A Litany of Ills: China's 10 Top Ecological Problems

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NISID HAJARIWhat ails China? Better to ask: what doesn't? Its cities are not alone in suffering the ravages of industrialization: New Delhi has worse air than Beijing, Jakarta filthier water. But China's size and population--and the blistering pace of its efforts to modernize--mean that its environmental woes have reached a scale and interlocking complexity unmatched anywhere else. The 10 most pressing problems: DEFORESTATION: Illegal logging and slash-and-burn farming still gobble up 5,000 sq km of virgin forest every year. Trees now cover only 14% of China, well below the world average of 25%. SOIL EROSION: The disappearance of those forests contributes to soil loss, which allows vital minerals to be washed away along with topsoil and reduces both the amount of farmland and the productivity of what's left. Silt-clogged lakes were blamed for last summer's floods, which caused an estimated $20 billion in damages. DESERTIFICATION: Logging--as well as overgrazing, industrial development and poor irrigation--has turned vast swathes of land into desert. Nearly 28% of China's land mass is now desert, useless for farming. DAMAGED ECOSYSTEMS: Squeezed onto less and less land, China's farmers have begun to encroach upon fragile wetlands and to wear out its sprawling grasslands. Already, overgrazing has damaged one-third of those plains; the UNDP warns that if nothing is done, grass yields could drop an additional 30% by next year. ENDANGERED SPECIES: The sprawl of man also eats away at habitats that are home to one-tenth of the world's plant and animal species. Of the 640 internationally listed endangered species, China is home to 156.PAGE 1|
SOLID WASTE: China's city-dwellers, now numbering almost 400 million, have built up a veritable mountain of waste--each urbanite produces an average of 440 kg of rubbish annually, far more than urban sewage facilities can handle. WATER POLLUTION: Less than 20% of municipal waste receives any treatment. The rest muddies China's already rank waters. Almost every major river brims with toxic chemicals; some lesser ones are not even clean enough to use for irrigation. The UNDP figures that 960 million Chinese drink water that's at least partly polluted. WATER SHORTAGES: Pollution has made safe drinking water far more expensive. Shanghai now draws its supply from further upstream in the Huangpu River, at an added cost of $300 million. The problem aggravates an already dire water shortage. Two-thirds of China's 600 cities thirst for water, causing an annual loss in industrial output of $28 billion. ACID RAIN: The burning of high-sulfur coal in southern China produces a poisonous drizzle, which affects 30% of the country. A 1993 study found that nearly one-quarter of vegetable crops in the Chongqing area had been damaged by acid rain. AIR POLLUTION: The gray miasma--from coal, industry ash and leaded fuel--that smothers most of China's cities is barely breathable. The World Bank estimates that air pollution causes nearly 300,000 deaths nationwide every year.Reported by Jaime A. FlorCruz and Mia Turner/Beijing|2