China Faces ‘Very Grave’ Environmental Situation, Officials Say

Labourers worked to drain sewage water from a leaked sewage tank at a copper mine in Shanghang, Fujian province, in 2010

BEIJING — 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 development-at-all-costs strategy, senior government officials said on Friday.

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

The targets were met, with pollutants in surface water down 32 percent, and sulfur dioxide emissions in cities down 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.” The countryside was becoming more polluted, he added, as dirty industries were moved out of cities and into rural areas.

Mr. Li said reversing the countryside’s deterioration 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 China needed a law to regulate heavy metals, and 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. The government has made growth a priority, worried that unemployment would lead to unrest.

But the signs are growing that environmental neglect is causing instability. Protests in Inner Mongolia last week were partly due to concerns that industries like coal and mining — largely dominated by ethnic Chinese — are destroying the grasslands used for herding by the indigenous Mongolians. Similar conflicts have arisen in other sensitive ethnic areas like Tibet and Xinjiang.

“In some of these areas that are very fragile, we will strictly limit development,” Mr. Li pledged.

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

Independent observers say this is part of a gradual change to give the ministry more power.

“They’re now a serious player as to what happens and where and to what standards,” said Deborah Seligsohn, a senior fellow with the World Resources Institute who is based in Beijing. “You’re seeing a steady trajectory where they’re having more and more impact.”

Recently, the ministry canceled a high-speed train line that had not obtained its approval. Last year, Mr. Li said, the ministry turned down 59 projects worth $15 billion that had not obtained its approval. Well-connected ministries were once able to bypass the environmental ministry, but now, Mr. Li said, it had set up “an impassable firewall” to block harmful projects.

The New York Times

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