Choking on Growth: China's Environmental Crisis
Choking on Growth: China's Environmental Crisis
A series of articles and multimedia examining the human toll, global impact and political challenge of China's epic pollution crisis.
As China Roars, Pollution Reaches Deadly Extremes
Part 1 of 9
By JOSEPH KAHN and JIM YARDLEY
Published: August 26, 2007
BEIJING, Aug. 25 — No country in history has emerged as a major industrial power without creating a legacy of environmental damage that can take decades and big dollops of public wealth to undo.
But just as the speed and scale of China's rise as an economic power have no clear parallel in history, so its pollution problem has shattered all precedents. Environmental degradation is now so severe, with such stark domestic and international repercussions, that pollution poses not only a major long-term burden on the Chinese public but also an acute political challenge to the ruling Communist Party. And it is not clear that China can rein in its own economic juggernaut.
Public health is reeling. Pollution has made cancer China's leading cause of death, the Ministry of Health says. Ambient air pollution alone is blamed for hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. Nearly 500 million people lack access to safe drinking water.
Environmental woes that might be considered catastrophic in some countries can seem commonplace in China: industrial cities where people rarely see the sun; children killed or sickened by lead poisoning or other types of local pollution; a coastline so swamped by algal red tides that large sections of the ocean no longer sustain marine life....
CHINA'S WATER CRISIS
Beneath Booming Cities, China's Future Is Drying Up
Part 2 of 9
SHIJIAZHUANG, China — Hundreds of feet below ground, the primary water source for this provincial capital of more than two million people is steadily running dry. The underground water table is sinking about four feet a year. Municipal wells have already drained two-thirds of the local groundwater.
Above ground, this city in the North China Plain is having a party. Economic growth topped 11 percent last year. Population is rising. A new upscale housing development is advertising waterfront property on lakes filled with pumped groundwater. Another half-built complex, the Arc de Royal, is rising above one of the lowest points in the city's water table.
"People who are buying apartments aren't thinking about whether there will be water in the future," said Zhang Zhongmin, who has tried for 20 years to raise public awareness about the city's dire water situation.
For three decades, water has been indispensable in sustaining the rollicking economic expansion that has made China a world power. Now, China's galloping, often wasteful style of economic growth is pushing the country toward a water crisis. Water pollution is rampant nationwide, while water scarcity has worsened severely in north China — even as demand keeps rising everywhere....
In China, a Lake's Champion Imperils Himself
Part 3 of 9
ZHOUTIE, China — Lake Tai, the center of China's ancient"land of fish and rice," succumbed this year to floods of industrial and agricultural waste.
Toxic cyanobacteria, commonly referred to as pond scum, turned the big lake fluorescent green. The stench of decay choked anyone who came within a mile of its shores. At least two million people who live amid the canals, rice paddies and chemical plants around the lake had to stop drinking or cooking with their main source of water.
The outbreak confirmed the claims of a crusading peasant, Wu Lihong, who protested for more than a decade that the region's thriving chemical industry, and its powerful friends in the local government, were destroying one of China's ecological treasures.
Mr. Wu, however, bore silent witness. Shortly before the algae crisis erupted in May, the authorities here in his hometown arrested him. In mid-August, with a fetid smell still wafting off the lake, a local court sentenced him to three years on an alchemy of charges that smacked of official retribution.
Pollution has reached epidemic proportions in China, in part because the ruling Communist Party still treats environmental advocates as bigger threats than the degradation of air, water and soil that prompts them to speak out....
THREE GORGES DAM
Chinese Dam Projects Criticized for Their Human Costs
Part 4 of 9
JIANMIN VILLAGE, China — Last year, Chinese officials celebrated the completion of the Three Gorges Dam by releasing a list of 10 world records. As in: The Three Gorges is the world's biggest dam, biggest power plant and biggest consumer of dirt, stone, concrete and steel. Ever. Even the project's official tally of 1.13 million displaced people made the list as record No. 10.
Today, the Communist Party is hoping the dam does not become China's biggest folly. In recent weeks, Chinese officials have admitted that the dam was spawning environmental problems like water pollution and landslides that could become severe. Equally startling, officials want to begin a new relocation program that would be bigger than the first.
The rising controversy makes it easy to overlook what could have been listed as world record No. 11: The Three Gorges Dam is the world's biggest man-made producer of electricity from renewable energy. Hydropower, in fact, is the centerpiece of one of China's most praised green initiatives, a plan to rapidly expand renewable energy by 2020.
