Friday, February 23, 2007

Cross-boundary pollution: China's sand (and toxic dust) on the move

Hot on the heels of a post on the impact that Chinese rubbish is having on neighbouring countries comes news that Chinese sand is causing even greater cross-boundary pollution problems. Whilst sand causes problems enough, when it is mixed with toxic dust it makes for a damaging cocktail.

Such sandstorms are blamed for "scores of deaths and billions of dollars worth of damage". There is no doubting the economic impact of the problem.

Choking Sand Storms Head for South Korea
SEOUL - South Korea said a pall of sand mixed with toxic dust from China could make its way to the Korean peninsula late on Thursday, starting a seasonal event blamed for scores of deaths and billions of dollars in damages.

The sand storms have been growing in frequency and toxicity over the years because of China's rapid economic growth and have led to increased tension with neighbours South Korea and Japan.
The dust, which originates in the Gobi Desert in China, picks up heavy metals and carcinogens such as dioxin as it passes over Chinese industrial regions, before hitting North and South Korea and Japan, meteorologists say.

Dry weather and seasonal winds in China hurl millions of tonnes of sand at the Korean peninsula and Japan each spring.

South Korea used to have yellow dust storms about four days a year in the 1980s, nearly eight days a year in the 1990s and over 12 days a year since 2000, the Environment Ministry said.

The state-sponsored Korea Environment Institute said the dust kills up to 165 South Koreans a year, mostly the elderly or those with respiratory ailments, and make as many as 1.8 million ill.

Annual economic damage to South Korea from the storms is estimated at between 4.2 trillion won to 5.5 trillion won ($4.47 billion to $5.86 billion), according to the institute.

When a storm hits, skies turn a jaundiced hue. Schools shut down and warnings are issued for the young, elderly and those with respiratory ailments to stay inside. Commercial aviation can grind to a halt.

Hynix Semiconductor Inc., the world's second-biggest maker of computer memory chips, said it has to step up its filtration systems to keep the air clean at its sensitive production lines in South Korea.

China is likely to suffer more severe sandstorms than normal this spring because of an unusually dry winter, the country's media reported in January.

Beijing, which had 17 sandstorms in the spring of 2006, has pledged to hold a sandstorm-free Olympics in 2008 and has begun campaigns to repair denuded land and rein in over-grazing and over-logging.

Interesting to see that China only addresses these issues when they are in the spotlight. Such moves also go to prove the man-made nature of the problem. Over-grazing is all linked to tragedy of the commons related issues.
South Korea said in December it has reached a deal with Mongolia and China to set up more monitoring stations for dust storms. Environmentalists said it will take a huge amount of money to contain desertification in China's arid regions.

Here in lies the problem - there are many theoretical economics papers that look at this sort of issue. It is good to see a good real life example trans-boundary pollution and how hard the solution will be to find.

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