China still faces a “very grave” environmental situation despite some progress in changing the country’s develop-at-all-costs strategy, senior government officials said on Friday. Speaking at a news conference to launch their annual assessment of the environment, officials from China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection pointed to two major advances during the past five years: less pollutants in surface water and less sulfur dioxide emissions in cities — two key goals that the ministry had set for itself. But officials cautioned that many other problems were scarcely under control.
“The overall environmental situation is still very grave and is facing many difficulties and challenges,” said Vice Minister Li Ganjie. Mr. Li said biodiversity was declining with “a continuous loss and drain of genetic resources,” while China’s countryside was becoming more polluted as cities move dirty industries to rural areas. Mr. Li said reversing the deterioration of the countryside was a major focus for the five-year-plan for 2011-2015. He also pledged to control heavy-metal pollution, which has resulted in nine incidents of lead poisoning last year and seven more in the first five months of this year. He said China needed a law controlling heavy metals and that he was confident it would be written and passed soon.
Founded as an agency 13 years ago, the environmental protection office was upgraded to a ministry in 2007 but has still fought an uphill battle for funds and power. China’s government has given high priority to growth, worried that unemployment contributes to social unrest. Now, however, signs are growing that environmental neglect is causing instability. Last week’s protests in Inner Mongolia, for example, were partly due to concerns that industries such as coal and mining — which are largely dominated by ethnic Chinese — are destroying the grasslands used for herding by the indigenous Mongolian population. Similar conflicts have arisen in other sensitive ethnic areas, including Tibet and Xinjiang.