John Vidal, environment editor Tuesday July 17, 2007 Guardian Unlimited Rubbish collects along a boom on a polluted Beijing canal. Photograph: AP
The study, conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) at China's request, draws on work by the government, the Chinese academy of sciences and the World Bank to spell out the scale and severity of the ecological crisis now engulfing the country, poisoning its people and holding it back economically.
China's water quality causes the researchers great concern. One third of the length of all China's rivers are now "highly polluted" as are 75% of its major lakes and 25% of all its coastal waters. Nearly 30,000 children die from diarrhoea due to polluted water each year.
"A majority of the water flowing through China's urban areas is unsuitable for drinking or fishing," the report says.
Although China is the world's fourth largest economy, growing 10% a year and closing rapidly on the US, Japan and Germany, its environmental standards are often closer to those in some of the poorest countries in the world, says the report. More than 17,000 towns have no sewage works at all and the human waste from nearly a billion people is barely collected or treated. Nearly 70% of the rural population have no access to safe sanitation.
China has tried to improve its air quality, but it has not invested enough to keep up with the flood of people to its cities, many of which have some of the worst pollution in the world. The burning of more than 1.97bn tonnes of the dirtiest coal each year is costing the economy the equivalent of between 3% and 7% of GDP, or £8-15bn, a year, according to research cited in the report. While no specific figure is given for the overall cost of China's pollution, in 2004 it was thought to be in the region of £32bn.
"A healthy economy needs a healthy environment," said Mario Amano, the deputy secretary-general of the OECD said in Beijing today. The OECD is a grouping of the world's 30 richest countries.
"The development of China has been accompanied by industrial and mining accidents, and severe ecological damage such as deforestation, desertification and soil erosion," the report says. It estimates that 2.64m sq km, or 27.5% of the country's landmass is now becoming desertified. "Some 400 million people are affected by extensive soil salination and blowing sand. This is leading to villages becoming buried, the reduced life of irrigation works and widescale respiratory diseases."
Projections of water demand suggest that China may not be able to continue at its present speed of growth for much longer. Much of the country already suffers from water shortages, but the Chinese academy of sciences expects water demand to increase by nearly 50% in the next 40 years. Industry's share of this is expected to grow from 16% to 41%.
Low environmental standards are now making people wary of buying Chinese goods, Lorents Lorentsen, OECD's environmental director said. "If you have a reputation for being a polluted country, then you have a bad trademark abroad. It's very hard to sell pharmaceuticals, to sell food and feed from a country that has a reputation for being polluted."