Reflecting on Earth Day for China

Updated: 2010-04-20 00:00
Large Medium Small
If China needs to import more to balance its foreign trade, oil, raw materials, jumbo jets and luxury sedans should not 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.

These aforementioned resources are in severe shortage in China now, and more so every passing day.

It seems unnecessary to cite scary figures to remind my 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, from gulping polluted water, choking on foul air and eating food grown on tainted farmland.

The news media has devoted a lot of space and airtime to cover earthquakes, coal mine explosions and airplane crashes. Yet, the most underreported breaking news in China in the past decades is the environmental crisis.

 About half of the waterways in China are severely polluted. Hundreds of millions of rural Chinese residents have no access to safe drinking water. Water pollution has been blamed as a partial cause of China’s high death rates from liver and stomach cancers.

On the other hand, more than half of 600 major cities are suffering water shortages. The drought which devastated Southwest China in the past months has been occurring more often. Desertification, which already afflicts 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 sky looks like. According to an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) 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 on an unprecedented scale.

As the 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.

Skyrocketing property prices, economic recovery and the Shanghai Expo are now in the media spotlight. These are simply infinitesimal compared with the air, water and soil pollution that is killing and sickening 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 China’s GDP.

It is much more important to leave our future generations with clean air and soil than stacks of money and houses.

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.