Fri, May 05, 2006 - Page 4 News List

Wen calls sand a `warning'

DPA , BEIJING

Yellow sand and dust are still sitting on Beijing rooftops as meteorologists warn of more sandstorms to come, and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) is alarmed.

"Comrades, we cannot just sit in meetings behind closed doors while the dust swirls outside," he was quoted as saying by Chinese state media, warning that the country cannot stick its head in the sand about what he said was a growing environmental problem.

He called this spring's frequent sandstorms "a warning signal" and cited not only climate change as a factor in desertification and growing duststorms in China but also the country's economic boom.

In the government's last five-year plan, which ended last year, China exceeded nearly all of its economic goals. Only the aims for environmental protection were not fulfilled, Wen said at a conference about the "critical environmental situation we are facing."

Overgrazing and clear cutting have caused the deserts, which already cover a fifth of China's lands, to grow, and shifting sand dunes are creeping closer to Beijing. Global warming is also causing Tibet's glaciers to shrink 7 percent each year, intensifying the drought, desertification and sandstorms, researchers at the Beijing Academy of Sciences warned this week.

As the world's second-largest producer of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and its largest coal user, China is not blameless in climate change.

Since February, the country has seen 10 sandstorms that have afflicted 10 provinces and their 200 million residents and reached the Korean peninsula and Japan. The worst storm recorded in five years dumped an estimated 330,000 tonnes of sand and dirt on Beijing alone.

In addition, Hebei Province, which surrounds Beijing, is experiencing its worst drought in 55 years.

In northern China, more than 10 million people have been dealing with shortages of drinking water since the middle of last month because of the dry spell.

And an improvement in the situation is not in sight. A cold front from north-western China is forecast to bring renewed winds and sandstorms to Gansu Province and Inner Mongolia, both north of Beijing, this week.

The sand, paired with industrial emissions and increasing traffic, has caused the sun to shine less and less on the 15 million residents of the Chinese capital, where pollution has reached record highs.

Children and the elderly are increasingly urged to remain indoors while visibility west of Beijing has fallen under 400m in the past weeks.

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