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Green Revolution and China

China Faces American-Style Pollution Problems

By Jeanette Joy Fisher

One might have hoped that China would have learned some lessons about pollution by watching America's expansion problems over the decades, but China's explosive growth has brought its industrial pollution problem to a level that will require some drastic steps to fix.

On the positive side, Chinese officials seem to be ready to take steps to reduce the country's pollution problems before they get totally out of hand.

One of the most promising clean-up projects is being undertaken on the Pearl River, which is China's equivalent of the Mighty Mississippi. The Pearl's headwaters are in the Tibetan foothills, where the river begins its 1,375-mile journey to the South China Sea. Nearly a third of all Chinese goods designed for foreign export are manufactured along the Pearl, which means that the river has suffered a heavy toll over the years. However, the Chinese government has spent billions of dollars to build new sewage treatment plants and to move heavy industry out of the country's major cities. Although there has been a marked improvement in the river's water quality, there's still a long way to go before the Pearl will conform to Western standards or those of other prosperous Asian nations.

China's growth explosion has some environmentalists predicting that the country may surpass America as the world's largest producer of greenhouse gases within the next two decades. This is in large part to the rise in the standard of living of the average Chinese citizen, who can now afford to buy an automobile for transportation. In fact, Chinese consumers are buying nearly 24,000 new cars every day.

The Chinese government has been inundated by concerns from citizens about the quality of their drinking water and their farmland as industrial growth and mining continue to boom at an unprecedented rate. Government officials realize all too well that they must try to maintain some control over the explosive growth if they hope to remain in power. The creation of an EPA-style agency, called the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) was meant to be a step in that direction, but it has so far had a spotty success record at best, because its real power is at the provincial level, and most Chinese provinces are more concerned with improving the living standard of their citizens than with environmental protection.

The Pearl River project will give China an opportunity to show the world their commitment to clean water, and water quality has improved over the past five years, but there's still a long way to go. For instance, a recent study found high levels of toxic metals in the Pearl River estuary, including shrimp that contained sixteen times the recommended level of cadmium.

There are some other encouraging developments beginning to take place, including a growing number of green groups that are being formed on China's college campuses. It's yet to be determined when and how China's waterways will conform to worldwide quality standards, but it appears some promising efforts are underway.

Copyright 2006 Jeanette J. Fisher

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