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Economic Zones Suffer 'Ecological Damage'

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Five crucial economic zones in China's 15 provinces are suffering environmental deterioration and ecological degradation due to the expansion of industrial projects, the Ministry of Environmental Protection warned on Wednesday.

The announcement came as the ministry finalizes an environmental impact review for development plans for these zones.

The report, the first of its kind, covers the following regions: the Pan-Bohai Bay area in north China, the western coast of the Taiwan Straits in east China, the Chengdu-Chongqing area in southwest China, the Pan-Beibu Gulf Economic Zone in south China, and the middle and upper reaches of the Yellow River in northwest China.

These five regions, involving 15 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities, contribute 22 percent of the country's economic growth each year, due to the booming heavy industries, such as petrochemical, energy, metallurgy, and equipment manufacturing.

Meanwhile, they are also vital habitats for some indigenous and precious plants, animals and aquatic organisms, with some areas already being ecologically fragile.

"Most of the five zones are already experiencing severe environmental deterioration and ecological degradation," said Chen Jining, executive vice president of Tsinghua University, who is also a leading author of the report.

For instance, overexploitation of underground water in the middle and upper reaches of the Yellow River, also a massive energy and chemical industry base, has resulted in a huge cone of depression underground, according to the report.

However, an analysis based on current development plans shows that the scale of heavy industries is still expanding at an alarming rate in these regions, said Chen.

"For instance, in 2015, the total oil refining capacity would stand at 156 percent of the 2007 level if you add up all the plans made by local governments," he said.

More projects are being built or planned near rivers and coasts, which will worsen the water pollution, and pose a threat to drinking water safety, said Chen.

The report also provides detailed plans for economic restructuring in the five regions, which experts hope can be included in the country's 12th Five-Year Plan (2011 - 2015) and adopted by the local governments.

Conservationists and experts suggested that China establish a system to evaluate the potential environmental risks of industrial projects, as the country witnessed a string of pollution accidents related to the chemical industry this year.

"The lessons from the accidents remind us of the importance of controlling all pollution from the very beginning of an industrial project," said Wu Xiaoqing, vice-minister of environmental protection, referring to the Dalian oil spill, the deadly blast at a chemical plant in Nanjing, and the water pollution caused by Zijin Mining in Fujian province.

(China Daily September 16, 2010)

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