The Three Gorges Dam, then, lies at the uncomfortable center of China's energy conundrum: The nation's roaring economy is addicted to dirty, coal-fired power plants that pollute the air and belch greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming. Dams are much cleaner producers of electricity, but they have displaced millions of people in China and carved a stark environmental legacy on the landscape.
"It's really kind of a no-win situation," said Jonathan Sinton, China program manager at the International Energy Agency."There are no ideal choices."....
Far From Beijing's Reach, Officials Bend Energy Rules
Part 5 of 9
QINGTONGXIA, China — When the central government in Beijing announced an ambitious nationwide campaign to reduce energy consumption two years ago, officials in this western regional capital got right to work: not to comply, but to engineer creative schemes to evade the requirements.
The energy campaign required local officials to raise electricity prices as a way of discouraging the growth of large energy-consuming industries and forcing the least efficient of these users out of business. Instead, fearing the impact on the local economy, the regional government brokered a special deal for the Qingtongxia Aluminum Group, which accounts for 20 percent of this region's industrial consumption and roughly 10 percent of its gross domestic product.
Local officials arranged for the company to be removed from the national electrical grid and supplied directly by the local company, exempting it from expensive fees, according to an electricity company official who asked not to be named, an official of the aluminum company and the official Web site of the nearby city of Shizuishan. As a result, Qingtongxia continued to get its power at the lowest price available.
It was a cat-and-mouse game grimly familiar to Chinese officials, who have a long tradition of spearheading ambitious nationwide campaigns that are all too often thwarted at the local level, partly because local priorities clash with national ones.
Concerned about China's roaring economic engine consuming too much energy, national officials aimed to cut energy use by 20 percent per dollar of output within five years. China's energy consumption has more than quadrupled since 1980.
The environmental toll is staggering. The country is already the world's largest user of coal, the dirtiest type of energy. China's coal consumption alone is projected to double in the next 20 years, according to the International Energy Agency....
China's Turtles, Emblems of a Crisis
Part 6 of 6
CHANGSHA, China — Unnoticed and unappreciated for five decades, a large female turtle with a stained, leathery shell is now a precious commodity in this city's decaying zoo. She is fed a special diet of raw meat. Her small pool has been encased with bulletproof glass. A surveillance camera monitors her movements. A guard is posted at night.
The agenda is simple: The turtle must not die.
Earlier this year, scientists concluded that she was the planet's last known female Yangtze giant soft-shell turtle. She is about 80 years old and weighs almost 90 pounds.
As it happens, the planet also has only one undisputed, known male. He lives at a zoo in the city of Suzhou. He is 100 years old and weighs about 200 pounds. They are the last hope of saving a species believed to be the largest freshwater turtles in the world.
"It's a very dire situation," said Peter Pritchard, a prominent turtle expert in the United States who has helped in trying to save the species."This one is so big and it has such an aura of mystery."
For many Chinese, turtles symbolize health and longevity, but the saga of the last two Yangtze giant soft-shells is more symbolic of the threatened state of wildlife and biodiversity in China. Pollution, hunting and rampant development are destroying natural habitats, and also endangering plant and animal populations.
China contains some of the world's richest troves of biodiversity, yet the latest major survey of plants and animals reveals a bleak picture that has grown bleaker during the past decade. Nearly 40 percent of all mammal species in China are now endangered, scientists say. For plants, the situation is worse; 70 percent of all nonflowering plant species and 86 percent of flowering species are considered threatened.
An overriding problem is the fierce competition for land and water. China's goal of quadrupling its economy by 2020 means that industry, growing cities and farmers are jostling for a limited supply of usable land.
Cities or factories often claim farmland for expansion; farmers, in turn, reclaim marginal land that could be habitat. Already, China has lost half of its wetlands, according to one survey....
Trucks Power China's Economy, at a Suffocating Cost
Part 7 of 9
GUANGZHOU, China — Every night, columns of hulking blue and red freight trucks invade China's major cities with a reverberating roar of engines and dark clouds of diesel exhaust so thick it dims headlights.
By daybreak in this sprawling metropolis in southeastern China, residents near thoroughfares who leave their windows open overnight find their faces stiff with a dark layer of diesel soot.
After Mary Leung opens her tiny open-air shop along a major road soon after dawn, she must wipe the soot off her countertops and tables; the tiny yellow-and-olive bird that has kept her company is harder to clean.
