The road between Urumqi, capital of the vast western Chinese province of Xinjiang, and Turpan, a breathtaking oasis city two hours' drive from Urumqi, is one of the finest drives I've taken in China. The modern highway snakes amid stunning rust and ocher-colored mountain ranges bathed in sunlight, passing camels, colorfully attired Kazakh herders with their flocks of goats and sheep, and small, round yurts -- all under a wide desert sky.
Unfortunately, when I drove this road last month, the stunning scenery at times was hard to discern. Clouds of brownish smoke poured from natural gas refineries and coal plants in the distance, blackening the sky and discoloring the roadside mountains and caverns. Dust storms whipped our windshield. Lakes and rivers along the road had dried up, leaving vast gullies in their place. When I arrived in Turpan, the hood of the car was covered in black soot.
Xinjiang, which borders Pakistan, Central Asia and Mongolia, is hardly unique. While most foreign observers have focused on the potential social and economic problems lurking beneath China's success story -- rampant corruption, an authoritarian regime and hundreds of millions of people potentially left unemployed as state enterprises shut down -- the country is now home to the world's worst environmental problems, extending far beyond the polluted air. And it is totally unprepared to combat them.
The catastrophe is already unfolding in sickening detail. In a new book on China's environment, "The River Runs Black," a Council on Foreign Relations scholar, Elizabeth Economy, documents how two-thirds of Chinese cities have air quality below World Health Organization standards, by far the worst rate of any large country in the world. By some measures, at least six of the world's 10 most polluted cities are in China, including Beijing and Urumqi. Several have the highest rates of airborne carbon monoxide in the world. The country's environmental agency says that living in Chinese cities with the worst air pollution does more damage to an average Chinese person's lungs than smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.
Meanwhile, as trees are ripped out of northern and central China -- forest cover has fallen by more than half over the past two decades -- the country's deserts are expanding by several hundred thousand square kilometers per year, faster than anywhere else in the world. The government's efforts to replant tens of millions of trees have thus far proven woefully ineffective at stopping the desert's march. The Gobi Desert, which stretches across central China, has moved so close to Beijing, at a pace of about two miles a year, that its borders are less than 200 miles from the capital. Beijing is buffeted every summer by sandstorms that fill the sky and sometimes send particles drifting as far as South Korea.
According to Economy, the water in five of China's largest rivers is so polluted it is dangerous to the touch, because it causes skin diseases; the Huai River, in the fertile province of Anhui, is filled with garbage, yellow foam and piles of dead fish. Several of the country's main waterways, including the Yellow River, a vital artery, run dry before reaching the sea. More than 600 million Chinese, roughly half the country's population, now drink water contaminated with animal and human waste, says Jasper Becker, a longtime China analyst based in Beijing.
Anyone living in China should not be surprised by these statistics. Last winter in Shanghai, nearly everyone I met had hacking, never-ending coughs that are partly caused by the gray, sooty air that blankets the city like split pea soup. In heavily industrialized northeastern China, city aquifers are filled with heavy minerals. Even Hong Kong, by far the wealthiest part of the country, now frequently suffers from such horrific air pollution that its breathtaking skyline is almost totally obscured on some days.
The environmental catastrophe is the result of a storm of factors. In the past two decades, China has witnessed an extraordinary migration from rural to urban areas, as more than 200 million people, looking for work, have moved to the cities, overstressing resources. In the next two decades, another 300 million are expected to join them.
In a mark of the nation's rising consumption, these new urbanites are buying cars as fast as they can, making China the top emerging market for most automakers, but also contributing to air pollution, since relatively tough emissions requirements are not tightly enforced. A study by Chinese ministries estimated that the number of cars in the country will rise sevenfold by 2020. On a recent visit, I spent afternoons in Beijing in gridlock that made the Capital Beltway look like the autobahn; the hot summer air outside the car was so smoky it almost made me choke.
Beijing has meanwhile focused on rapidly moving the country through phases of industrialization, with few controls. China's equivalent of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has roughly one-hundredth as many staff members, though China's population is four times as large as the United States'. Local branches of the environmental agency are almost completely toothless. Because the country has invested little in natural gas or other clean forms of energy, more than 70 percent of its energy still comes from brown coal, the dirtiest fuel available.
