pollution.gifMore than 750,000 people die prematurely in China each year due to the appalling quality of the air they breath and the water they drink.

That horrifying statistic has not received the publicity it deserves for the simple reason that, at China's request, mortality projections were excised from a recent World Bank report (pdf) on the cost of pollution in China, the Financial Times has discovered.

The World Bank's researchers found that high levels of air pollution in Chinese cities is leading to the premature deaths of up to 400,000 people each year, while around 60,000 premature deaths are due to unclean water which causes severe diarrhoea, and stomach, liver and bladder cancers and mostly affects the rural population. Another 300,000 people die prematurely each year from exposure to poor air indoors.

But the version of the report on the World Bank's website, which has yet to be formally published, omits the mortality figures and gives instead an estimate for the “economic burden” of premature mortality and morbidity associated with air pollution — 157bn yuan in 2003 or just over 1% of GDP.

Expressed in yuan rather than human lives, the predictions lose all their impact, which no doubt is what the Chinese government wanted. The report authors admit that “certain physical impact estimations as well as economic cost calculations at local levels” have been left out of the current version of the report following “comprehensive comments” from the Chinese government, particularly the State Environmental Protection Administration.

One politically-sensitive finding that, interestingly, was not excised from the report states that environmental pollution falls disproportionately on the poorer parts of China. Ningxia, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and other low-income provinces are more affected by air pollution on a per capita basis than high-income provinces such as Guangdong and other provinces in the southeast.

The study warns that impacts of air and water pollution on health are severe in both absolute and in economic value terms, and while the economic impact on agriculture, fish and forests is also significant, the cost to China's population is substantially higher.


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