China's boom is killing sea that gives it life, warn scientists

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China's spectacular economic boom will mean the death of its major economic and maritime hub, the Bohai sea, unless action is taken to stop industrial pollution of its waters, environmental advisers said yesterday.

The warnings, yet another example of the crisis gripping the world's fastest-growing major economy, come as China tries to balance its desire for economic growth with the need to avoid environmental catastrophe.

"Almost no river that flows into the Bohai sea is clean," Liu Quanfang, an adviser to the annual National People's Congress, told the Xinhua news agency, adding that the sea could be "dead" within 12 years if urgent action is not taken to clean its waters.

The Bohai, which is among only 12 internal seas in the world, and the largest in the People's Republic, has 26 cities in its hinterland, including three of China's megacities, the capital Beijing, Tianjin and Shenyang.

Known as "the fish storehouse" because of the habitat it provides for many rare migratory species, the Bohai is also one of China's most high-profile environmental blackspots, along with the Yangtze delta and the Pearl river delta.

China's coastal regions have enjoyed the lion's share of burgeoning economic growth of recent years but they are also producing staggering quantities of waste. Factories and cities clustered along the shore of the Bohai sea, formerly known as the Gulf of Chihli, dump tons of pollutants into the bay, poisoning spawning grounds for many species of fish while companies harvest gold, said Mr Liu, an adviser from Liaoning.

There are about 100 ports along its 2,350 miles of coastline, including Shandong, Hebei and Liaoning provinces, and the Bohai sea joins the open sea between China and the Korean peninsula, major population centres catered for by the Bohai's sprinkling of recreation areas.

But many beaches have recently closed due to regular "red tides", huge algae blooms which last several days and swamp vast areas of sea with dangerous levels of toxins that can prove lethal for shellfish, for which the Bohai is famed, and other sea creatures. Between 1990 and 2004, there were 83 "red tides" in the Bohai sea. About 2.8 billion tons of contaminated water is dumped into the 31,200-square-mile body of water every year.

More than a third of Bohai's water falls short of even basic clean-water standards, and some reports show 80 per cent of sea areas near effluent outlets were heavily polluted.

China's economy is simmering, expanding by 8 per cent every year, with growth fuelled by huge output from the factories of the eastern coastal regions. The price of this growth - environmental devastation on a massive scale is clear to see. Industrial megacities continue to dump pollutants into the rivers; China's State Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa) reckons half of the offshore seawater in China has been poisoned and is "not optimistic" on the marine environment. Air pollution is blamed for the premature death of 400,000 Chinese every year, and crop returns are steadily decreasing in quantity and quality because of polluted land and water.

There are even signs that the negative impact of pollution on human health is leading to outbursts of social unrest from those citizens who suffer the most from the downsides of China's economic boom.

Barely any of the 40 rivers flowing into the Bohai sea is clean, including the mighty Yellow river, China's second-longest. In January this year, the eastern Chinese province of Shandong lifted a pollution alarm on the Yellow river after a 66-mile-long diesel slick flowed into the Bohai.

"Pollution has caused extinctive damage to marine organisms in the sea," said Mr Liu, a member of a parliamentary body called the National Committee of Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

"No large throng of any variety of fish, crab and testacean can be spotted in the sea now, and the whole of the spawning area in the sea was polluted."

Some marine varieties were losing their ability to reproduce and could soon be extinct, he added. An anti-pollution campaign was launched in 2002 but seems to be making little progress. A third of the projects scheduled have not started, and many others have been abandoned because of lack of money.

Xie Kechang, an expert from the Chinese Academy of Engineering, said there needed to be a unified, co-ordinated response.

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