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Fairness Crucial to Environmental Issues

Judging from the swelling investment pumped into related projects, China has grasped more thoroughly than ever the urgency of environmental protection.

Recently, it was reported that during the 11th Five-Year Plan period (2006-10), the country's estimated investment in environmental protection will reach 1,375 billion yuan (US$169.5 billion), accounting for 1.6 percent of the output of the national economy.

That means the country will double its total expenditure on protecting the environment in the coming five years.

In the past more than two decades, fast economic growth has substantially raised the living standards of the masses. More and more Chinese people, especially those in urban areas, are complaining about the deteriorating environment.

Widespread air pollution and water shortages have made urban life less pleasant than robust economic growth originally promised.

It is good news that the Chinese authorities have finally decided to spend so much on improving the environment.

Emerging environmental restraints have already given warning that the country can no longer blindly put economic growth above all else.

Only by building an environmentally friendly society can China sustain its long-term economic progress and the continuous improvement of people's standard of living.

To this end, increased investment is an absolute must.

Without adequate input, the ongoing trend of environmental deterioration will not be stopped, let alone reversed, and cleaner air and water will be unobtainable.

However, investment alone is not sufficient to address many of the country's environment-related problems.

If the increased supply of funds cannot be fairly distributed between rural and urban areas, the unprecedented environmental campaign is unlikely to make any significant improvement to the country's ecology.

Currently, energy-and-resources-consuming cities have largely based their prosperity on surrounding poorer rural areas, which are caught between environmental vulnerability and economic backwardness.

A recent report in the Beijing News revealed the quagmire of Chicheng, a county in Hebei Province on the border with Beijing. As a key water source for the capital, the small county has had to reduce local economic activities to save water to meet the demands of the ever-thirsty Beijing. But compensation from Beijing is a fraction of what it should have been.

There must be multiple historical, fiscal and administrative reasons behind the apparently unreasonable water-sharing arrangement.

But the severe reality of striking poverty on the periphery of a metropolis like Beijing should remind policy-makers of the necessity to divert more environmental funds to rural areas.

In recent years, many local governments have spent a lot of money on improving the urban environment by planting grass and reducing car emissions.

Not that such expenditure is unnecessary. Urban residents deserve the better living environment they help deliver.

The problem is, by comparison, funds allocated for rural environmental protection are too little.

Just as in the case of Chicheng, rural areas should not bear the brunt of the environmental costs their urban cousins incur without being adequately compensated.

Otherwise, rural areas will be left further and further behind until they themselves become the source of an environmental disaster.

The country is working hard to narrow the widening urban-rural development gap. Fair distribution of environmental funds can help.

(China Daily November 4, 2005)

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