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War on Pollution

China’s Environment Goes From Bad to Worse

Pollution levels in several of China's major rivers has grown more severe since 2010

Photograph by ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images

Pollution levels in several of China's major rivers has grown more severe since 2010

Each year, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) releases a “state of the environment” report (PDF); it’s a rather grim annual ritual. For all the talk about China’s new “war on pollution” and money pouring into wind farms and river cleanup campaigns, the reality is that, according to most metrics, China’s environmental situation is getting worse, not better.

Air pollution in China receives the most attention globally. Despite a recent stretch of fairly nice days in Beijing, according to the MEP’s report, in 2013 only three major Chinese cities met the government’s own standards for urban air quality.

Water pollution—and water shortages—may be an even graver problem. The pollution level in several major rivers, including the Yangtze and its tributaries, has grown more severe since 2010. Meanwhile 11 percent of the land in the Yangtze’s watershed and adjacent areas was watered by acid rain. Sixty percent of groundwater-testing sites nations wide ranked as “poor” or “very poor” in water quality.

Polluted irrigation water and deposition of evaporated heavy metals (mercury, for instance, vaporizes at high temperatures in coal-fired power plants) also taint cropland in China. According to a report released in April by the government, 16 percent of China’s total land area—and 19 of its agricultural land—is polluted.

Heavy metals deposited in the soil can be absorbed by crops. Last May, the provincial government of Guangzhou revealed that 44 percent of rice samples it tested in local restaurants contained elevated levels of cadmium, which has been linked to the bone-weakening itai-itai disease in Japan.

Larson is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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