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China Says It Faces Grave Environmental Problems - 2002-05-31

China says it faces grave environmental problems, despite government efforts to reduce pollution. The country is battling rapid land degradation, air and water contamination, and a new threat posed by the dumping of high-tech waste.

A report released Friday on the state of China's environment in 2001 says the government will invest around $85 billion in a clean-up campaign over the next 10 years.

Zhu Guangyao, vice-minister of China's environmental protection agency, says "water pollution is one of the most serious problems." Mr. Zhu says "all seven of the country's extensive river systems and several major lakes are contaminated with sewage and toxic chemicals. Rivers near cities are the most severely damaged."

Mr. Zhu says "acid rain containing toxic sulfur dioxide falls over 90 percent of cities in southern and eastern China. Acid rain affects one third of the country. Two thirds of Chinese cities have unacceptable levels of air pollution caused by soot, suspended particulates and chemicals."

Mr. Zhu points out that some cities, such as Beijing, are noticeably improving their air quality. He credits this improvement, in part, to a move away from coal as the primary energy source, toward alternative resources such as natural gas and hydropower.

Mr. Zhu adds that "China is fighting rapid land degradation, which is stripping two million hectares of grassland a year." He says "135-million hectares of land have eroded to desert, and 90 percent of China's natural grasslands have been damaged."

Mr. Zhu says this desertification initially is caused by drought and heavy winds. But he says human activities make the problem much worse, through over-logging, over-grazing and wasting water.

The country also faces a new environmental threat from illegal imports of discarded computers and other high-tech waste.

Wang Jirong, another environmental official who spoke to reporters Friday, said "China will crack down on these illegal imports, which she says come primarily from the United States."

Ms. Wang says such high-tech waste releases poisonous chemicals into the air and water. She called on the United States to hold its manufacturers responsible for their toxic trash.