

Severe pollution has contaminated 90 per cent of the country’s rivers and lakes, leaving more than 360 million people living without access to clean water.

While more than 70 per cent of water in the Yellow, Huai and Hai rivers is considered “too polluted for human use”, the Yangtze River, China’s longest, which absorbs more than 40 per cent of the country’s total waste water – most of it untreated – is turning “cancerous”.

Algal outbreaks have repeatedly hit offshore waters and 75 per cent of the more than 20,000 lakes and reservoirs on the mainland, according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection. The Bohai Sea area, the site earmarked for the country’s next economic powerhouse, will be dead in about 10 years because of 1.6 billion tonnes of sewage from Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei dumped into it every year, according to People’s Daily.

Environmental Protection Minister Zhou Shengxian has labelled environmental disasters threats to social stability.

Mr Zhou’s ministry acknowledged there were about 51,000 pollution-related protests in 2005 and it dealt with 580,000 cases of environmental complaints in 2006.

Pollution also takes a heavy physical toll on people. According to an unpublished World Bank report, 750,000 mainlanders die prematurely every year as a result of air and water pollution. The Chinese Academy of Environmental Planning put the air-pollution death toll in 600 mainland cities in 2004 at about 358,000 and its health bill at 152.7 billion yuan (HK$173.2 billion).

“China has made the kind of economic advances in three decades that required 100 years in western countries. But China also has suffered a century’s worth of environmental damage in 30 years,” Environmental Protection Vice-Minister Pan Yue said.

The obsession with “develop first and clean up later” had caused the near-breakdown of the nation’s resources and environment, and the people’s lives were in great danger, he said.

When the new leadership made pledges to clean up water and air and provide people with a better environment, few doubted the sincerity of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao to stop heedless development. They introduced an automated system to monitor big polluters, published a blacklist of the top 6,000 polluters and threatened to halt tax incentives and deny bank loans to energy-intensive metals, energy and cement industries. They even started calculating the environmental cost of the mainland’s much-praised economic leap forward by coming up with a “green GDP” report.

An incomplete calculation of the environmental costs in 2004 showed that pollution caused more than 510 billion yuan in economic losses, or 3 per cent of gross domestic product, according to the mainland’s first green-GDP report, released in 2006.

“But more realistic estimates put environmental damage at 8 to 13 per cent of GDP each year, which means that China has lost almost everything it has gained since the late 1970s due to pollution,” Mr Pan said.

The environmental price tag of the mainland’s runaway development has apparently embarrassed its leaders, including Mr Hu, who lent his support from the outset of the research scheme, and sparked fierce resistance among development-minded local authorities.

The resistance was part of the reason Beijing failed to meet annual commitments in 2006 as part of a five-year plan to slash energy consumption by 20 per cent and curb pollution emissions by 10 per cent by 2010. But rather than reining in local officials who favoured economic development over pollution control, or encouraging much-needed supervision, Beijing’s disappointing prescription has been to stall further announcements of related statistics.

The decision to shelve the green-GDP calculations came ahead of a political reshuffle at the Communist Party’s congress last year that further cemented Mr Hu’s grip on power. Analysts said that despite his talk about conservation, Mr Hu could not afford to let environmentalism disrupt his political agenda.

Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said China’s leaders paid more attention to their political image than to conservation.

Mr Hu has pushed the lofty ideas of the “scientific concept of development” and the need to build a harmonious society against the backdrop of a harsh reality of economic woes, social tensions and environmental damage, but few people are impressed.

“There will be no harmonious society without a harmonious environment,” said US field biologist George Schaller, who first visited China in the early 1980s for panda research.

Analysts have also cautioned against expecting too much of the State Environmental Protection Administration’s elevation to a full ministry, saying the move could hardly reverse pollution and degradation.

Given the mainland’s thirst for growth, environmental watchdogs can only at best stop pollution getting worse, they say. Poor law enforcement, local protectionism and rampant corruption are also hampering Beijing’s cleanup effort.

China is reaching a crisis point, experts warn. The question is: Can the country bring its runaway pollution under control before it’s too late?