West By Far East

In the rush for economic growth, China ignored its environment. Now it faces a nightmare. The country is one of the most polluted in the world.

Published: Saturday 30 June 2001

West By Far East

-- Remember the cartoon of the European explorer in North America, waving an axe to clear forests while moving towards the west coast a few centuries ago? The slogan "exploring the west" in China has a similar ring in the ear. China now has its eyes fixed upon its wild, barren and mysterious west. The changes in these parts are likely to be dramatic in the coming two decades. The aim is to bring west the economic miracle that transformed its eastern coastal areas in the past 20 years.

It is difficult to avoid superlatives while talking about China. Be it the 1.3-billion-strong population, the country's stunning economic growth after the reforms of the late 1970s, or the enormity of environmental pollution. It is dj vu in China, another crossroads, like in the 1970s, another crucial juncture in its history that will determine the lives of its millions. The economic reforms raised the standard of living, lifting many out of poverty. But, this growth has come at a high cost to the environment. The country now faces a multitude of environmental threats including air pollution and acid rain, water shortages and pollution, desertification and soil erosion, the destruction of ecosystems and severe deforestation. Take the example of India, where the gross domestic product more than doubled between 1975 and 1995, but industrial pollution increased four times over and vehicular pollution increased eight times. As optimistic as the Chinese leadership might be about redirecting the economic juggernaut westwards, the proposition throws up more than its fair share of fears when you consider the environmental cost.

Environmental protection and sustainable development have now been identified as national priorities and part of the development strategy in China. Yet the country's development and current economic growth are not environmentally sustainable. During the first half of the 21st century, China is likely to face the challenges of another population growth peak, inadequate natural resources to satisfy its growth, continued environmental deterioration and food safety and security needs. The plan to develop the Chinese west, if not handled carefully, could bring about disastrous repercussions for the already degrading environment.

That said, there are tremendous opportunities for China to develop along a sustainable path -- technological advancement in several major sectors, improved making and enforcement of policy and regulations, increased public awareness, infotech and increased accessibility to information, and a stronger, alert civil society. The environmental challenges can be outlined in three categories:

POPULATION: Between 2020 and 2040 China will experience three population peaks: in total population, in surplus in the labour force and in the number of the aged. The one-child-per-family policy has helped control the fertility rate in the past 20 years, but even at the current rate, China is likely to have 1.6 million people by 2030. While urban people have taken to the one-child policy, rural population continue to value a large family. The growing population will only increase the pressure on already stressed natural resources.

URBAN GROWTH: Although a majority of China's population is in rural areas, the urban population is growing rapidly -- it more than doubled in the past 20 years. The urban population has risen to more than 30 per cent of the total population, and this is likely to go up to 40 per cent by 2010. Urban areas, offering the opportunity for higher paying job and better education, are increasingly burdened to provide a social infrastructure that has yet to be adequately developed to support the pace of growth.

COST OF ECONOMIC GROWTH: A pattern of economic growth without adequate consideration of the potential environmental consequences is a chief contributor to China's environmental pollution. Between the late 1970s and the late 1990s, the economy grew at a remarkably high growth rate of 10 per cent per year. Some regions, like the Guangdong province in southern China, grew at twice that rate. Between 1978 and 1997, the gross domestic product grew four and a half times. The bad news, point out some Chinese economists, is that in recent years the economic costs of ecological destruction and environmental pollution reached as high as 14 per cent of the country's gross national product ( gnp ). Two years ago, the World Bank had estimated that air and water pollution alone cost China about eight per cent of its gnp .

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