04/04/2007, 00.00
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Industrial development cause wacky Chinese weather

Unchecked industrial growth and pollution, deforestation, lower water flow in rivers are changing China’s weather with serious consequences for the climate. Shanghai is faced with a serious air pollution problem, hit by its worst sandstorm in years. Elsewhere millions of people are suffering from drought and the overall economic cost is huge.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Shanghai's air pollution could become worse than Beijing's because of rapid industrial development and sandstorms. In Chongqing people are withering in a drought as drinking water becomes scarce. China’s uncontrolled industrial growth is the culprit. Not only is it destroying the country’s environment but it is also rapidly changing its climate with unexpected consequences.

People in Shanghai found that out the hard war. On Monday a rare sandstorm blanketed the city with yellow dust causing its worst air quality crisis since monitoring began.

Concentrations of respirable particulates jumped to 0.623 milligrams per cubic metre of air, seven times the daily average for last year, forcing the authorities to warn children, the elderly and the sick to stay indoors and avoid major exertion. Last Friday’s sandstorm originated in the deserts of western Mongolia, dumping 14,000 tonnes of sand in Shenyang, Liaoning province, alone over the weekend.

In the last few years, many of the natural obstacles that held the sand in check like forests and rivers have largely disappeared in favour of economic development.

However bad the sandstorm was, Shanghai air pollution is largely the result of industrial pollutants released into the air by the city’s many industrial plants that have set up shop in the Yangtze River delta.

Lower rain fall has further favoured higher particulates concentrations.

“Shanghai's particulate density is actually very high [. . .]. In two to three years, the air pollution condition [. . .] will probably become more severe than that of Beijing,” Chen Jianmin, head of Fudan University's Environmental Science and Engineering Department, told the South China Morning Post. And that is not counting sandstorms.

In a few decades China has undergone dramatic environmental changes. Hydro-electric power stations are taking huge quantities of water from rivers, entire forests have been cut down, and industrial plants that pollute air and water have multiplied.

One example among many is Lake Dongting in Hunan province. Hundreds of paper mills have been attracted by its water. In exchange the lake gets their pollutants and effluents. The net result is for everyone to see. In the early 1950s, the lake's surface covered 4,350 sq km. Today, it is only 2,625 sq km.

Jiang Jiahu, a Chinese Academy of Sciences researcher, said that serious deforestation in the upper reaches of the Yangtze River has resulted in 100 million tonnes of sand and mud being dumped each year from the 1950s to the 1990s, turning more than 1,700 sq km of the lake into land.

Authorities have tried to shut down many of the smaller operations since 1996 but the number of paper mills in the area only grew.

The Hunan Environmental Protection Bureau on Monday sent more than 20 inspectors to ensure 146 paper factories blacklisted over environmental concerns were no longer operating.

“Shutdowns are useless as long as you leave their machinery intact,” said Wu Fucheng, a professor at the Hunan Normal University's College of Environmental Science

Making matters worse, in its 11th five-year plan, the Hunan government projected raising the capacity of the province's paper industry three times over the current output.

One aspect of climate change that is particularly worrisome is the drop in precipitation. In Chongqing rainfall last winter and this spring is 30 per cent lower than in previous years.

The city of Chongqing had already experienced its worst drought in more than a century last summer with temperatures up to 43 degrees Celsius and 1.61 million residents struggling to find drinking water. Direct economic losses for the city reached at least one billion yuan.

The State Flood Control and Drought Relief Office thus has had to order all hydroelectric stations in the upper Jialing River, whose building and operation contributed to the water crisis, to open their water gates to help ease the water shortage. (PB)

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