Mahatma Gandhi once said that if China and India were to aspire to a western-style consumer culture, their citizens would quickly strip the earth bare like locusts.

Today, China's stateowned energy and mining giants scour the world for the raw materials needed to power the workshop of the world and feed the growing appetite of its aspiring masses. As well as being the world's biggest producer of everything from microwave ovens to jelly beans, the country has just overtaken the US as the largest producer of greenhouse gases. While millions of its citizens have been lifted out of poverty, its dirty and wasteful growth model has left large swathes of the country devastated and unable to support even basic ecologies.

Water scarcity, particularly in the arid north, is exacerbated by the indiscriminate discharge of industrial and municipal wastewater. The burden falls disproportionately on poor rural citizens, up to 500m of whom do not have access to piped water.

More than half of China's municipal wastewater is discharged without any treatment whatsoever, with about 30bn tonnes of raw sewage pumped into lakes, rivers and the sea last year.

Another 24bn tonnes of industrial wastewater was dumped by power plants and factories, many of them producing goods for multinational companies attracted to the country because of lower costs associated partly with lax environmental standards. Worsening water shortages and the contamination of underground reservoirs mean that more than 10 per cent of the country's crops are poisoned with heavy metals and other pollutants, posing a health hazard even to those who avoid drinking toxic water.

But the most serious threat to human health comes from the shocking levels of air pollution, the result of the country's reliance on coal for 70 per cent of its energy needs and the desire of many urban residents to own their own car. The World Bank estimates 750,000 people die prematurely every year in China from pollution, primarily air pollution in large cities.


Subscribe to IEMA's newsletters to receive timely articles, expert opinions, event announcements, and much more, directly in your inbox.