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Environmental Protection in China: a Spate of Catastrophes and a Glimmer of Hope
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A year after China's worst-ever toxic spill in the northeastern Songhua River, the country is still struggling to come to terms with environmental issues even though the central government claims expenditure in this domain has grown by 15 percent every year.


The State Council, or China's cabinet, recently announced details of the punishment of environmental officials and senior executives of a state-owned petroleum company in Jilin responsible for the spill.


But neither the immediate resignation of China's top environmental protection official nor the eventual punishment of the local officials and company managers -- one year on -- has stemmed the flow of environmental mishaps.     


Environment plight     


The authoritative State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) said China has suffered one water pollution incident every two or three days since the Songhua River scandal.


China's rivers, lakes and reservoirs are still being used as free, public gutters, where factories willy-nilly dump unprocessed liquid waste.


In September, two chemical plants in central China's Hunan Province illegally discharged a highly toxic arsenic compound into a tributary of China's second largest freshwater lake, Dongting Lake, leading to the suspension of water supplies to at least 80,000 local residents for a week.


Even more dramatic are the woes of China's longest river, the Yangtze, where hydropower stations are spreading like mushrooms and tens of thousands of industrial and chemical plants dot the banks of the waterway.


Imagine a Chinese person stuffing trash into his mother's pockets. Unthinkable, and yet a newly-released report by the Yangtze River Water Resources Commission shows water pollution has worsened over the last ten years as billions of tons of waste continue to be dumped into China's "mother river".


The report shows that 30 billion tons of polluted water were dumped into the river last year, 50 percent more than in 1998. About 27.5 percent of the river's water is seriously polluted and cannot be made potable, said the report. The percentage in 1998 was below 20.


Western Gansu province was the theater of an appalling pollution tragedy in September.


A total of 954 children were confirmed sick with lead poisoning after long exposure to a non-ferrous metal smelting firm in Huixian County that pursued operations in contempt of people's safety.     


Camouflaged by economic development


As usual, the people responsible for the accidents were demoted or dismissed but almost all of them defended themselves by pleading that they were the butt of conflicting pressures, since almost all the pollution-generating projects are connected with "economic growth and regional development."


With their fixation on dollars-and-cents development, officials are accustomed to hiding their environmental protection responsibilities under the cloak of "economic development imperatives", said Pan Yue, vice director of SEPA.


Basking in the glory of sustained GDP growth, many of these officials are woefully ignorant of the skyrocketing environmental cost of their "economic-development-at-all-costs" attitude.


Many provincial governments in China still regard economic indices as the key standard for assessing their performance. A SEPA report said China's overall pollution discharges kept rising in the first three quarters this year and pointed out that the major cause of it was the indiscriminate choice of economic projects.


China failed to achieve its environmental protection goals in the first half of the year. Pollutant levels have not dropped as anticipated but instead increased, said the SEPA report.


The report said China's industrial polluted water discharge was12 billion tons in the first half of this year, an increase of 2.4percent year-on-year and sulfur dioxide discharges were 12.7 million tons, up 4.2 percent.


Meanwhile, China's GDP grew by 10.9 percent in the first half of this year. The country's coal production rose by 12.8 percent.


Some foreign experts have warned that the dramatic pollution situation has already affected China's image and even its international status. What is worse, environmental problems have begun to jeopardize the sustainable growth of China's economy.     


Nationwide action


The bitter and unpalatable fact remains that pollution control is the only national economic development goal that China failed to achieve during its tenth five-year plan period (2001-2005). Pan said -- even without international reminders like the Stern report-- the Chinese government has already realized how critical this topic is.


In October China's State Council founded a "pollution source census panel", headed by Vice-Premier Zeng Peiyan, to carry out a nationwide pollution source inventory over the next few years.


Detailed plans are still under discussion but this census -- which aims to "provide the data needed to achieve the eleventh five-year plan (2006-2010) goal of reduce China's main pollutants by ten percent" -- will be a first for China.


The central government also decided, in July, to establish five regional environmental protection supervision centers in the country to localize environmental protection tasks.


Meanwhile, the Organization Department of the Communist Party of China Central Committee said environmental protection will be an important index for assessing local officials' performance starting next year.


The SEPA will sign responsibility pledges with local governments and officials will be denied promotion and even punished if environmental protection goals are not achieved, said the department.


According to the Kuznets Curve, environmental problems occur more frequently in a country as national income grows. As the country takes protection measures, the problems decrease while the economy continues to grow.


"But the problem is that we do not know where and when the turning point will occur, so government action is utterly crucial," said Guo Huaicheng, a professor from Beijing University's Environment School.


Government efforts have drawn some positive comments from experts and the general public in China.


"The Chinese people, or at least the Chinese media, are becoming more and more alert to environmental problems and are now a strong force in China's environmental protection campaign," said Guo.


The astonishing "public trial effect" is more powerful than government orders, said the professor, citing the example of a nationwide condemnation in May of "The Promise" director Chen Kaige and his film crew for the environmental damage they caused to the Blue Sky Pond, or Bigu Tianchi, in Shangri-La in Yunnan province.


Chen's misdeeds were not as bad as some other environmental crimes. But the arrogance of the film crew -- who destroyed alpine vegetation to build their sets -- sparked a strong public response. A deputy county head was subsequently sacked but the film crew was only fined a paltry 90,000 yuan (about US$11,500).


Nevertheless, Guo said the punishments signaled a "keener environmental protection awareness among Chinese people."


Waterways, lakes, urban air pollution, sulphur dioxide emissions, chemical spills, lead poisoning -- as the year draws to a close, the real fight is just beginning.


(Xinhua News Agency December 12, 2006)

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