Beijing is not unaware of these problems. As far back as 1982, the Chinese leadership placed an environmental protection section in the national constitution. Today, the director of the government's environmental agency frequently warns that China's development is ecologically unsustainable, and that the country will not be able to reverse the damage once it has attained a higher gross domestic product. These warnings go unheard, because breakneck urbanization and industrialization have benefited too many Communist Party leaders. Local party chieftains reportedly take payments from developers and win plaudits based on local economic growth rates, and thus have little incentive to halt construction. National party leaders have an incentive to support the massive projects initiated by the government, which help keep the economy afloat and provide jobs, thereby reducing anger at Beijing.
So China constructed the Three Gorges Dam, despite considerable evidence that there were cheaper ways to obtain power, and that the dam's construction would decimate south-central China. The government is building the world's longest bridge between the eastern cities of Ningbo and Hangzhou (its impact still unclear), a railway line into Tibet that likely will never make economic sense, and a 3,000-mile long pipeline from the country's east coast to petroleum fields in Xinjiang -- an undertaking that will be far more expensive than importing gas from Indonesia or the Middle East.
Average Chinese citizens will suffer enormously. China's environmental protection agency estimates that the quantities of carbon, nitrogen and other gases in Chinese cities will make the air too toxic to breathe in the most polluted urban areas within a decade. By 2020, about 550,000 Chinese will be dying prematurely of chronic bronchitis from airborne pollution, and tens of millions will be affected by respiratory distress, Economy writes. Toxic drinking water may be responsible for the astronomical rates of cancer in provinces like Anhui. Most farmers in central China may be forced off their land within a decade, as the land becomes dry and desertlike. The environment also will be a broader drag on economic growth. China's Academy for Environmental Planning estimates that by 2020, health costs associated with pollution will slash more than 10 percent off China's gross domestic product.
Yet it is China's environmental nightmare that ultimately could spark the most insistent and effective demands for reform, just as environmental destruction caused by unchecked industrialization helped catalyze political liberalization in Eastern Europe. In the 1980s, Eastern European environmental groups often had more space to operate than other nongovernmental organizations, and they challenged their governments' mishandling of environmental catastrophes. In so doing, the greens formed alliances with other disaffected groups, including labor and church organizations -- alliances that, in the late 1980s, became explicitly directed at toppling regimes.
So, too, in China. A recent report by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing entitled "The Grapes of Wrath in Inner Mongolia" argued that the tens of millions of Chinese "Okies" -- farmers losing their land to the expanding desert, like 1930s Dust Bowl growers in the United States -- have no outlet such as California to escape to. Instead, Chinese farmers are likely to migrate to eastern cities, where they could become a force for protest, or to regional capitals, where they could attack local officials for overdevelopment, desertification and water pollution.
The number of daily protests in China has dramatically increased every year in the past decade. Many new protests have brought together loose coalitions of unemployed laborers, farmers and average citizens upset with water and air pollution, and with water scarcity. In southwestern Yunnan province, Economy recounts, hundreds of farmers have demonstrated against a local industrial company for poisoning their crops with arsenic; the company had almost no pollution controls.
What's more, as in Eastern Europe, an organized environmental movement is already developing, providing a structure to some of this anger. While Beijing has cracked down hard on evangelical churches, Falun Gong, the China Democracy Party and unofficial labor unions because it views these groups as explicitly political, it has allowed green organizations to flourish, though most environmental groups remain small.
Taking advantage of this leniency, more than 2,000 environmental nongovernmental organizations have been formed in China, a large number in a country where the regime normally makes it difficult to set up an NGO. The Chinese media also have become more attuned to environmental issues -- the number of environment-related articles in Chinese newspapers has more than doubled since 1995 -- and willing to blame the government for ecological disasters. Some green activists have even begun explicitly saying that only democracy, and a cleaning out of corrupt officials, will solve environmental problems.
Ultimately, it may take but one environmental disaster to radicalize activists and cement an alliance with farmers and laborers. In Eastern Europe, that disaster was Chernobyl, a cataclysm that demonstrated both the venality and the weakness of the Soviet system. In Southeast Asian nations such as Thailand, environmental problems such as the overuse of destructive dams have brought together diverse civil society groups and directed anger at the state. In China, so far, it remains unclear which disaster could provide this spark. But as the country's environment careers over the edge, there is no shortage of possibilities.