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China’s environmental record goes up in smoke

By Asher Judah - posted Thursday, 27 August 2015

As the spectacular explosion of hazardous industrial materials gradually renders the Chinese port city of Tianjin unliveable, it is worth sparing a thought for the myriad of other environmental disasters slowly ruining what was once one of the world’s most beautiful landscapes. 

As home to some the world’s most fertile soils, best natural runoff and long term fresh water resources, China used to be a nation luckier than most. Unfortunately, as a result of its relentless quest for industrial development at any cost, China’s natural environment has paid a horrible price.

At present, China is home to the world’s largest dustbowl and 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities. 70 per cent of its major waterways are heavily polluted and over 30 per cent of its territory experiences acid rain.


Powering this rapidly evolving environmental catastrophe is the practice of almost universal disregard for the environment.

Each year, billions of tonnes of untreated water pours into China’s waterways and coastline with waste water, ship contaminants, fertilisers and petrochemicals being amongst its most dangerous contributors.

The situation is so bad that the Yangtze River now only produces a fish catch half its 1960s size and the Yellow River is too polluted for irrigation use. Further, China’s major rivers have become so degraded that 80 per cent of them no longer support fish of any kind with many containing ten times the bacteria from human waste as that found in the West.

With problems such as this, it comes as no surprise to learn that 2.5 per cent of China’s soil is too polluted for agricultural use, its birth defect rate is 20 times the global average, and its air pollution is a world renowned killer. If truth be told, China’s air has become so toxic that expats are now being paid pollution pay simply to continue working in its cities.

With China’s economy having grown 90 times over since the 1970’s, these environmental outcomes were probably inevitable. Worryingly, with China’s demand for food, water, energy and jobs set to intensify over the decades head, it is hard to see how China’s natural environment is going to improve. It is this approach to sustainability which poses the real risk to China’s long term aim to become a developed nation. No modern economy can be built upon a toxic environmental foundation. Eventually, Mother Nature comes a-knocking!

Ultimately, time will tell whether China can find a sustainable balance between industrial development and responsible environmental management. The chemical disaster which has just devastated Tianjin suggests that this objective is a long way off.

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About the Author

Asher Judah is the author of The Australian Century (Connor Court). Follow him at

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