Monday, July 09, 2007

Poison Play - Strategic Globalization

There is pernicious strategic intent behind the relocation of massive manufacturing capacity to China. It ties down a potential competitor [American corporations consume a majority of the junk China produces and China in turn props up the debt-ridden American economy] and re-situates the most visceral kinds of pollution [while seeding regional conflict as China seeks greater access to resources] to a different part of the world [the Eurasian landmass]. China's "development" needs to be re-evaluated in light of emerging evidence [of ecological destruction that these two rogue nations are causing in Eurasia and indeed the rest of the world]:

The cloud of dirt was hard to make out from the ground, but at an altitude of 10,000 meters (32,808 feet), the scientists could see the gigantic mass of ozone, dust and soot with the naked eye. In a specially outfitted aircraft taking off from Munich airport, they surveyed a brownish mixture stretching from Germany all the way to the Mediterranean Sea.

These kinds of clouds float above Europe for most of the year and they've traveled far to get there. By analyzing the makeup of particles in the cloud, European scientists were able to identify its origin. "There was a whole bunch from China in there," says Andreas Stohl, a 38-year-old from the Norwegian Institute for Air Research.

On the other side of the Pacific, in Yokohama, Japanese climate change researcher Hajime Akimoto places three photos of the Earth next to each other. They show in red where concentrations of nitrogen dioxide are especially high. The picture from 1996 shows the area between Beijing and Shanghai as a loose group of reddish spots, but one from 2005 completely covers that part of China in bright red.

Winds are blowing ever-greater amounts of pollution from China into Japan, leading many Japanese to complain about irritated eyes and throats. Last year, two cities made official warnings about health dangers caused by Japan's big red neighbor across the sea for the first time.

The Chinese are no longer simply destroying their own environment. Just as trade is global these days, so too is the threat against nature.

The connection isn't always apparent at first glance. For example, what does the spreading desert of Inner Mongolia -- a massive autonomous region in northern China -- have to do with the comfy cashmere sweaters that shoppers are snapping up for next to nothing in cities from Berlin to Boston? For years, Chinese herders in the region let millions of goats graze until the grass was gone, roots and all. Then the soil simply blew away and the desert began to expand at an alarming rate. Since the early 1980s, China's grasslands have shrunk each year by some 15,000 square kilometers -- an area the size of the US state of Connecticut.

And now in the midst of a deadly drought, the sand dunes move ever closer to the small village Chaogetu Hure. Inch by inch, seemingly unstoppable, they claim everything in their path, as if the dunes purposely want to bury the government's expensive efforts to plant trees, build fences, corral goats and resettle local inhabitants.

Only a few kilometers away, on the edge of Luanjingtan, farmer Xu Changqin inspects a few meager green stalks of wheat. The local peasants worked hard to plant their fields, but last May a sandstorm covered them over. "The grassland is getting smaller, the fertile grounds are disappearing," says Xu, explaining how growing numbers of people are moving away to seek more hospitable places to live.

The fine sand from the farmer's homeland blows all the way to California and Europe. It's mixed in with ash and other dangerous particles from industry in China's Inner Mongolia region, which is home to countless factories, chemical works and power plants.

Along the Huang (Yellow) River in the city of Shizuishan, in the Ningxia region adjacent to Inner Mongolia, the extent of the pollution becomes rather obvious. Swaths of gray-black cloud blot out the sun to make the perfect setting for a Hollywood film about the end of the world. Two power plants belch ash into an artificial lake separated from the nearby river only by a thin dam. The wind blows the ash upward to start it on its journey around the globe.

The country opened itself to the world in the late 1970s, its bizarre mixture of communism and capitalism has since produced astounding growth rates. But China was simultaneously turned into one massive, poison-producing factory.

The country is home to 16 of the world's 20 dirtiest cities. The inhabitants of every third metropolis are forced to breathe polluted air, causing the deaths of an estimated 400,000 Chinese each year. Half of China's 696 cities and counties suffer from acid rain. Two-thirds of its major rivers and lakes are cesspools and more than 340 million people do not have access to clean drinking water. The Yangtze River, once China's proud artery of life, is biologically dead for long stretches. Many other rivers flow with blackened water and along their banks there are the notorious "cancer villages" where many people die early.

It's now begun to dawn on Beijing's politicians what China's economy is doing to China's ecology. Experts like Pan Yue, the deputy minister of the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), are already fearful that environmental pollution will destroy the impressive economic growth of recent years. SO2 emissions cause damages worth €50 billion each year and the World Bank estimates environmental pollution already shaves eight to 12 percent off of China's gross national product (GNP).

