Pallavi Aiyar

This week's sandstorms have highlighted the sharp degradation in China's environment that has been accompanying its galloping economic growth.

AFTER DAYS of being battered by gale-force dust storms that shrouded China's capital city in a haze of yellow, Beijingers finally enjoyed a respite on Thursday. Only five of April's first 18 days have in fact been pollution-free, casting serious doubts over the city's promise to clean up its environment in time for the Olympic Games in 2008.

This week's massive three-day storm deposited over 300,000 tonnes of dust and sand on the city in a single night. The capital took on surreal hues with residents in facemasks scurrying around like manic surgeons on the loose. Children and the elderly were urged to stay indoors, even as hospitals reported a sharp hike in patients with respiratory disorders.

The storm blew dust far beyond China's borders, blanketing South Korea and even making it to Tokyo. Dust storms carrying sand from the Gobi desert hit Beijing every spring, but the meteorological department said this one has been the worst in five years.

The capital is protected from the desert only by a range of mountains in the north-west and over the last few decades, industrialisation, deforestation, and overgrazing have led to a process of desertification that is proving difficult to halt.

The storms have highlighted the sharp degradation in China's environment that has been accompanying its galloping economic growth. A recent World Bank report said that 16 of the world's most polluted cities are in fact in China.

The Chinese authorities have begun to make environmental protection a priority and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao urged an intensification of efforts to rein in pollution at a conference in Beijing earlier this week. "The succession of dust storms is a warning to us," Mr Wen said. "Ecological destruction and environmental pollution are creating massive economic losses and gravely threatening people's lives and health." According to the World Health Organisation, air pollution kills approximately four million people every year in China.

Mr. Wen said that while China has been on track for meeting its economic goals for previous years, it has repeatedly missed pollution-control targets. Thus, for example, in 2005, the country's sulphur dioxide emissions were 27 per cent higher than 2000 levels, although the Government had set a target of reducing emissions by 10 per cent over that time period.

`Green Olympics'

The 2008 Olympic Games are being billed by Beijing's government as the "Green Olympics". Five and $500 million are being spent on environmental projects in the run-up to the event. Dozens of polluting factories in central Beijing have already been relocated in the outskirts. Forest cover in the capital is also set to increase by 50 per cent. According to the Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic Games, 90 per cent of all buses and 70 per cent of taxis will use clean fuel within the next two years.

Somewhat controversially, the city has even been experimenting with creating artificial rain as a means to clear out the skies on dangerously polluted days. The technique involves seeding clouds with chemicals that induce rain.

According to the news agency Xinhua, Beijing's municipal meteorological authorities in fact created rainfall over parts of the city on Monday in an attempt to brighten up the yellow sky. However, the rain, which was patchy, proved ineffective in combating the dust.

"Artificial rain requires certain preconditions such as the availability of moist cloud seeds and since during sand storms the air is dry and cold, it is not a very effective technique," explained Yang Wei Xi, a professor of water conservation at Beijing Forestry University.

The city aims to have 292 "blue-sky" days a year by 2008. In reality, the definition of a "blue-sky" day is lax and simply signifies a day with relatively low pollution, even if the sky is more grey than blue. But even by this unexacting standard and despite all the money being poured into environmental projects, Beijing's environment shows scant signs of improvement.

The recent sandstorm's toxic effects were intensified when combined with the mounting pollution in Beijing from vehicular emissions and construction sites. China's capital has some 2.5 million cars often gridlocked in bumper-to-bumper traffic and the city is in the midst of a construction frenzy that has led to a veritable invasion by armies of cranes and bulldozers. According to Xinhua, between 2002 and 2008 Beijing will develop 25 million square meters of property.

"We have done a survey and found that between 40-50 per cent of the pollution in Beijing comes from within the city itself so that sand from outside only contributes a part of it," said Liu Tou Director-General of the Office of Sand Prevention and Control of China's State Forestry Administration.

There were only 56 blue-sky days in the first three and a half months of this year, 16 fewer than in the same period in 2005. In January, Beijing experienced 20 days of polluted air, its worst performance in six years.

This week's sandstorms thus point to a deeper malaise in China: environmental degradation at a pace that if unchecked, has the potential to turn this century's greatest economic success story into its worst ecological disaster.