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The City With the Grittiest Air

Pollution cancels out China's economic progress
(CNW) LANZHOU -- A 7-year-old with tiny pigtails, has an unexpected answer to a simple question: What color is the sky? "White," she says. "Sometimes yellow."

Jun-jun lives in Lanzhou, the world's most polluted city. It is a place where simply breathing is the same as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.

The latest survey from the World Resources Institute in Washington found this city of 2 million people in central China to have the globe's least breathable air. A combination of coal smoke, car exhaust and dust from the arid yellow mountains means that on the worst days, each breath is something you can crunch between your teeth.

That Lanzhou tops the list is not a surprise for China: Nine of the world's 10 most polluted cities are in this country -- the other one is Rajkot, in India -- and respiratory illness is the leading cause of death here. The number of particulates per cubic meter in Lanzhou is about seven times the number in Los Angeles.

In the race toward economic development, China had until fairly recently been following the West's path: Get rich, and then get clean. But studies showing that a polluted environment has significant economic and health costs galvanized the country to follow a different strategy. The government decided that making an expensive investment now will mean universal rewards later.

"The environmental sacrifices China has made in achieving its economic growth are astonishing," Shanghai professor Zhai Shijing said at the National People's Congress in March.

Counting the cost of workers' sick days and health care for pollution-induced diseases, as well as the amount of forests and farmland lost to environmental degradation, the World Bank estimates that the costs of pollution are as high as 8 percent of GDP, effectively canceling out China's economic progress.

This year, the government has put aside $10 billion for environmental protection. And thanks to an ambitious program to clean up industries by 2001, the air in some Chinese cities is actually improving.

In Shanghai, for example, the collapse of the textile industry, the shifting of other large factories to outside the city and an aggressive tree-planting program mean the air has fewer particulates -- the grit that can cause lung cancer. The amount of lead in the air, however, remains alarmingly high, at a level that can cause retardation in children.

Desperate plans include moving a mountain
Faced with the risk of damaging a generation of children and wasting hard-won growth, the central government has put forth an impressive plan. In 49 key cities, local governments must reduce their pollution to 1995 levels by 2000 or the factories that don't meet the standards will be shut down. So far, says Mou Guangfeng, a vice director of the National Environmental Protection Agency, the government has closed about 65,200 small plants.

Lanzhou is considering everything to reduce pollution, including moving a mountain. But so far, the air here is only getting worse.

"Yes, we have achieved a kind of fame for our air pollution," says Yu Xionghou, the director of the Lanzhou Environmental Protection Bureau. "We're doing the best we can to improve it."

Man has conspired with nature here: Lanzhou sits in the bottom of a narrow bowl-shaped valley, lidded with layers of haze, dust and smoke. The mountains surrounding the city keep the wind from blowing the smog away.

The arid yellow earth here crumbles to the touch, and the only trees on the hillsides have been planted and watered by hand.

"When I was a schoolboy, we had to carry a piece of ice on our backs up the hill to water the trees. Now we pipe water up," Yu muses. "But I think God is unfair to put us in this place."

"If foreign countries complain about China's pollution, they should help us solve it"
To give the trapped smog an outlet, a developer came up with the idea of moving a mountain. A team of explosive experts blasted off the peak -- but despite elaborate sprinkling systems to keep the detritus down, the blast put even more dust in the air.

The plan to make the mountain into a molehill was much costlier, and much less effective, than people had hoped and was suspended last year.

"I think it was like drilling a hole in the wall of a smoke-filled room," Yu says. "We need to do something else."

Now he is spearheading more down-to-earth solutions: converting to unleaded gasoline; switching from coal -- 80 percent of Lanzhou's power comes from coal-fired plants -- to natural gas; planting more trees; and trying to use more wind, solar and hydroelectric energy. The World Bank is helping the city establish a pollution-monitoring system.

The hardest task of all: shutting down the polluters. Last winter, when air pollution reached a critical level, Lanzhou's environmental agency ordered more than 100 factories to close temporarily. But it was also a time when each city in China had to reach a government-mandated target of 8 percent growth, and Lanzhou is home to several of the largest state-owned enterprises, including a giant oil refinery and a steel plant.

"It was very, very hard to shut down the factories," says Yu, who describes strong resistance not only from the factory managers but also from other government departments intent on meeting their economic targets.

So Yu tried another tack: public outrage. He called local journalists and told them how the large factories were endangering people's health and refusing to stop doing so. The usually restrained press went after the companies with relish, and the loss of face for the factories spurred them to halt production.

Yu won the battle, but the struggle continues in Lanzhou, and in cities across China, as local, short-term interests tend to win out over the mandate for a global good.

The national environmental agency has been gaining political influence in the central government, but it still has the power only to suggest changes and supervise policy.

Recently, its mission has become even harder as the economy slows and the imperative to keep people working weighs against the need to shut down inefficient factories.

The biggest difference can be made with money and technology from more developed countries, officials say.

"Frankly speaking, it is too costly to make all the improvements necessary to meet the new government standards," says Mao Xuewen, a senior engineer at the Sinopec petroleum plant in Lanzhou. "But if we don't, we will be closed down. If foreign countries complain about China's pollution, they should help us solve it and give us better technology."

In fact, as China's 1.3 billion people use more electricity and drive more cars, the world is feeling the effects and is pitching in. Japan, suffering from acid rain caused by clouds of sulfur blown over from China, is donating $343 million and new equipment to help China clean up.

"The process of economic development can cause pollution," says Yu. "But it can also help stop it."

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Albion Monitor July 20, 1999 (

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