"China has gone through an industrialization in the past 20 years that many developing countries needed 100 years to complete. That's why the country now has to deal with environmental problems that would also take 100 years to solve in many Western nations," says Pan.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has also distanced himself from the country's raping of the environment to promote "sustainable growth," which includes an ambitious nuclear program. At least 20 new nuclear power plants are to be built by 2020 -- but the communist leadership doesn't say where the radioactive waste will end up. Beijing also wants at least ten percent of the country's energy needs to be covered by renewable sources such as solar, wind and hydro. Photovoltaic facilities have already been erected in thousands of villages and giant wind parks dot China's eastern coast. Beijing also actively participates in the international emissions trade and provides foreign environmental polluters with opportunities to buy their way out of their obligations by financing somewhat clean chemical plants. The Chinese government plans to spend around $125 billion on sewage treatment facilities and new water pipes over the next five years.

But such impressive-sounding announcements, measured by the scope and speed of China's environmental destruction, fall far short of what's needed.

A disaster in the making

When a chemical plant exploded in the northeastern Jilin province in November 2005, the industrial city Harbin had to cut water supplies for four days to prevent its 9 million inhabitants from being poisoned. But that didn't keep the catastrophe from spreading, as a thick benzene film traveled from the Songhua River into the Amur River, where it slowly dissipated in Russia's Far East.

Alexei Makinov, saw the disaster in the making. "It wasn't just a problem since the accident," says the 54-year-old Russian geologist and head of the hydrology lab of the Russian Academy of Sciences in the Far East in Khabarovsk. "The river has been stinking since 1997." The scientist's desk is covered with tables and statistics and his cabinet with its glass door is crammed full of papers. All of it is environmental data on the Amur.

But it's easy to see with the naked eye just how much damage the river has suffered. The Sungari -- as the Songhua River is known in Russia -- carries tons of poisonous sludge hundreds of kilometers downstream to the Amur. When fishers cut a hole in the river ice during the winter, a horrible odor is released. Makinov thinks the smell is from dying plant life and tells of residents complaining of infections, rashes and diarrhea.

The ailing Amur River has become the most important patient of 65-year-old doctor Vladena Rybakova as the end of her career nears. "The river began to stink of phenol," she says. "And at first we thought it was a natural phenomenon." But soon Rybakova and her colleagues found the actual cause -- over the Chinese border. Whereas 65 million people live on the Chinese side of the Amur, there are only 4 million on the Russian side. Since the Chinese authorities offered the Russian scientists no information on what their factories were producing and what poisons they might be releasing into the waters, the Russians began investigating on their own in the early 1990s. After Rybakova fed lab rats fish from the river and then dissected them, she discovered that "their livers decomposed before you could start cutting."

The road to Sikachi-Alyan leads past barracks and massive radar equipment. It is home to the ethnic Nanai minority, which has always lived from fishing. During Soviet times there was a fishing collective here, but now the village of wooden houses has fallen into bitter poverty. These days no one will buy what the locals catch.

"For the past 12 years, the fish have smelled like chemicals," says village leader Nina Druzhinina, a thin woman with a towering hairdo. "At first we thought it was Russian plants letting untreated water into the river. But now we know most of the filth comes from China."

Damned by dams

In order to secure their future, the Chinese also intend to dominate the Mekong River, which is known as the Lancang in China. In Yunnan province there are two major dams holding back the waters of Southeast Asia's longest river without regard for China's neighbors. Six further dams are planned. At the construction site of the Xiaowan Dam, an army of workers is transforming the once green gorges into a barren Martian landscape. Xiaowan will be one of the world's biggest hydroelectric plants --almost as huge as the controversial Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River.

A few hundred kilometers further southward, the Mekong flows through fertile rice paddies and cornfields. Here and there, bamboo groves crowd the banks. But the lives of millions of people, who depend on the river's natural rhythms, have been disrupted. The Chinese now have a dam in place and they flood the Mekong as they please -- when, for example, the water is too low and the Chinese need a big ship to enter the Thai river harbor of Chiang Saen.

In Cambodia, where river fish are one of the most important sources of food, the size of the catch is shrinking -- especially in the important Tonle Sap lake and river system. But even down south in the Mekong Delta the river has become unpredictable, according to residents. Sometimes floods wash away houses and at other times there's not enough water for the rice paddies.

Suthep Teowtrakul, district head of the small Thai town Chiang Khong, observes the river every day. He wears a yellow polo shirt sporting the words "I Love the King" and has four Buddha figures in his office. But neither his monarch nor the bodhisattva can help him counter the Chinese affects on the Mekong. "My motto is: 'Leave the river alone'," he says, while admitting that's unlikely to happen. "Because the Chinese think the Mekong belongs to them." Just like the fields they destroy or the air they pollute.

At a recent United Nations conference on climate change in Nairobi, the Chinese demanded that developing nations not be forced to make cuts in greenhouse gases. Only after pushing through this condition -- from which China has the most to gain -- did the Chinese delegates vote to work towards a follow-up agreement to the Kyoto Protocol.

China is a big country. Its leaders, accountable only to themselves, don't care for economic or environmental advice. But each year, each month, almost every week, China experiences some sort of major environmental catastrophe. The mess spreads across the land, in its waterways and the air. And far too often, the rest of the world gets sprinkled with it too.

Note: It is interesting to note that China has as many territorial disputes as neighbors.

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