Xie Zhenhua, China’s top environmental official as director of the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) conceded at a news conference that “The damage is occurring much faster than our actions to help prevent damage and help the environment recover”. According to a SEPA report, 90% of grasslands which cover some 40% of the world’s fourth largest nation have been degraded, aggravating desertification and salinity and sandstorms regularly hit northwestern cities. In addition, only 57% of river water met basic standards for purity and ground water is heavily polluted. Underground water supplies are also being depleted by a rush to supply booming cities and farming.

“The absolute amount of pollutants remains very high – much greater than the environment’s capacity to handle,” said Xie, whose speech was designed to raise public awareness about the environment after years of neglect in the rush to industrialise. “People have to get the sense that protecting the environment is directly linked to their own personal well being,” he added.

However, the report was not all doom and gloom and successes were also highlighted, including improvements in air quality from closing heavily polluting state factories. This has resulted in sulphur dioxide levels from coal burning falling by 15% between 1995 and 2000, while gas and particulate emissions fell by 33%. In addition, a move to ‘cleaner’ power sources such as hydropower and nuclear power and the nation’s position as the world’s top planter of forests (see related story and related story) will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 550 million tonnes over five to 10 years. Xie also noted the capital’s success in improving its environment with the help of a 10-year, $12 billion programme designed to help it win selection as the 2008 Olympic Games host city (see related story and related story).

In the same week, the Ministry of Land and Resources pointed to the success of afforestation initiatives to halt the onslaught of China’s eight deserts, totalling 2.6 million square kilometres, more than 20% of total land area. The economic losses caused by sandstorm disasters already exceed 8 billion yuan ($1 billion) annually, the Ministry said. Under, the governmental scheme, both individuals and enterprises are encouraged to participate in cultivating barren land by making their own profits and enjoying supporting funds and low-interest loans provided by the government.

The ministry says that statistics released by the Chinese forestry administration show that several hundred Chinese enterprises are engaged in desert prevention and treatment and ecological improvement in the western region. One successful example is the newly-created oasis of Engebei in the Hobq Desert in Inner Mongolia, which 10 years ago was desert. The Erdus Group, a cashmere sweater maker, bought the land in 1989 and planned to plant grass for grazing goats. The ministry says that under its scheme, Erdus was able to build lakes, plant trees and grass, with annual profits of 1 million yuan ($120,000) from the land and that the area’s forest coverage rate has increased to 90% from 5%.

China’s efforts to prevent and control desertification have also won the support of foreign enterprises, it says, with Unilever planning to invest 35 million yuan ($4 million) over five years to help plant trees in areas where desertification is serious.

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