Chinese order blitz on deadly polluters

Ageing heavy industries are poisoning a nation, writes Teresa Poole
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Xian - China has carried out a blitz on township industries which pollute the country, forcibly closing nearly 50,000 small factories. Paper mills, tanneries and dye factories were among the main offenders, accused of sluicing out chemical waste into rivers and drinking water supplies.

The National Environmental Protection Agency had set 1 October as a deadline for township enterprises to clean up or face shut-down. The agency claims that by the middle of last month, 49,735 polluters had stopped operating, even though "several" local governments had not yet complied with the order.

Pollution in China has reached crisis levels, the combination of ageing dirty heavy industries and a decade of breakneck economic development which has given scant regard to environmental consequences. For years, Chinese leaders have paid lip-service to environmental protection, passing a host of new laws but doing little in terms of enforcement. A third of the country is affected by acid rain.

While environmentalists have welcomed the latest factory closures as evidence that China was finally taking firm action on pollution, they point out that the measures only targeted township industries and did not touch the worst offenders - large state-owned enterprises.

In industrial Xian, for example, one of China's most polluted provincial capitals and well-known to Western tourists as the home of Emperor Qinshihuang's terracotta army, this latest crackdown closed a mere 216 small factories. This will have a limited impact on air pollution and contaminated water caused by old textile, machine-processing and chemical factories and power plants.

Xian's pollution has reached imperial proportions. From a high-rise window, visibility is only about half a mile on a winter morning. The smog is worst in the west of the city, where chemical and power industries are concentrated. In the market next to the Xian San De Medical Chemical Branch factory, a woman said: "When it is going to rain, the air goes very thick and things get vague. You can't see a person very far away."

The figures are terrifying. According to Song Zhongjian, the vice-director of the city's Environmental Protection Bureau, every month 25 tonnes of dust falls per square kilometre, most spewed out from Xian's coal-fired industry and domestic heating systems. The annual output of sulphur dioxide has reached 190,000 tonnes; meanwhile, 80 per cent of Xian's domestic waste water flushes straight into the river system.

Yet Xian, the capital of inland Shaanxi province, is by no means the worst in China; in an official 1994 survey, it was placed 14th on the list of most polluted Chinese cities. Across China, the main problems are industrial waste and an overwhelming reliance on coal, which provides three-quarters of the country's energy resources and electricity. Coal consumption, currently at 420 million tonnes a year, is forecast to rise to 540 million tonnes by 2,000, and 800 million tonnes by 2010.

Xian is a typical Chinese smokestack city. Its 6.7 million residents and the city's industry burn 5 million tonnes of coal a year. Industrial use is high but domestic consumption is a also major factor. Ran Canli, 80, said: "Along my corridor, every household has a coal-fired stove, and when we cook, there is a lot of smoke and dust." Less then one in seven households uses gas-fired heating.

The government knows the answers to these problems, but cannot afford them. The official estimate is that China will have to spend 450bn yuan (pounds 36bn) over the next five years in an environmental clean-up. Xian, richer than other cities because of its tourist industry, is making a start. A 250-mile pipe is being laid from the gas-fields in northern Shaanxi, and by next July three-quarters of residents should be connected to the system. A new waste-water treatment factory is being built and by 2,000, Xian wants to be treating half domestic outflows.

A day in Xian is almost guaranteed to produce a blinding headache, and even some of the locals are complaining. On the way to the airport, the taxi driver said it was worst in the early evening. "In the rush hour, the cars raise the dust on the road, and the smoke from the factories floats everywhere. In the winter, after it has snowed, you can see dark small particles in the snow. I am worried, but I can't do anything about it because I live here"