World Bank assails China on environment

August 19, 1992|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

BEIJING -- China's environment is being destroyed on a massive scale because of the nation's rapid economic development, heavy population load, intensive farming and weak regulatory efforts, a comprehensive World Bank report obtained by The Sun has concluded.

The two-volume report -- the most comprehensive, independent study of China's environmental problems -- offers a bleak forecast for much of the world's largest nation.

"Drinking water in many cities is polluted and/or in short supply," the report says. "The air also in cities is heavily polluted. . . . Most wastewater from industries and cities is dumped untreated into rivers, lakes and oceans, and domestic garbage and industrial solid waste are piling up at the edge of cities.

"If present trends continue, within the next few decades China will lose almost all wildlands outside its natural reserves -- a loss that will be irreversible," the report says. "The loss and degradation of ecosystems on this scale is a matter of immediate urgency and concern."

The World Bank report was printed last April, but its distribution has been tightly restricted to official circles since then, pending a final draft. The study is based on information compiled during 1990 and 1991 with the help of Chinese government agencies. Some of its findings have been challenged by China's National Environmental Protection Agency.

The agency has been discussing with the World Bank expansion of the World Bank's assistance to China for environmental projects.

The report gives China high marks for developing environmental laws and for creating "an impressive network" to enforce these regulations -- in contrast to some other developing nations which have yet even to set up environmental protection agencies.

But it says that these "significant achievements" have been badly undercut by insufficient funding, lax monitoring, the subservience of regulatory efforts to industrial development, and the inefficient use of raw materials and energy due to their heavily subsidized prices.

"While past efforts have somewhat reduced pollution . . . and have helped to prevent an abrupt worsening of environmental degradation during the past decade, these gains unfortunately have been mostly canceled by the rapid growth of the economy and the population, and by [continued reliance on] technologically outmoded and highly polluting heavy industry," the report says.

To stem China's environmental destruction, the World Bank report recommends major changes.

These include reorientation of China's development away from heavy industry; acceleration of enterprise and price reforms to increase energy efficiency; strengthening government enforcement of environmental protection laws; control of irrigation, and limiting use of marginal lands for crops.

But many of the recommendations appear to clash in the short term with China's currently stepped-up development drive and its on-going struggle to feed its 1.13 billion citizens. Moreover, China's environmental protection agency "does not see eye to eye" with some of the report's recommendations, a knowledgeable Western source, who asked not to be identified, said yesterday.

Specifically, the report cites these mounting problems:

* Water quality: The full extent of water pollution in China is unknown because studies have been limited, but only about 40 percent of China's city dwellers and about 14 percent of its rural residents are estimated to have access to safe drinking water. At least 60 percent of the population drinks water contaminated by human or animal waste.

Only about a third of China's industrial wastewater is treated before release, and just half of the treated water meets China's own discharge standards. Only a tiny fraction of all municipal wastewater is treated.

Water quality problems have been aggravated by growing water shortages. Of 434 Chinese cities, 188 are short of water and 40 suffer severe shortages. In Beijing, for example, the water table is dropping by six feet a year.

* Air quality: China's over-dependence on coal means that urban air quality is "particularly poor."

Average concentrations of suspended particles in the air of northern China cities run more than five times the standard of the World Health Organization (WHO). Average concentrations of sulphur dioxide in the air of southern China cities are double the WHO standard.

As a direct result, chronic pulmonary disease is the leading cause of death in China. Its overall incidence is more than five times greater in China than in the United States.

The air in some major Chinese cities worsened in the 1980s despite greater pollution-control efforts. With the number of vehicles rapidly expanding in Chinese cities, growing carbon monoxide and lead emissions are expected to aggravate the air-quality problems.

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