Centuries ago, Europe developed into the most prosperous civilization on the planet. Yet even their learned scholars were largely unaware of just how advanced China had been in previous millennia. The far-reaching "Middle Kingdom" had made tremendous progress in the areas of the arts, mathematics, agriculture, and warfare. But for various reasons — including political regression and repression — China slid backwards and ultimately fell far behind the Western world. But now with de facto capitalism transforming China at a phenomenal rate into a world power, the once-slumbering dragon is reawakening with a voracious appetite for commodities and a strong desire to catch up with the industrialized world.
While the dramatic changes that China is now undergoing will undoubtedly raise the standard of living of its citizens, it is easy to imagine the impact upon the environment of over 1.3 billion people shifting from agrarianism to industrialism, and from eco-friendly transportation (walking and bicycling) to automobiles. According to the World Bank, the People's Republic of China is home to 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities. In the top 10 cities, no fewer than seven are Chinese. This pollution is widespread, and takes many forms.
Much of the air above mainland China is heavily polluted, especially near industrial centers. The primary culprit is coal smoke, because approximately 70 percent of the electricity generated within the nation is produced by coal-fuel power plants — a percentage far greater than most other nations that boast hundreds of thousands of megawatts of electrical power per year.
As a result of the tremendous amounts of air pollution — most of which consists of greenhouse gases and sulfur dioxide particulates — acid rain is a constant problem. In fact, it is estimated that acid rain falls on about 30 percent of the country's land mass. DisasterRelief.org warns that "Acid rain in southern and southwestern China threatens to damage 10% of the land area, and may have already reduced crop and forestry productivity by 3%." This is a severe ecological danger not just for China itself. The governments of other Asian countries are increasingly alarmed by the fact that China, a country well known for its exports, is importing more of the world's raw commodities and exporting the bulk of the region's air pollution and acid rain.
China already spews approximately 13 percent of the world's energy-related carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, second only to the United States. In order to try (unsuccessfully) to generate all of the electricity demanded by its growing cities and industries, China is annually burning over 7 million tons of coal, most of which is of poor quality (as measured by its sulfur and ash content). These coal-burning plants tend to be located in river valleys, surrounded by hills, which leads to stable temperature inversions, which in turn limit the dispersion of airborne pollutants. Of course, one might argue that the pollutants being bottled up and thus breathed by the people generating them, is better than the alternative of non-polluters being forced to breathe those pollutants.
Below the darkened skies of China run some of the most fouled waterways on the planet. According to Brower et al. (Field and Laboratory Methods for General Ecology, 1990), the main sources of water pollution within China are: industrial (chemical, organic, and thermal wastes), municipal (primarily sewage consisting of human waste, other organic wastes, and detergents), and agricultural (animal wastes, pesticides, and fertilizers). The freshwater lakes are used for irrigation, potable water, recreation, fishing, and other economic purposes. Yet these waters are severely damaged by industrial wastewater, heavy metals, and toxic and other hazardous substances. In addition, they are being overloaded with detrimental amounts of nutrients, as a result of soil erosion and excessive use of chemical fertilizers on agricultural land. Donald Straszheim of Straszheim Global Advisors, LLC, states that, "There must be 1,000, maybe 10,000, 'Love Canals' in China — absolutely toxic bodies of 'water'."
These polluted waters are then utilized downstream for irrigation and household use. As one can imagine, the use of polluted water by the citizens is causing significant health problems. Waterborne diseases, such as cholera and typhoid, have been affecting Chinese citizens for a number of years, largely as a consequence of groundwater contamination. Those two diseases, in addition to dysentery, tend to occur at higher rates in developing countries such as China. Within only a three-month period, there were 1,547 cases of cholera in Shanghai and Hong Kong alone — with 468 of them resulting in death.
There is growing competition for usable water in China. In order to secure water for grain production, rivers are being drained dry and aquifers are being depleted (Brown et al., 1988). China's grain production is being adversely affected, as cities and industrial centers demand more water. Specifically, industrial demand alone is expected to increase from 52 billion tons in 1995 up to 269 billion tons in the year 2030.
Polluted air and water are not the only current and future environmental disasters in China. The CIA World Factbook notes that China is facing extensive deforestation and desertification. Furthermore, an estimated one-fifth of all agricultural land has been lost since 1949, as a result of soil erosion and economic development.
The pollution in China, regardless of which form it takes, is taking a terrible toll upon the people. DisasterRelief.org points out that, "With a population well over one billion people [in China], the number of people affected by pollution is considerably more than in any other country in the world… an estimated 178,000 people in major cities suffer premature death each year because of pollution. Children in some major cities have blood-lead levels averaging 80% higher than that considered dangerous to mental development. Water pollution alone costs China $4 billion per year." Clearly, the short-term and long-term health damage to Chinese residents is but one of many reasons that leaders must face these problems sooner than later.
Given the alarming environmental dangers posed to China and its neighboring countries, is there any hope for solutions to these simmering catastrophes? Fortunately, there are some signs of progress: Since burning low-grade coal is a prime culprit, China intends to replace 10 percent of their oil imports with liquid coal by 2013, since coal liquefaction is one of the most promising methods for burning coal cleanly and reducing energy needed for transporting that coal. That last factor is significant, because most of China's enormous coal reserves are located in the north of the country, yet most of their large factories and industrial centers are in the south, where there is no coal. Straszehim notes that, "China's 26 million vehicles are extraordinarily inefficient and polluting. China's SEPA (State Environmental Protection Administration) says 79% of China's air pollution comes from cars. There is great interest, but little activity yet, in renewable (solar, wind, geothermal) energy - still too expensive." Where have we Americans heard that before?
The leaders of China and other countries will need to get moving on these issues as soon as possible, and not wait for a full-blown crisis before acting — which is what governments typically do. Increasingly frequent civil unrest is but one manifestation of growing popular dissatisfaction with the environmental status quo. On 10 April 2005, a large-scale riot erupted in Huashui town of Dongyang city in Zhejiang province. It resulted when the municipal government ordered their military forces to clear away a road blockage by elderly villagers protesting the village's industrial chemical plants severely polluting the environment. By using their vehicles to "clear away" (i.e., crush) unarmed citizens, including elderly, the security forces caused deaths and injuries, inciting most of the villagers to overturn police cars and drive away police officers. The New York Times reported that, "Last year, tens of thousands of protesters in western Sichuan Province clashed with the police in a protest over a long-disputed dam project. Smaller rural protests are becoming commonplace and are often violent."
It is clear that Chinese officials and business leaders will need to work together with farmers and other citizens to resolve what is rapidly becoming the largest nationwide environmental crisis ever seen by mankind. If China cannot draw upon the wisdom cultivated millennia ago and apply a long-term approach to ecological planning as well as it does industrial planning, then the great dragon of the East may end up poisoning itself, and all those around it.