Trucks are the mules of this country's spectacularly expanding economy — ubiquitous and essential, yet highly noxious.
Trucks here burn diesel fuel contaminated with more than 130 times the pollution-causing sulfur that the United States allows in most diesel. While car sales in China are now growing even faster than truck sales, trucks are by far the largest source of street-level pollution.
Tiny particles of sulfur-laden soot penetrate deep into residents' lungs, interfering with the absorption of oxygen. Nitrogen oxides from truck exhaust, which build all night because cities limit truck traffic by day, bind each morning with gasoline fumes from China's growing car fleet to form dense smog that inflames lungs and can cause severe coughing and asthma.
The 10 million trucks on Chinese roads, more than a quarter of all vehicles in this country, are a major reason that China accounts for half the world's annual increase in oil consumption. Sating their thirst helped push the price of oil to nearly $100 a barrel this year, before a recent decline, and has propelled China past the United States as the world's largest emitter of global-warming gases....
FARMING FISH In China, Farming Fish in Toxic Waters
Part 8 of 9
FUQING, China — Here in southern China, beneath the looming mountains of Fujian Province, lie dozens of enormous ponds filled with murky brown water and teeming with eels, shrimp and tilapia, much of it destined for markets in Japan and the West.
Fuqing is one of the centers of a booming industry that over two decades has transformed this country into the biggest producer and exporter of seafood in the world, and the fastest-growing supplier to the United States.
But that growth is threatened by the two most glaring environmental weaknesses in China: acute water shortages and water supplies contaminated by sewage, industrial waste and agricultural runoff that includes pesticides. The fish farms, in turn, are discharging wastewater that further pollutes the water supply.
"Our waters here are filthy," said Ye Chao, an eel and shrimp farmer who has 20 giant ponds in western Fuqing."There are simply too many aquaculture farms in this area. They're all discharging water here, fouling up other farms."
Farmers have coped with the toxic waters by mixing illegal veterinary drugs and pesticides into fish feed, which helps keep their stocks alive yet leaves poisonous and carcinogenic residues in seafood, posing health threats to consumers.
Environmental degradation, in other words, has become a food safety problem, and scientists say the long-term risks of consuming contaminated seafood could lead to higher rates of cancer and liver disease and other afflictions.
No one is more vulnerable to these health risks than the Chinese, because most of the seafood in China stays at home. But foreign importers are also worried. In recent years, the European Union and Japan have imposed temporary bans on Chinese seafood because of illegal drug residues. The United States blocked imports of several types of fish this year after inspectors detected traces of illegal drugs linked to cancer....
TWO STEEL TOWNS
China Grabs West's Smoke-Spewing Factories
Part 9 of 9
HANDAN, China — When residents of this northern Chinese city hang their clothes out to dry, the black fallout from nearby Handan Iron and Steel often sends them back to the wash.
Half a world away, neighbors of ThyssenKrupp's former steel mill in the Ruhr Valley of Germany once had a similar problem. The white shirts men wore to church on Sundays turned gray by the time they got home.
These two steel towns have an unusual kinship, spanning 5,000 miles and a decade of economic upheaval. They have shared the same hulking blast furnace, dismantled and shipped piece by piece from Germany's old industrial heartland to Hebei Province, China's new Ruhr Valley.
The transfer, one of dozens since the late 1990s, contributed to a burst in China's steel production, which now exceeds that of Germany, Japan and the United States combined. It left Germany with lost jobs and a bad case of postindustrial angst.
But steel mills spewing particulates into the air and sucking electricity from China's coal-fired power plants account for a big chunk of the country's surging emissions of sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide. Germany, in contrast, has cleaned its skies and is now leading the fight against global warming.
In its rush to re-create the industrial revolution that made the West rich, China has absorbed most of the major industries that once made the West dirty. Spurred by strong state support, Chinese companies have become the dominant makers of steel, coke, aluminum, cement, chemicals, leather, paper and other goods that faced high costs, including tougher environmental rules, in other parts of the world. China has become the world's factory, but also its smokestack.
This mass shift of polluting industries has blighted China's economic rise. Double-digit growth rates have done less to improve people's lives when the damages to the air, land, water and human health are considered, some economists say. Outmoded production equipment will have to be replaced or retrofitted at high cost if the country intends to reduce pollution.
China's worsening environment has also upended the geopolitics of global warming. It produces and exports so many goods once made in the West that many wealthy countries can boast of declining carbon emissions, even while the world's overall emissions are rising quickly....
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