The Severe Impact of Pollution

Pollution in China

Four years ago a World Bank report landed on the desk of the Chinese health ministry containing shocking statistics on pollution-related deaths in the country, so much so that Beijing promptly engineered the removal of a third of it over fears that the findings, if they went public, could spark “social unrest”. Around 750,000 people die each year of pollution-related illnesses, the report said, many of whom fall victim to China’s distinction as the world’s leading coal consumer. The findings were smothered for years, with the final report, “Cost of Pollution in China”, resorting to abstract gauges such as the economic burden of premature deaths, rather than the cold, hard figures.

Fast forward to now and this burden has taken on a new form: China has begun to fear that the by-products of rapid industrialization and surging growth rates are now “a serious obstacle to social and economic development”, as environmental minister Zhou Shengxian said last month, and has positioned the battle against pollution as a key priority in the government’s five-year plan. On the surface this will come as welcome news to many, with Beijing acknowledging the need to look for slower, more sustainable forms of growth, but beneath lurks a different reality.

The inconvenient truth is that China’s swelling middle class and its soaring demands for energy, rising at nine percent each year, are an impediment to Zhou’s ambitions and, further down the line, the progress of the country. If energy consumption continues to increase at current rates, by 2020 China will require twice as many dams, coal-fired power stations, nuclear plants and other power sources. Factor in rapidly depleting natural resources, and a conundrum forms for the rising superpower: can it continue with its aggressive expansion of its domestic energy industry, to the detriment of its environment and people, or does it look for alternatives?

The alternatives may not be the sustainable measures mooted by Zhou, but something more sinister: China has been increasingly out-sourcing its pollutive and ecologically destructive industries to regional neighbours, relying on their flimsy environmental regulations and suppression of public disquiet on which to lump the burden. This co-opting of resource-rich smaller states like Laos and Burma has been aggressive, and shows little sign of abating; instead, the alarm bells recently sounded by Zhou could give it a further prod as Beijing looks to shift the by-products of its growth elsewhere.

Already the China National Heavy Machinery Corporation Company (CHMC) is the main economic thrust behind Burma’s largest open-pit coal mine and coal-fired power plant in Tigyit, Shan state, that a report in January said had triggered skin infections among half of the 12,000-strong local population and caused the forcible displacement of more than 320 households; people that receive no benefits from the project, given that the energy produced from the 2000 tonnes of highly pollutive lignite mined each day is shipped to a nearby cement factory for use in dam construction. A 600 megawatt coal-fired power plant, part-operated by the China Guodian Corporation, is also under construction in Sagaing division, with the power slated to be sent to Burma’s largest copper mine in nearby Monywa, operated by Chinese weapons giant Norinco. The output from Monywa will go to feed China’s booming electronics manufacturing sector, with a statement last year on the Norinco website tellingly boasting that the deal would “enhance the influence of our country in Myanmar [Burma]”. A similar agreement will also see China’s Taiyuan Iron and Steel (Group) Company, the largest steel manufacturer in the world, mine Sagaing division for nickel.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg for the pariah, pockmarked as it is by Chinese dams, mines and pipelines, and whose dependency on its northern neighbour for capital risks further subservience to Beijing’s needs. In 2009 Burma was added to a special ‘watch list’ of resource-rich countries drawn up by Beijing’s Ministry of Land and Resources, no doubt acutely aware of the convenient combination of vast natural resource capabilities and zero environmental regulations in the military-ruled country.

It has also watched as the ruling junta spent decades lining its own pockets through sales of energy to neighboring countries whilst the majority of its population suffers regular blackouts. Environmental experts from the Burma Rivers Network warned in January that China will take nearly half of the electricity produced by planned hydro power projects in Burma, with Thailand and India accounting for the majority of the remaining output. Around 10 percent will go to the Burmese military, largely for the construction of ventures like the Shwe dual pipeline project to transport Burmese gas and Middle Eastern oil offloaded on Burma’s western coast to China, while one percent will be used for domestic consumption. This is despite the fact that only one-fifth of the Burmese population have regular access to electricity.

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