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Sunday, 5 June 2011

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China faces ‘very grave’ environmental situation

According to a report by Ian Jonson to the New York Times, China’s three decades of rapid economic growth have left it with a “very grave” environmental situation even as it tries to move away from a develop-at-all-costs strategy, senior government officials said Friday.

In a blunt assessment of the problems facing the world’s most populous country, officials from China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection delivered their 2010 annual report. They pointed to two major advances: improvements in water and air quality, key goals that the Ministry had set for itself to achieve over a five-year period ending in December.

The targets were met, with pollutants in surface water down 32 percent over the period and sulphur dioxide emissions in cities down by 19 percent.

But officials cautioned that many other problems were serious and scarcely under control.

“The overall environmental situation is still very grave and is facing many difficulties and challenges,” said Li Ganjie, the vice minister. Mr. Li said biodiversity was declining with “a continuous loss and drain of genetic resources,” while China’s countryside was becoming more polluted as dirty industries were moved out of cities and into rural areas.

Li said reversing the deterioration of the countryside was a major focus for the coming five-year plan. He also pledged to control contamination by heavy metals, which resulted in nine cases of lead poisoning last year and seven more in the first five months of this year. He said that China needed a law to regulate heavy metals and that he was confident it would be written and passed soon.

Founded as an agency 13 years ago, the Environmental Protection Office was upgraded to a ministry in 2007, but has fought an uphill battle for money and power. China’s government has prioritised growth, worried that unemployment will lead to unrest.

Now, however, signs are growing that environmental neglect is causing instability. Protests in Inner Mongolia last week, for example, were partly due to concerns that industries such as coal and mining _ which are largely dominated by ethnic Chinese _ are destroying the grasslands used for herding by the indigenous Mongolian population. Similar conflicts have arisen in other sensitive ethnic areas, such as Tibet and Xinjiang.

Li said that more than a fifth of the country’s land set aside as nature reserves had been illegally developed by companies, often with local government collusion. But he said that the Ministry had now deployed a satellite that can detect illegal development and would pressure local governments to stop the work. Failing this, Li said, the Ministry has the power to influence officials’ prospects for promotions because environmental compliance is now a part of their performance evaluation.

 

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