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Inside China: Pollution and the Environment

Fresh air to breathe and clean water to drink are two basic requirements most people take for granted but in China, it seems that even the most fundamental of human necessities are at risk of becoming unobtainable.

Fresh air to breathe and clean water to drink are two basic requirements most people take for granted but in China, it seems that even the most fundamental of human necessities are at risk of becoming unobtainable.

With the largest population in the world and the fastest growing economy, it is not surprising perhaps that China is facing the enormity of environmental concerns that comes with rapid expansion and economic growth. In the lead up to the Olympic Games in Beijing, the Chinese government has come under intense scrutiny from not only international environmental groups, but from the United Nations, the World Health Organization and individual country's Olympic authorities as pollution becomes a dominant factor overshadowing the Games. Olympic Games aside, in the long term China's environment poses a much greater threat to the country's 1.3 billion residents and to the planet as a whole.

China's environmental problems are global in their effects as well as their nature, stemming largely from the country's role as the world's factory, manufacturing and producing goods for export -- from clothing to pharmaceuticals, computer chips to kitchen appliances. China has probably already overtaken the United States as the world's largest emitter of carbon dioxide and, despite rhetoric from the Chinese government about its commitment to the environment and resource conservation, it seems that enforcing environmental laws is a major stumbling block. A combination of lead, mercury, sulfur dioxide, and other bi-products of coal-burning and car exhaust fumes hover over most Chinese cities. The image of Chinese men, women and children cycling along major roads wearing face masks is a poignant one. China is now a quarter desert, water is scarce and most forests have been totally depleted. Carbon emissions soar in an environment where more than 200 million tons of coal is burned per year.

Beijing has long ranked as one of the world's most polluted cities and in order to host the Games, it promised a "Green Olympics," and the undertaking of a range of environmental initiatives. Beijing's environmental program was first instigated in 1997 and became the centerpiece of the city's Olympic environmental commitments. China had pledged that Beijing's air quality would be up to the World Health Organisation (WHO) standards during the Games but tests in late June revealed that these targets had not been reached and pollution around the Olympic stadium in Beijing was five times worse than levels deemed safe by the WHO. Despite a superficial lowering of the Beijing's sulfur dioxide emissions, fine-particle pollution has actually increased enormously due to the intense construction.

On the plus side, however, urban sewage treatment has doubled since 2001, the use of natural gas has jumped 38-fold as thousands of coal-fired furnaces and boilers have been converted, factories have been shut down or relocated to the suburbs and 22 millions trees have been planted. Beijing' s three million vehicles are facing tight restrictions and controls during the Games and beyond, including an odds-and-evens license plate scheme allowing city access on alternate days between July 20 and September 20. Nearly 80,000 new taxis with lower emissions have replaced older models and high-emission or yellow-labeled vehicles, most of which are freight trucks, will be banned from Beijing roads from July to September. Half of the government cars have been taken off Beijing roads, a new type of less-polluting petrol is available and more than 1,300 gas stations in Beijing are being upgraded to reduce fumes while others are being shut down. Chinese authorities have also ordered five provinces around Beijing -- the neighboring city of Tianjin, Shandong province to the east and the vast region of Inner Mongolia to the west, to join the efforts and reduce industrial activity for two months before the Games.

And it isn't just the air. As much as 75% of rivers, lakes, and reservoirs in China are affected by water pollution as China's industrial sector dumps an astounding 40 to 60 billion tons of untreated wastewater into the country's waterways every year, leaving as little as 40% of water clean enough for consumption. Up to one third of water tested in 2006 received the worst possible pollutant rating. According to some environmentalists half of China's 617 largest cities -- including Beijing -- face water shortages, at least 300 million people do not have access to safe drinking water and 90 million people are exposed to water pollution on a daily basis. Urbanization has doubled Beijing's water consumption over the past decade and coupled with a decade-long drought, water supplies throughout the country are strained. Local environmentalists warn that the increase in water resources required for the Olympic Games itself will take a further decade or more to restore. At Qingdao, the site of the Olympic sailing and windsurfing events, a foul smelling green-sludge algae bloom has enveloped the water, leading to the deployment of the military, fleets of boats and bulldozers, and more than 10,000 people engaged in a quick clean up effort. Despite officials' explanation that the algae were the result of a hot weather after heavy rain, environmentalists attribute it largely to sewage and agricultural pollutant run-off. This is despite the government's heavy investment in new facilities moving sewage away from the coast further out to sea.

The international community is lending a hand to ensure that China's environmental future stands a fighting chance. American architect and the co-chair of the China-U.S. Center for Sustainable Development William McDonough, together with German chemist Michael Braungart is working with the Chinese government to design development plans for a series of Chinese cities with an emphasis on sustainable solutions. They champion "cradle to cradle" design that considers the full life cycle of a product, from its creation with sustainable materials to a recycled afterlife. Initiatives include devising new building materials so China doesn't deplete its soil by making bricks and the introduction of rooftop farming, so buildings don't displace arable land.

It remains to be seen whether China can clean up its act in time to truly deliver an environmentally-friendly Olympic Games, let alone sustain the positive developments and create a green legacy for its population in the long term. Whereas Olympic athletes only have to breathe in Beijing air and drink local water for a matter of weeks, the people of China face a possible lifetime of polluted conditions unless government policies instituted for the Olympics are retained and reinforced moving forward.

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Read more about Beijing and China in's Summer Olympic Games 2008 package.