The toxic chemical spill that fouled the waters of the Chinese city of Harbin this past
week underscores the monumental environmental challenges that China faces as it rushes headlong towards development.
Residents of Harbin were cautiously starting to use their water supply again Monday following a five-day shutdown. The pumps had been turned off to prevent 100 tons of potentially cancer causing chemicals, which had spilled into the river after a chemical factory explosion upstream, from getting into the city's taps.
There are many accidents like this in China, some reported, some not. They have worried environmental organizations and the international community, which are already troubled by the country's massive pollution problems.
Kevin May, spokesman for Greenpeace International, says investors in China should not be able to follow a lower level of environmental standards.
"I think that is not rational, because at the end of the day, only the multinational corporation is making [a] profit, while the individual Chinese citizens are paying for the cost of the environmental damage," he said. "So at the end of the day, we are losing if we reduce our environmental standards."
During the Harbin water crisis, the vice minister of China's Environmental Protection Agency, Zhang Lijun, told reporters that Beijing's five-year economic plan addresses the country's rampant pollution problems.
Mr. Zhang says China's five-year plan includes stronger measures to reduce pollution-causing waste, and to address environmental issues that could affect China's economic development and seriously harm people's health.
Beijing has acknowledged that the country is facing massive environmental problems. Earlier this year, a central government report said five of the nation's seven major rivers are seriously polluted. China is considered the world's second largest producer of carbon dioxide, a leading greenhouse gas.
Greenpeace International's Mr. May says he believes the problem lies not with central government rules but with local officials, who are reluctant to follow environmental regulations because they do not want to lose short term profit.
The price of making China environmentally friendly will come at a heavy economic cost. Robert Broadfoot, director of Political and Economic Risk Consultancy in Hong Kong, says the problems are overwhelming.
"I think their environmental problems are so serious and so widespread, they can't tackle them all at once," noted Mr. Broadfoot. "So they have to prioritize. And some of the problems are going to take decades to solve. And because not only are they expensive, but the technology to fix them in the short term really isn't there."
Mr. Broadfoot says China's existing infrastructure will not be able to sustain the current level of economic growth and that Beijing must eventually face up to the financial costs needed to make the country environmentally safe.