01/18/2007, 00.00
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Fish dying in Yellow River

One species in three is gone. Annual catches have dropped by 40 per cent. One tenth of farmland is contaminated and crops have to be destroyed because of their metal content. China's economic gains of the last 30 years will have to go to offset pollution and might choke off the country’s development. Second in a series of articles on China’s pollution crisis.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – A third of all fish species in the Yellow River have become extinct because of dams, shrinking water levels, over-fishing and pollution. According to official sources pollution in China has caused damages worth 30 years of economic growth.

“The Yellow River used to be home to more than 150 species of fish, but a third of them are now extinct, including some precious ones,” agriculture department sources said.

Fishing has also dropped, falling 40 per cent from an annual average of 700 tonnes in the past.

“It can be mainly blamed on hydropower projects that block fish's migration routes, declining water flow caused by scarce rainfall, over-fishing and severe pollution,” the source said.

Some 21,000 chemical plants are located on shores of China’s rivers and coastline, about 11,000 along the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers. In 2005 the Yellow River alone received 4.35 billion tonnes of contaminated effluents, 88 million more than in 2004.

Provincial authorities reported December 12 that a paper mill in Lanzhou (Gansu) discharged 2,500 tonnes in contaminated water into the Wanchuan Creek, a tributary of the Yellow River. For days the river’s waters ran brown, exhaling foul smelling and irritating gases.

The 5,464-km (3,395-mile) river, which supplies water to over 150 million people and irrigates 15 per cent of the country's farmland, was once known as "China's sorrow" because of its flooding, but in recent years it has occasionally run dry before reaching the sea. The lowest point came last year.

Last summer in fact, a persistent drought caused crops failure affecting the lives of 17 million people in central and south-western China.

Overall, some 10 per cent of China's grain harvest is being produced by over-pumping of water, which means it is not sustainable.

Rivers’ mounting crisis, industrial discharges and acid rain (in 2005 alone Beijing emitted nearly 26 million tons of sulphur dioxide) have contaminated about a tenth of China’s 1.2 million km2 farmland, this according to the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA).

Although tens of millions of Chinese live below the poverty line (less than a dollar a day), about 12 million tonnes of crops have to be destroyed each year because of contamination by heavy metals.

Now the government wants to tackle pollution but the costs will be huge. SEPA’s Deputy Director Pan Yue said that pollution-related problems cost between 8 to 13 per cent of gross national product (181 to 294 US$ billion out of a US$ 2.260 trillion economy).

"2006 has been the worst year for China's environmental situation,” he said. “The environmental problem has become a key bottleneck for social and economic development.”

Last year, the agency received a record 600,000 complaints about pollution and the cost of pollution off-set almost all of China's economic gains since the late 1970s, he noted.

No wonder then that whilst China has made the kind of economic advances in three decades that required 100 years in Western countries, it has also suffered a century’s worth of environmental damage in 30 years.

Moreover, as Western countries have reached US$ 10,000 per capita average income levels, China’s have barely reach US$ 3,000, unevenly distributed between rural and urban regions and social groups like entrepreneurs and migrant workers. (PB)

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