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One of the serious negative consequences of mainland China's rapid industrial development has been increased pollution and degradation of natural resources. A 1998 World Health Organization report on air quality in 272 cities worldwide concluded that seven of the world's 10 most polluted cities were in China. According to the People's Republic of China's own evaluation, two-thirds of the 338 cities for which air-quality data are available are considered polluted--two-thirds of them moderately or severely so. Respiratory and heart diseases related to air pollution are the leading cause of death in China. Almost all of the nation's rivers are considered polluted to some degree, and half of the population lacks access to clean water. Ninety percent of urban water bodies are severely polluted. Water scarcity also is an issue; for example, severe water scarcity in Northern China is a serious threat to sustained economic growth and has forced the government to begin implementing a largescale diversion of water from the Yangtze River to northern cities, including Beijing and Tianjin. Acid rain falls on 30% of the country. Various studies estimate pollution costs the Chinese economy about 7-10% of GDP each year.
The PRC's leaders are increasingly paying attention to the country's severe environmental problems. In March 1998, the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) was officially upgraded to a ministry-level agency, reflecting the growing importance the PRC Government places on environmental protection. In recent years, the PRC has strengthened its environmental legislation and made some progress in stemming environmental deterioration. In 1999, the PRC invested more than one percent of GDP in environmental protection, a proportion that will likely increase in coming years. During the 10th 5-Year Plan, the PRC plans to reduce total emissions by 10%. Beijing in particular is investing heavily in pollution control as part of its campaign to host a successful Olympiad in 2008. Some cities have seen improvement in air quality in recent years.
The People's Republic of China is an active participant in the climate change talks and other multilateral environmental negotiations, taking environmental challenges seriously but pushing for the developed world to help developing countries to a greater extent. It is a signatory to the Basel Convention governing the transport and disposal of hazardous waste and the Montreal Protocol for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, as well as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and other major environmental agreements.
The question of environmental impacts associated with the Three Gorges Dam project has generated controversy among environmentalists inside and outside China. Critics claim that erosion and silting of the Yangtze River threaten several endangered species, while Chinese officials say the dam will help prevent devastating floods and generate clean hydroelectric power that will enable the region to lower its dependence on coal, thus lessening air pollution.
The United States and People's Republic of China have been engaged in an active program of bilateral environmental cooperation since the mid-1990s, with an emphasis on clean energy technology and the design of effective environmental policy. While both governments view this cooperation positively, the PRC has often compared the US program, which lacks a foreign assistance component, with those of Japan and several European Union (EU) countries that include generous levels of aid.
- Original text from State Department Background Note: China