China's environmental balancing act
Economic growth versus pollution control
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From Beijing Bureau Chief Rebecca MacKinnon
SHAANXI PROVINCE, China (CNN) -- As he visits China, President Clinton has been delivering a strong environmental message, a delicate issue in a country where economic growth and tough anti-pollution measures may collide.
In central China's Shaanxi province, there's ample evidence that the Beijing government, and the world, can no longer afford to do nothing.
Villagers here rage with anger because murky, frothy water is all they have to drink. A paper factory is dumping untreated waste water directly into the local water supply. It's been going on for years.
"They've bought off the local government," complains one man.
"We've been to see the head of the paper mill, and he doesn't care," says another villager. "We've gone to see the head of our county, but he won't do anything either. We're helpless."
The villagers say their children are sick with diarrhea and hepatitis; their growth is stunted and an unusually high number do poorly on intelligence tests.
The complaints from Shaanxi province are not unusual. According to a United Nations study, 80 percent of China's major rivers are too polluted for fish to live in, although much of that water still is being used by people.
Air pollution is even worse. Respiratory diseases are the number one killer in China, a country that has five of the world's 10 most polluted cities.
While economic growth has proceeded at a breathless pace over the past 20 years, the environmental consequences have been an afterthought.
China's environmental movement is enthusiastic, but new. Some schoolchildren and their parents are now learning about the need to keep their country's water clean.
"Ignorant entrepreneurs are polluting the water," says one sixth-grade boy. "They think there's an endless supply. Chinese must become more environmentally aware."
In its commitment to clean up, the central government has banned leaded gasoline and started an air quality index for major cities.
But it's only a start.
Activists argue that if industrialized countries such as the United States don't help China clean up its air and water, the result will be frightening: global crop shortages, drastic climate change, and even greater damage to the Earth's protective ozone layer.
In short -- the dirty water dilemma being faced by a Chinese farmer today will become everyone's problem tomorrow.
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