Vice minister pulls no punches on China's environment

MEP now using maximum leverage to address very grave situation
June 05, 2011
China has mounting environmental problems says Li Ganjie

In a wide ranging and unusually frank press conference on Friday China's Vice Minister of Environmental Protection, Li Ganjie, told journalists that while the country had met pollution reduction targets set for the 11th Five-Year Plan between 2006 and 2010, three decades of fast-paced economic growth has nonetheless left its environment in very poor shape.

In a blunt assessment of the problems facing China, Li cautioned that many problems were serious and scarcely under control. "The overall environmental situation is still very grave and is facing many difficulties and challenges," he said.

The vice minister reported that biodiversity was declining with "a continuous loss and drain of genetic resources," and the countryside was becoming more polluted as dirty industries were moved out of cities and into rural areas.

In response to this Li outlined a number of measures the powerful ministry was undertaking to try and stave off an escalating environmental disaster.

Well-connected ministries were once able to bypass the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), but now, Li warned, it had set up "an impassable firewall" to block harmful projects.

He said that last year the ministry disapproved 59 projects that failed environmental assessment, which involved a total investment of 90.4 billion yuan (USD13.9 billion), but indicated that more harsh measures were to be taken in future against environmentally unfriendly business or projects.

He said that more than a fifth of the land that has been set aside as nature reserves had been illegally developed by companies, often with local government collusion. The MEP has therefore deployed a satellite that can detect illegal development, enabling the ministry to put pressure on local governments to stop the work.

Failing this, Li said, the ministry has the power to influence officials' prospects for promotions because environmental compliance is now a part of their performance evaluation.

Mining crackdown

Another measure being taken is the immediate limitation of development projects in environmentally vulnerable areas in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and other regions, where some projects have been blamed for fueling unrest among indigenous peoples.

According to the New York Times, recent protests in Inner Mongolia were partly due to concerns that industries like coal and mining - largely dominated by ethnic Chinese - are destroying the grasslands used for herding by the indigenous Mongolians. Similar conflicts have arisen in other sensitive ethnic areas like Tibet and Xinjiang.

"In some of these areas that are very fragile, we will strictly limit development," Li pledged.

Acknowledging that the ministry was aware of the impact of mining on the environment of Inner Mongolia and attaches importance to the problem, the vice minister promised the ministry will assist local governments and environmental protection authorities in punishing enterprises who have breached environmental protection laws and regulations.

The government has begun a month-long crackdown on the coal industry and vowed to punish the mines which damage the environment or seriously affect residents.

"We have entered a period when sudden incidents impacting the environment or pollution accidents are occurring frequently and when environmental pollution is daily causing social contradictions," said Li.

According to the Ministry's 2010 annual report, more than half of China's cities are affected by acid rain and just 3.6 percent of the 471 cities monitored got top ratings for air cleanliness. About 40 percent of major rivers are so polluted that the water can only be used for industrial purposes or landscaping. About 16 percent of the total is unfit for agricultural irrigation.