Every year, China’s pollution causes an estimated 3.5 million deaths. January saw a fetid smog trap Beijing under pollutants from the region’s 200 coal-fired power plants where concentration levels hit 40 times what the World Health Organization deems safe.
Outside China’s urban areas, disease rates in communities near chemical, pharmaceutical or power plants hit five times the national average.
For 30 years, China’s formidable economic expansion has been laced with corruption and negligence; it’s politics, impelled by crafted stability and censorship. Individuals proclaiming the human price of pollution here have been lost in the fray of millions, or quashed by a common wall of denial and intimidation.
Now, China’s first watershed opportunity is emerging. February 2013 saw the first state acknowledgment of prevalent and deadly ‘Cancer Villages’. $350 billion was allocated to tackle air and water contamination, and in March, premier Li Keqiang declared an all-out “war on China’s pollution”.
Every day, as the toll continues to rise, we must insist on and engage with the truth. We must investigate whether individual victims continue being treated as collateral damage; whether government policies and funds trickle down to genuine effect; and indeed, whether coming developments can empower China’s increasingly educated, global population to face up to very real, human and ecological consequences of its growth.