Chinese PM admits sandstorms are sign of 'ecological destruction'

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The Independent Online

Beijingers unfurled their face-scarves and wiped the coating of yellow dust off their homes yesterday after days of sandstorms which deposited on to the capital 300,000 tons of sand from the Gobi desert and dust from the thousands of building sites around the city.

By the time the sandstorms whipped Beijing, they had picked up a large dose of heavy metals and carcinogens which, over the past week, caused a suffocating layer of foul air to hang over China's capital.

The head of China's environment watchdog warned yesterday that worsening water and air pollution could soon become a political issue and translate into social tension, riot and protests. "The environment has become a focal issue that triggers social contradictions," Zhou Shengxian, the head of the state environmental protection administration (Sepa), told The Beijing News.

His views were echoed by Wen Jiabao, the Prime Minister. "The succession of dust storms is a warning to us. Ecological destruction and environmental pollution are creating massive economic losses and gravely threatening people's lives and health," he said earlier this week.

The premier said China had no problem meeting economic goals but was faltering on environmental targets. China's sulphur dioxide emissions last year were 27 per cent higher than in 2000, despite the goal set by the government to reduce emissions by 10 per cent over that time.

The World Bank says 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities are in China and so far this year the capital has recorded just 56 days with blue skies - 16 fewer than for the same time last year. Environmental damage has sparked widespread anger and many citizens have taken to the streets to protest.

Peng Lei, of the conservation group WWF, said China was sacrificing the environment for the fast growth of the economy. "The model of economic development is not sustainable," Mr Peng said.