Asia-Pacific, Biodiversity, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines

Pollution Rising Fast in China’s Seas

Mitch Moxley

BEIJING, Jun 20 2011 (IPS) - Rapid economic growth in China’s coastal regions has resulted in serious levels of ocean pollution, damaging marine life and posing a threat to humans. As much as half of China’s offshore areas are considered polluted.

Roughly 48,000 square kilometres of China’s oceanic territory is seriously polluted, an increase of 18,300 square kilometres from last year, according to a report by the State Oceanic Administration of China (SOA). Of the 18 ecological zones monitored by the SOA, 14 were found to have unhealthy levels of pollution.

After 30 years of explosive economic growth, China last year overtook Japan as the world’s second largest economy. While that growth has improved lives for tens of millions, it has also left China as one of the most polluted countries in the world, from sky to sea.

Booming coastal centres are dumping a growing amount of industrial and domestic waste at sea. About 147,000 square kilometres of China’s coastal waters failed to meet standards for “clear water” in 2009, a 7.3 percent increase from the year before, the SOA reported last year.

The new report, called the 2010 China Marine Environment Bulletin, found that 86 percent of China’s estuaries, bays, wetlands, coral reefs and seaweed beds were below what the SOA considers “healthy”.

China has up to five million hectares of estuaries and coastal wetlands, both of which are important ecosystems. Since the 1990s, land reclamation and dam building has threatened these areas. Coastal wetlands are disappearing at a rate of 20,000 hectares a year, and 337 of 457 discharge outlets in China’s estuary areas were found to have excessive levels of pollution, according to a 2009 report by the SOA.

In 2008, China had 13,380 square kilometres of reclaimed land, up from 8,241 square kilometres in 1990s, a Legal Daily story said last month.

Rapidly rising levels of oil, pesticides and other harmful pollutants are contaminating the country’s marine life, including the shellfish supply, according to state media reports last year. Shellfish in offshore areas were found to contain “excessive harmful chemicals” such as lead, cadmium and the insecticide DDT. Levels of lead detected in shellfish were 50 percent above normal, while cadmium and DDT levels were about 40 percent higher.

Lead can cause damage to the human nervous system and cause blood and brain disorders if consumed in unsafe amounts. The World Health Organisation considers DDT a “moderately hazardous” pesticide.

Last year China’s coastal waters suffered 68 “red tides”, or algae blooms, caused by excessive sewage in the water, affecting 14,700 square kilometres, 3.4 times the area affected in the 1990s, according to the report. “Algae bloom seriously threatens fishing resources,” Yu Rencheng, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Oceanology tells IPS. Severely polluted areas include the northern Yellow Sea, Liaodong Bay, Bohai Bay, Laizhou Bay, the Yangtze River estuary, Hangzhou Bay and the Pearl River estuary. Pollutants exceeding normal levels include inorganic nitrogen, reactive phosphate and oil. According to the SOA report, 50 percent of China’s offshore areas were facing problems with pollution, and 48,000 square kilometres did not meet Grade IV standards – meaning they were seriously polluted. Dangerous levels of pollution are generally found near areas experiencing rapid economic growth, Yu explains. The main causes of coastal pollution include the discharge of untreated sewage, the discharge of industrial and residential wastewater, and spillage resulting from shipping and marine accidents.

Between 1998 and 2008, there were 733 shipping accidents in China’s ocean jurisdiction, which led to massive economic and environmental losses, according to government figures. In the 1990s the government tried to curb pollution in China’s major rivers, which drain into the ocean. Along with national laws, local and provincial level governments have been encouraged to implement their own laws and regulations to prevent and control water pollution in small and medium-sized bodies of water, Yu says. In 2009, China’s State Council issued regulations to curb marine pollution caused by shipping. The regulation, which included 78 new rules that came into effect in 2010, called on transportation departments under the state council to develop emergency plans to deal with pollution caused by shipping.

Government officials have admitted there is still a long way to go in tackling the problem of marine pollution.

“Our environmental quality is only improving in certain areas, but overall the environment is still deteriorating,” Vice Minister of Environmental Protection Zhang Lijun told state media.

Lan Hongyan, an expert on marine environment at Hebei Normal University, says a large part of the problem is an uncoordinated approach to tackling ocean pollution. Several different government bodies – including the State Oceanic Administration, the Marine Safety Administration and other national and provincial departments – all oversee different aspects of regulating ocean pollution.

“We don’t have a powerful and coordinated system, which impacts law enforcement,” Lan tells IPS.

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  • Ernest

    hi there im doing a school project and i have to respond to this article and im not quite sure how to thanks