China is facing a "grave" environmental crisis, with more than half its cities affected by acid rain and one-sixth of its major rivers too polluted even to water the crops with, officials said recently.
Three decades of breakneck economic growth have taken their toll on the country's natural resources, sparking a huge increase in public unrest linked to environmental degradation and health problems caused by pollution.
"The overall environmental situation is still very grave and is facing many difficulties and challenges," deputy environment minister Li Ganjie told a news conference in Beijing in June.
Activists say that China has an exemplary set of environmental protection legislation, but that environmental officials lack the power to impose it on powerful vested interests at local levels.
Li said China's only clean coastal waters are to be found off the resort island of Hainan and some of the northern coastline, while the waters around Guangzhou, Tianjin, and Shanghai are rated as "severely polluted."
He said that 16.4 percent of China's major rivers have failed to meet the standard needed for agricultural irrigation, while the air quality is rated as exemplary in only 3.6 percent of Chinese cities.
He said the impact of heavy metal pollution on people's lives has been particularly severe.
"These heavy metal pollution incidents not only seriously threaten people's health, they affect social stability, and it ought to be said this is a rather severe issue," Li said.
Thousands of children harmed
Battery makers and lead and zinc smelting plants have been blamed for a wave of lead poisoning cases affecting thousands of children across China in recent years, sometimes sparking violent protests.
As Li made these rare admissions, villagers in the southern province of Guangdong were complaining to the authorities of sickness caused by pollution of their water sources by unregulated local industry.
"A lot of the villagers have had diarrhea after drinking this polluted water," said a local resident of Taihangkou village near Shaoguan city surnamed Liu. "Around 30-40 percent of local people have had gastrointestinal pain."
He said some families had sent their children away because of the pollution.
"Nobody is doing anything about it," Liu said.
A second local resident surnamed Liang said large numbers of local people, regardless of age or gender, had complained of dizziness, coughing, and intestinal cramps in recent days, with one hospitalized for pneumonia.
"We use this water for drinking and for irrigating our crops, and all of it is polluted ... We can't not eat or drink."
Authorities 'just ignore us'
Villagers blame a nearby mining operation just meters away from the local primary school, and have called on the authorities to move it out of the village to avoid harming their children's health.
"The river water has been polluted, but the authorities have never paid any attention," Liang said. "They just basically ignore us."
An employee who answered the phone at the Qujiang county government offices declined to comment. "I don't know about this," the employee said.
Taihangkou is home to around 6,000 people, and has the the highest rates of cancer in the surrounding area, residents say.
Local doctors during private consultations had linked cancer deaths to the polluted water, but declined to speak publicly about their conclusions, according to a resident surnamed Wu.
"The doctors refused to issue a detailed appraisal," said Wu. "They just said it was probably the result of drinking polluted water, and told the villagers to avoid the contaminated water source.
"The villagers could hardly believe it. The government refused to take responsibility," he said.
Reported by Fung Yat-yiu for RFA's Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.