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China Voice: Environmental challenges ring alarm bells

(Xinhua)

10:56, April 22, 2012

BEIJING, April 21 (Xinhua) -- With "Earth Day," an annual promotion of the Earth's natural environment, falling on Sunday, China, a country that plays a critical role in global environmental governance with its vast territory and large population, should take time to reflect on the multiple environmental problems it is encountering in the course of development.

After three decades of exceptional economic growth, China has managed to transform itself from a closed economy into a globally significant open-market player, and the country is now the world's second-largest economy.

However, China's rapid economic growth has been achieved at the expense of its natural environment, as excessive exploitation of natural resources and the expansion of highly polluting industries, compounded with a swelling population, has left deep scars on the country's landscape.

As a major result of China's rapid urbanization, air quality has suffered tremendously. Many Chinese cities are ranked as having the worst air in the world.

According to a paper released by Friends of Nature, a Beijing-based environmental protection organization on Thursday, China's capital city of Beijing is ranked 29th among the country's 31 provincial capitals and municipalities in terms of air cleanliness.

Chinese citizens voiced significant concern about air pollution in late 2011 following days of heavy smog in cities including Beijing.

Public demand mounted for an official air quality report that would include PM2.5, an air quality standard that allows for the detection of particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less.

Water shortage and pollution is another problem stampeding with China's development and endangering the well-being of its people..

About two-thirds of Chinese cities are thirsty, while nearly 300 million rural residents lack access to safe drinking water, leading to a national water shortage of over 50 billion cubic meters on average every year, said Hu Siyi, vice minister of water resources last month.

According to the country's environmental assessment report in 2010, more than half of China's cities are affected by acid rain. About 40 percent of major rivers in the nation are so polluted that the water can only be used for industrial purposes or landscaping.

The report said more than 57 percent of samples taken from the underground water of 182 cities across the country were classified "bad" or "extremely bad."

The waters off the booming cities of Shanghai, Tianjin and Guangzhou were rated as severely polluted, according to the report.

Furthermore, the 1.3-billion-people nation is facing continuous decreases in the acreage of its arable land, as rapid urbanization and massive infrastructure construction squeeze the countryside.

To ensure grain security, China set a "red line" to guarantee its arable land never shrinks to less than 1.8 billion mu (120 million hectares).

However, data from the Ministry of Land and Resources shows the country is already edging dangerously close to this level, with just 1.826 billion mu available as of the end of 2009.

Misuse of mineral resources like rare earth has also been a major cause of environmental damage.

During the past two decades, excessive and disorderly mining of non-renewable resources, caused by lax environmental standards and low industry thresholds, led to environmental degradation in mining areas and serious resource wastes for the nation.

To protect the environment, China announced a number of measures to regulate the industry, including reduced export quotas and stricter industry monitoring.

It is obvious that China has already noticed the importance of drawing a balance between economic development and environmental preservation to achieve sustainable development, and environment-related policies have been issued by the government at all levels in recent years.

However, the road toward sustainable development is steep and long, since many environmental damages are incurable once wrought and the reduction of industrial pollution lies on a massive industrial restructuring which is beyond easy reach for a developing county like China within a short period of time.

In the second half of this year, the Communist Party of China will convene its 18th national congress in Beijing to map out the blueprint for the country's future development. Hopefully more effective measures regarding environmental protection will come up after the congress.

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