June 2, 2005

China Faces ‘Severe’ Environmental Problems

BEIJING -- China is facing "severe" environmental problems, including pollution in most of its rivers and lakes and worsening acid rain, the government said, blaming the booming economy and urban growth.

"China is witnessing rapid economic growth, which has a major impact on the environment, intensifying environmental problems," said Wang Jirong, deputy director of the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), on Thursday.

"Pollution is very severe in some places, which greatly impacts people's livelihood," said Wang Yuqing, also deputy director of SEPA.

They were speaking at the presentation of an annual report on the state of the environment that painted a bleak picture.

While the report said environmental quality across China remained "basically" the same in 2004, it indicated there had been little improvement on an already dire situation and some worsening trends.

Most of China's large waterways -- including its seven biggest rivers and 25 out of its 27 major lakes -- were polluted, some seriously, the report said.

Acid rain fell more often and on more cities last year, affecting 298 urban areas -- more than half of all the cities monitored.

Caused by the burning of fossil fuels for generating electricity, acid rain can kill trees and harm soil and water.

Urban pollution was another fast-growing problem, as statistics showed only one-third of the sewage and about 57 percent of the garbage generated in cities was being treated, according to the report.

Waste treatment facilities in Chinese cities were "quite inadequate," said the report. "They are unable to support sustainable development in cities."

Nearly 200 cities altogether lacked sewage or garbage treatment facilities.

Only 60 percent of dangerous waste in Chinese cities, especially waste from hospitals, was treated last year.

Much of the problem was due to the rapid industrialization and economic growth, officials said.

China witnessed nearly double digit last year with an urbanization rate of 28 percent in 1993 rising to 41.7 percent in 2004, putting "great pressure" on resources and the environment, the report said.

The contradictions between protecting the environment and developing the economy were becoming "sharper," officials said.

They indicated the problem would not be resolved soon, despite government measures to curb pollution.

"The environmental problems that developed countries gradually witnessed over more than a century are being witnessed by China in just the past two decades," Wang Jirong said.

"China is still a developing country. Our development cannot stop."

The government is, however, planning to "review the country's pattern of development" to minimize impact on the environment, she said.

"What we need to change is the way we develop," she said.

The government, for example, is trying to reduce the country's dependency on coal for power generation, moving to build more hydroelectric plants.

She said the government would also move to shut down more polluting factories, increase fines against polluters and step up pressure on local governments which had inadequately handled pollution problems.

Land degradation was also occurring at a larger percentage of China's natural grassland due to overgrazing, "irrational development" and industrial pollution. The trend "still had not been curbed," the report said.