Environmental Health
Image Credit: J Aaron Farr

Environmental Health


Mention the words environment and China and the images that spring to mind aren’t exactly encouraging. Setting aside the controversy over China’s apparent role in nixing a vigorous agreement on emissions in Copenhagen (though to be fair, India has apparently decided to take some credit for the shambles too), there are a host of environmental health issues to vex Chinese policymakers.

There’s the gradual choking of the Yellow River, for example, which in some parts is too toxic to touch. And air pollution is a major issue. Arriving in Beijing for the first time I assumed the gray haze that evening was fog. The next morning though (and the next few after that) I awoke to a gray-brown smog that never lifted. Indeed, my guide told me that many schoolchildren in Beijing no longer coloured the sky in blue when they painted in class because they barely ever saw blue skies anymore.

According to the Asia Society’s Clearing the Air site, China has invested about 120 billion yuan ($17.3 billion) over the past 10 years to improve air quality in Beijing. However, the site adds that although ‘levels of many major pollutants like sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide are now at target levels, the concentration of PM10, or inhalable particulate matter, remains above national targets’.

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The problem is not confined to the mainland. In March, officials in Hong Kong issued a warning recommending people not to leave their homes after air pollution in the city hit a record high. Those with respiratory problems are generally advised to stay indoors if the Air Pollution Index reaches more than 100, while the public is advised to stay indoors if the reading hits 200. But on March 22, the API hit 453 at one recording station.

I asked Chris Groves, director of the China Environmental Health Project, for his take on some of the most pressing challenges facing the country. He told me that in his experience there are already some examples that spring to mind of ‘local environmental disasters’ in terms of both air and water pollution.

Groves said in his view that there are very much two Chinas—‘the turbocharged powerhouse of the urban east’ and ‘another three quarters of a billion (more or less) rural folks who don’t yet have Starbucks in their communities and for whom life is quite different.’

Most of Groves’ work has been in the rural provinces of the southwest of the country, and here he suggested there’s actually some good news to report. He noted, for example, that agricultural contaminants, including pesticides and chemical fertilizers, are present in these areas, but that in many cases they’re likely to be in relatively low concentrations in drinking water. He said that although there may be chronic health impacts, ‘this is preferable to the more acute problems of concentrated industrial pollution more focused in the east.’

One issue tied to water supply that he told me he believes often gets overlooked in discussions of China’s environmental challenges, even among those with a specific interest in water issues, is the situation with regard to the ‘karst’ regions, where the bedrock is being dissolved into what he described as Swiss cheese-like landscape with caves and underground rivers. According to Groves, the southwest karst region covers about 500,000 square kilometres, and in many cases there the water is extremely limited at the surface because it’s instead underground flowing as rivers through caves.

‘Add a climate that comes with a very dry winter season, and rural regions with some of the country’s poorest provinces, and millions of people are negatively impacted, and maybe millions are walking at least some distance to get water from springs, ponds and the like in the winter,’ he told me. ‘Although this is a health issue in several ways, it is also an economic and social one: during the time one is spending carry water they are not generating income, in school, spending time with their kids.’

So, is the government doing enough to tackle these issues? The cleanup ahead of the Beijing Olympics got most of the media attention, but two years on, how are things looking?

On this, Groves was relatively upbeat, noting that the decision to raise the State Environmental Protection Administration to Ministry level in 2008 was a big step forward (although he added that there’s been some concern of disconnect between the Ministry and potential authority over local government officials who may feel compelled to put economic development concerns above those of environmental protection).

He added: ‘From my own limited experience I can say that over the last few years the work of my Chinese academic colleagues in water research has been enhanced by what I believe are increasingly large and sustained grants and related support from both the Ministry of Land and Resources and from the Ministry of Science and Technology.’

Groves’ optimism reminded me of a conversation I had a couple of years back with Karen Baragona, then WWF-US’s Director for China Markets and Policy, who said she’d seen enormous strides in the Chinese government’s will to take on environmental challenges.

She noted that China, as has been the case around the world, develops first and makes a mess of its own environment. At a certain point, which China has clearly reached, the environmental problems become too big to ignore, forcing the government to do something about it.

Of course none of this is to diminish the enormity of the challenges China faces. But the government does appear to have recognized that it’s in its own interest, in health and economic terms, to try to do something.

The fourth installment of the China health series, on infectious disease, will be published Wednesday.

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