Everyone has heard of Beijing, China. With more than 11 million residents, the city stands out even among the other world capitals.
In the United States, that country’s other cities are less well known. As I’ll be writing the next few columns from Hefei, China, a preliminary look is in order.
Our own “secondary” town is Savannah. With a population around 200,000, one might expect similar figures in China. But including the suburbs, Hefei counts 7.6 million people this year, or four times the size of Atlanta.
During the first 15 years of the 21st century, China enjoyed unprecedented economic growth. Old houses had to make room for massive high-rises in dozens of cities. Population figures between 5 million and 10 million are now common in many communities.
Economists are at odds whether the global markets of the coming decades “belong to China” or not. But the problems that emerge during such massive growth are clearly visible. Resources such as coal, iron and aluminum that are necessary for industrial development aren’t unlimited.
Air pollution in Beijing became so threatening in 2013 that the U.S. Embassy pronounced its measurements “beyond index.” This means that it exceeded a rating of 300, which is the danger threshold. On Jan. 12, 2013, the readings jumped beyond a frightening 800 value.
The culprit behind the unsafe air quality episodes is the same as it is over here: burning coal. Dozens of coal-fired power plants around Beijing provide electricity for the city, but turn the atmosphere into a smoky haze much of the year.
With populations this large, China’s megacities also have to grapple with water pollution. Consuming water straight from the tap isn’t advisable anywhere in the country. Surface streams like the Huangpu River flowing through Shanghai have had episodes of industrial pollution that sent dozens to the hospital, with reports of dead pigs floating down the stream.
Large populations consume large amounts of food. Its production is challenged by pollution of groundwater sources that are used for irrigation. Reuters reported that 90 percent of the groundwater is polluted. The Economist rated some 60 percent of its condition “severe.”
There is hope that a nation capable of rapid industrial growth will also cope with the environmental problems. An infrastructure with achievements like 250 mph trains, modern building codes and state-of-the art electronic technology will most likely be able to address the challenges that come with development.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.