China’s environmental laundry list

10 12 2009

The Copenhagen conference is rolling and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao joined the ranks of world leaders attending the summit, ensuring the People’s Republic will not be overlooked at the negotiation table. But as the international community addresses the global issue of climate change, China already has its hands full with environmental problems in its own backyard – and some of them will be completely brushed over at Copenhagen.

There isn’t a developed nation on the planet that hasn’t trampled the environment to some degree to get ahead. With 1.3 billion people, China plans to jumpstart more developing than most, and it still has a long way to go. As it tries to decrease its carbon footprint as well, here are a few of the other challenges on its environmental checklist:

Water shortages – The global water crisis is a bigger problem than climate change, at least in the minds of the public, and China is suffering the brunt of it. With 20 percent of the world’s population and 7 percent of its water resources, demand far outstrips supply. A January 2009 World Bank report found approximately 400 of its 667 cities don’t have enough water. In the North China Plain, which produces nearly one-third of the nation’s grain, the water table is falling 3 feet per year. Farmers account for most of the water use (at least 65 percent), but only 45 percent of that actually makes it to the crops. That means at least one-fifth of the country’s total water use is wasted during irrigation.

Water pollution – Just as bad as the dwindling supply of water is the sordid state of the water available. More than 70 percent of China’s lakes and rivers are polluted. 63 billion tons of waste water flow into its rivers each year. Nine-tenths of the aquifers in its cities are contaminated with arsenic and other forms of pollution, and more than three-fourths of the river water in urban areas is unsuitable for drinking due to industrial and municipal waste. The toll on its population is chilling: 320 million people lack access to clean drinking water, and nearly 100,000 die every year from water pollution-related illnesses. Equally chilling: Negotiators struck water supply issues from the Copenhagen agenda in order to simplify the discussion.

Air pollution – China holds top rank for spewing out more carbon dioxide than any other nation on the globe, though the amount is far less per person than in the U.S. But its towering smokestacks also emit sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, key contributors to acid rain and the bane of crop production. The country is home to seven of the ten filthiest cities on the planet. According to one of its own surveys, two-thirds of the 338 cities with data available were considered polluted by the hazardous chemicals. The U.S. State Department reports that China’s air quality is so bad that respiratory and heart-related diseases associated with it outrank any other single cause of death in the country.

Biodiversity – China shelters some of the greatest variety of species on Earth. But the numbers are decreasing at an alarming rate. In 2002 China and almost 200 other countries signed the Convention on Biological Diversity, agreeing to “significantly reduce” biodiversity loss by 2010. But that same decade saw the loss of the Yangtze River dolphin (baiji tun), declared “functionally extinct” in 2006. Despite numerous initiatives to put species loss in check – including marking out 15 percent of its territory for nature reserves – almost half of China’s mammals, reptiles and amphibians are endangered, and more than seven-tenths of its plant species are threatened, according to scientists. By September 2009 experts expressed skepticism that the world could meet the target outlined in 2002, which is not surprising considering it was not quite clear what the target was to begin with.

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