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 October 14, 2014
A Heavy Issue

 Among the 40,000 or so residents in Dapu Town in Hengyang, central China's Hunan Province, more than 300 children were diagnosed with excessive lead in their blood earlier this year. In the most severe cases, blood lead levels hit 322 micrograms per liter, far exceeding the limits of the healthy range---100 micrograms per liter. Since it is difficult to rid oneself of heavy metals through normal metabolization, the harm they inflict on these children could conceivably continue for years.

While the pursuit of effective approaches to alleviate environmental pollution are underway, similar scandals such as the German village of Wewelsfleth, dubbed "the village of cancer patients" as virtually every household in the area contains a member afflicted by the condition, have continued to rear their ugly head in almost every corner of the world, especially in relatively less developed countries and regions.

On September 17 and 18, carrying the theme "National Strategy and Regional Cooperation for Sustainable Development: New Challenges and New Opportunities," the ASEAN-China Environmental Cooperation Forum 2014 was held in Nanning, south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

With the participation of more than 200 experts, entrepreneurs and government leaders from across the world, more opportunities have been created to facilitate exchanges of information and to introduce the relevant expertise and technologies to China.

"The Asia-Pacific region has contributed greatly to the momentum of the world economic recovery and sustainable growth. However, global challenges such as climate change, ecological degradation and the energy crisis have become increasingly formidable, calling for global economic and environmental governance," said Li Ganjie, China's Vice Minister of Environmental Protection, at the opening ceremony of the forum.

Teaming up in Guangxi

Since the forum was established three years ago, it has served as an important platform for high-level dialogues concerning environmental policies and cooperation. To reinforce regional green development, Li suggested pushing for the establishment of a regional community of environmental cooperation by building a "green maritime silk road" through concerted efforts of all concerned parties, shaping a multi-layer cooperative network through intensifying policy exchanges and capacity improvement, and taking the initiative to extend partnership on environment-related technological and industrial cooperation.

At the opening ceremony, Vice Chairman of the Guangxi Regional Government Tang Renjian, expressed hopes for the creation of a new pattern of cooperation to make regional sustainable development a reality.

Tang held that China and the ASEAN should promote the establishment of a green development demonstration area and focus on the development of low-carbon recycling economy, agritourism, as well as intensifying green trade and cooperation. Beyond that, he opined more input should be generated in terms of bilateral exchanges on biological diversity and ecological protection.

Inar Ichsana Ishak, Assistant Minister of Socio-Cultural and Environment Health of Indonesia, believed that all-round cooperation encompassing green food production and infrastructure should be carried out to achieve sustainable urban development. "In recent years, Indonesia has adjusted related legislation and policies to solve environmental problems," she said.

ASEAN members and China are facing three historic opportunities in intensifying environmental sustainability, said Kaveh Zahedi, UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific. "The prospective China-ASEAN economic community will propel the region into an engine for world economy and for green growth, which will significantly benefit local people," he said.

Sanath Ranawana, a senior specialist on natural resources management from the Asian Development Bank, suggested that the bank be prepared to give further consideration to regional cooperation and investment in building cross-border natural protection areas and safeguarding biological diversity.

Land contamination

A survey released in April by China's Ministry of Environmental Protection and Ministry of Land and Resources showed that 16.1 percent of the country's land had been affected by heavy metal contamination. It revealed that the quality of arable land in the wastelands of mining and metallurgical industries is worrisome.

Among all inorganic pollutants, heavy metals, a term referring to metals that weigh over 5 grams per cubic centimeter, present the greatest danger to the health of animals, plants and human beings. If mercury is absorbed by the root system of a plant and then disseminated, its leaves, flowers and stems will typically turn brown or black, its growth will be retarded and more importantly, its fruits will contain mercury.

"In China, land contamination is characterized by the coexistence of new and old pollutants and the mixture of organic and inorganic pollutants," said Zhang Weili, a research fellow with the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

Aside from the development of mining and mineral industries, agriculture is another source of pollution, for most Chinese farmers are preoccupied with the effects of chemical fertilizers on grain output.

Zhang Fusuo, a professor at the College of Resources and Environmental Sciences at the Beijing-based China Agricultural University, pointed out that China only accounts for 10 percent of the total arable land in the world, but consumes more than one third of the total chemical fertilizers used. While its grain output grew 150 percent from 1980 to 2008, its consumption of chemical manure also tripled.

Soil pollution affects the quality of surface and underground water, and contaminates agricultural products. However, the treatment of pollution necessitates huge inputs of funds and resources.

At present, most related remediation technologies are still in the experimental stage, and thus far, there has been no case of successful heavy metal pollution treatment in China, said Liu Shuai with the Hunan Provincial Environmental Protection and Resources Conservation Commission.

"China's environmental sustainability has captured the attention of overseas Chinese entrepreneurs who are willing to shepherd funds into related fields such as the research and development of environmentally sound technologies," said Qiao Lihua, an overseas Chinese who migrated to the United States in 1986 and went on to found his own real estate company.

"On the front of heavy metal pollution treatment, China is in its infancy, we can bring about our technologies and share it with Chinese and ASEAN people," said Michael Gianchetta, Vice President of Gianco, an environmental services company in the United States.

Gianchetta said that the United States has accumulated rich experience and developed advanced technologies in the field of heavy metal pollution prevention and control, which have been employed in the effective treatment of mining and metallurgical wastes. "We are expecting more concerted efforts from China as well as ASEAN members in combating heavy metal pollution," he added.