Hundreds of millions of people are being made ill every year or dying prematurely from pollution caused by China's breakneck economic growth, a leading economic thinktank has concluded following an 18-month investigation.
The OECD study, prepared at China's request, draws on work by the government, World Bank and Chinese Academy of Sciences to spell out the scale of the ecological crisis now engulfing the country, poisoning its people and holding it back economically.
It says up to 300 million people are drinking contaminated water every day, and 190 million are suffering from water related illnesses each year. If air pollution is not controlled, it says, there will be 600,000 premature deaths in urban areas and 20m cases of respiratory illness a year within 15 years.
China's water quality gives the researchers greatest 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
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 one billion people is barely collected or treated. Nearly 70% of the rural population has no access to safe sanitation.
"A majority of the water flowing through China's urban areas is unsuitable for drinking or fishing. Some 300 million people drink contaminated water on a daily basis," says the report.
Although China has tried to improve its air quality, 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 2bn tonnes of the dirtiest coal a year is costing the economy the equivalent of 3-7% of GDP (£8-15bn a year), according to 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, deputy secretary-general of the OECD - the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development - in Beijing yesterday.
The report estimates that 27% of the landmass of the country is now becoming desertified. 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, said Lorents Lorentsen, OECD's environmental director in Beijing yesterday. "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," he said.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007