01/13/2006, 00.00
CHINA – UNITED NATIONS
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UN says Beijing should have informed the population of the Songhua toxic spill

The United Nations is urging China to plan its environmental disaster responses. Greater pollution is among the many causes of growing social protests, experts say. Without action it might undermine economic development and the domestic credibility of the Communist Party.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Chinese authorities were too late in informing the population of the toxic spill in the Songhua River in November, this according to the United Nations. With environmental degradation increasing so do anti-government protests and criticism.

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP), which sent a team to investigate the damage caused by the November spill, said the authorities reacted too slowly to inform the public of the dangers it posed. In the initial response phase, government communication and information sharing with the general public was not adequate enough. UNEP suggested Beijing work with it to implement an emergency response plan.

Tonnes of benzene were released into the Jilin River by an industrial plant on November 13 creating a toxic slick long tens of kilometres. But for ten days, Chinese authorities withheld the information whilst millions of people continued to use river water for irrigation and drinking. Eventually, water supplies in Heilongjiang province were shut off.

The polluted waters reached the Amur River in Siberia, but Russian authorities were informed of the incident quite late.

Experts agree that the problem runs deeper and is broader in scope since pollution than this single incident.

Environmental degradation is getting worse whilst the central government appears unable to adopt the appropriate countermeasures. Not only does China have 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, but about 70 per cent of its rivers and lakes are contaminated.

Every year some 400,000 die of pollution-related diseases and the future bodes ill for the causes of the problem are likely to get worse before they get better. It is expected that millions of cars will hit the road in the near future; urban population is likely to rise; and growing energy needs will lead to greater energy use.

Yet, China's State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) lacks the human and material resources to face the tasks ahead.

What is more, decisions taken by the central government are often disregarded by local officials who are more in tune with the needs of local economic development than of the environment.

The high levels of environmental degradation are also related to the 74,000 episodes of social protest accounted for in 2004.

Pollution poisons fields and water sources; it causes serious diseases; and is one of the main reasons for rural dissatisfaction.

Protests, which often turn into open revolts against corruption and abuses by local officials, are fuelling demands for greater political change and democracy as people seek to play a greater role in local decision-making and in choosing local officials.

Economists also note that as the environmental disaster persists and even gets worse, economic development might be imperilled. And it is on economic development that the Chinese Communist Party is increasingly relying for its own legitimacy. (PB)

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