Chen Weihua

Reflecting on Earth Day for the nation

By Chen Weihua (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-04-20 07:38
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If China needs to import more to balance its foreign trade, oil, raw materials, jumbo jets and luxury sedans should never dominate its shopping list.

Instead, it should consider clean air, water and soil first.

That is what I feel strongly about, after traveling at home and abroad.

The above resources are in severe shortage in China now, and more so every passing day.

It seems unnecessary to cite scary figures to remind 1.3 billion compatriots of the scarcity of clean air, water and soil. Those who do not feel that there is such a crisis have simply been numbed for too long, by gulping polluted water, choking on foul air and eating food grown on tainted farmland.

News media have been devoting enormous space and airtime to cover earthquakes, coal mine explosions and air crashes. Yet, the most underreported breaking news in China in the past decades are those on the environmental crisis.

About half of the waterways in China are severely polluted and hundreds of millions of rural Chinese residents have no access to safe drinking water. Water pollution has been blamed for partly causing the country's high death rates of liver and stomach cancers.

On the other hand, more than half of 600 major cities are suffering water shortages. Drought, which devastated Southwest China in the past months, has been occurring more often. Desertification, which already makes up 20 percent of Chinese territory, is advancing fast. In the 1990s alone, some 10,400 square kilometers of desert, about two-thirds the size of Beijing, were added onto China's map. It is no longer considered paranoid to talk about Beijing being encroached upon by desert in the next decades, if we continue to turn a blind eye to the issue.

Despite China's environmental efforts, pollution is still serious. Many urban Chinese residents living under hazy skies have forgotten what a blue one feels like. According to an OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) report, air pollution will afflict 20 million Chinese people each year with respiratory diseases. The country's blood-lead levels, which can cause brain damage, have hit twice the world's average.

All these are just a fraction of the grave environmental challenges the nation is facing. While we pride ourselves on the economic miracle we created in the last 30 years, we have also been destroying nature in unprecedented speed and scale.

As Chinese people become wealthier, they are able to dine out and travel more often. They also become increasingly worried about the air they breathe, the food they eat and the water they drink.

The skyrocketing property prices, economic recovery and the Shanghai Expo are now in the media spotlight. But these are simply infinitesimal compared with the air, water and soil pollution that kill and sicken people by the tens of millions every year.

It will be a worthwhile cause if we can redeem ourselves and clean our air, water and soil by investing an amount equivalent to two years or even 10 years of the country's GDP.

It is much more important to leave our future generations with a clean land than stacks of money and a few houses that many Chinese people are planning to buy at the moment.

Our generation should not be remembered for turning beautiful, natural landscapes into uninhabitable areas.

Earth Day, which falls on April 22 this year, should not be a one-day affair. It should become an Earth Year 2010 and an Earth Century 21.


(China Daily 04/20/2010 page8)