Accessibility links

Breaking News

China: Economic Boom Strains Environment

Deforestation is leading to increasingly frequent sandstorms in China, such as this one in Hebei Province in April (epa) China's gross domestic product (GDP) has been booming since economic reforms began in the late 1970s. This economic success has meant substantial gains in real wages and living standards for many Chinese. But it has also been accompanied by environmental concerns such as pollution and the overuse of natural resources.

PRAGUE, June 6, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The Chinese government says environmental degradation is on the rise and costs the country $200 billion a year, or 10 percent of its GDP.

Zhu Guangyao, deputy chief of the State Environmental Protection Agency, said June 5 the situation "allows for no optimism."

"From the perspective of the Chinese government, we are very clear on where we stand," Zhu said. "Without development, we couldn't possibly resolve the issues we are facing in the process of reforming. But overly rapid development can also place too much pressure on resources and the environment. This kind of development is not sustainable. So we need to keep economic development within a reasonable speed and beneficial development level."

Zhu was presenting a report in Beijing that lists excessive logging, degraded pastureland, and shrinking wetlands as among the major environmental problems. The report also says the government's investment in environmental protection is "inadequate."

The Yangtze At Risk

The document was released a week after China's state media reported that the Yangtze River, the country's longest, is "cancerous" with pollution and could turn into a "dead river" within five years.

That would make the river unable to provide drinking water to the booming cities along its banks, including Shanghai and its 20 million residents.

China's neighbors are sharing the environmental consequences of the country's development policies.

In November, a toxic spill in the Songhua River along the Russian border flowed to the far eastern city of Khabarovsk -- killing wildlife and contaminating drinking water for millions of people.

In the western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China is increasingly draining the Ili River, a crucial source of water for neighboring Kazakhstan.

Mels Eleusizov, who heads Kazakhstan's Tabighat (Nature) Union, told RFE/RL that this could have repercussions comparable to the Aral Sea catastrophe.

Another Aral Sea?

"Our biggest lake, Lake Balkhash, receives 80 percent of its water from the Ili River," Eleusizov said. "Seventy percent of the Ili's water comes from China. China moves millions of people from the central regions into the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. They need water; they need it for agriculture [and] for industry. And they take that water [from the Ili River]. If they take 15 percent of their water from the Ili, then we will have a new Aral [Sea disaster] here at Balkhash."

A NASA satellite image of Kazakhstan's Lake Balkhash from April 2000 (courtesy photo)

Lake Balkhash is the second-largest lake in Central Asia, after the Aral Sea. The shrinkage of the Aral Sea over the past decades has left a deadly desert contaminated by chemical residue from fertilizers used for cotton farms.

Dermot O'Gorman, chief representative in China for the environmental group WWF, says the problems of overexploitation of natural resources will become increasingly acute as Asia's populations and economies continue to grow -- particularly in China.

"We only have one planet [from] which we can consume resources -- whether that's water, minerals, or the air," O'Gorman said. "And how we share that out against the beings that we have, the increasing population that we'll have over the next 20 years, is going to be a critical question. China is one of the global manufacturing hubs for the world."

In his book "Plan B 2.0: Rescuing A Planet Under Stress And A Civilization In Trouble," U.S. environmentalist Lester Brown said China could reach the U.S. per capita income in 25 years if its economy continues to expand at the current rates.

Brown warns that there won't be enough of some commodities if China's consumption patterns reach those of today's Americans.

"China's grain consumption would be equal to two-thirds of the current world grain harvest," Brown told RFE/RL. "Paper consumption in China would be double current world paper consumption. There go the world's forests. That's one of the implications."

Alternative Models

Brown said sustaining our civilization depends on shifting from the Western economic model -- what he called the fossil-fuel based, automobile-centered, throwaway economy.

"We have an alternative economic model in mind," Brown said. "This new economy would be powered largely by renewable sources of energy and will not be so overwhelmingly dependent on the automobile. We would be recycling. We can now see this new economy beginning to emerge in the wind farms in Western Europe, in the solar rooftops of Japan, in the growing fleet of hybrid cars in the United States, in the bicycle-friendly streets of Amsterdam."

But Brown questioned whether we will restructure the global economy fast enough to avoid a breakdown in the economic system.

(RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)