More than half of China’s cities are affected by acid rain and one-sixth of major rivers are so polluted the water is unfit even for farmland, a senior official said yesterday in a bleak assessment of the environmental price of the country’s economic boom.

The environmental degradation which has accompanied China’s breakneck growth has emerged as one of the greatest problems affecting society.

"The overall environmental situation is still very grave and is facing many difficulties and challenges," Deputy Environment Minister Li Ganjie told a news conference.
 
The waters off the booming cities of Shanghai, Tianjin and Guangzhou were rated as severely polluted, with only stretches around the resort island of Hainan and parts of the northern coast given a totally clean bill of health, Li said.

Pollution monitors found that 16.4 percent of China’s major rivers were classified as worse than grade five, he added, meaning that they do not even meet the standard needed for agricultural irrigation.

Just 3.6 percent of the 471 cities monitored got top ratings for air cleanliness, and there was a continued loss of biodiversity around the country, Li added.

Heavy metal pollution was a particular worry, he said, not only on the health front but also for stability in society.

"These heavy metal pollution incidents not only seriously threaten people’s health, they also affect social stability, and it ought to be said this is a rather severe issue," Li said.

Several government departments are working on creating legislation to manage heavy metal pollution.

Li said the State Council recently approved a plan for the treatment and reduction of heavy metal pollution for the 2011-2015 period.

Li said China will tighten its grip on industries where heavy metals are frequently used to prevent heavy metal pollution. Regions where lead poisoning cases have occurred will be forbidden from starting new construction projects, Li said, citing a circular issued by his ministry.

Companies that have violated environmental laws will be forced to halt production, Li said.

China has struggled to rein in polluting industry under lax environmental regulations. Lead poisoning, especially in children, has aroused public anger in some areas.

Last month, the vast northern Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region was hit by sporadic protests over damage caused by mining to grazing lands.

The government has since begun a crackdown on the coal industry and vowed to "leave no stone unturned" in their probe into mines which damage the environment or seriously affect residents.

"The Environment Ministry will be paying close attention, and will give help, support, supervision and guidance" to the probe into the environmental problems of coal mines in Inner Mongolia, the deputy minister said.

But in words underscoring the challenge that the government faces to balance protection of the environment with economic growth, Li said it was important not to demonize the resource extraction sector.

"In places like Inner Mongolia, with their rich natural and mineral resources, their exploitation has had a great effect on local economic development and the improvement of people’s livelihoods."

 
 
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