Friday, June 02, 2006

China's cancer villages

From The Telegraph comes this editorial and reporting on China's massive environmental problems:
In contrast to America and the Soviet Union at similar stages of development, China is acutely short of natural resources and those it possesses have been horrendously degraded, whether in the form of polluted water, foul air or eroded land. Preventing environmental catastrophe would mean slower growth - and that the Communist Party, whose legitimacy rests entirely on having liberalised the economy after the death of Mao, cannot afford.
I disagree with the natural resources assessment. China has good reserves of coal and natural gas, and rare earth elements--critical for manufacturing modern electronics. As to the rest, China has sufficient amounts of iron ore and other minerals necessary for manufacturing. Its hydro power potential is largely untapped.
A new phrase has become current in China as the country comes to terms with the environmental devastation caused by its explosive economic growth: "cancer villages". Not long ago they were farming settlements in the vast countryside. Now they are dominated by factories and blighted by the disease crippling their inhabitants.

Government figures show that 300 million people regularly drink polluted water and the effects are clear in the cancer village of Xiditou, near the port city of Tianjin, south-east of Beijing. The Tianjin health authority admits that its cancer rate is 30 times the national average, a figure blamed on water and air contaminated by a rash of chemical factories. [...]

The story of Xiditou is replicated all over the country. As the effects of economic reforms rippled through the 1980s, local governments eagerly built new factories but had little experience of environmental controls. [...]

In Xiditou, farmland was cleared in the late 1980s to make way for factories making raw materials for paint, which still line the banks of the Yongding River. The waste they release is clearly visible, lining the banks with pools of black sludge and, in one case, pouring out of plastic pipes.
Rapid industrialization took place in the West and the USSR last century. China is doing it on a grand scale, while seemingly giving no thought to the consequences--which are well known and predicatable.

The upcoming 2008 Olympics will see major efforts to clean up Beijing and the surrounding countryside, but poor planning and the drive to industrialize will doom a significant portion of China to environmental destruction.