China: A stretch of sand in China once dubbed “The Number One Beach in the World” has fallen victim to China’s notorious pollution and littering, finds Tom Phillips.
Tom Phillips in Beihai, Guangxi province
A former president once summed it up in a slogan still used on the large signs that greet visitors and adorn restaurants and shops along this stretch of South China Sea shoreline: “The Number One Beach in the World”.
But over the past decade Silver Beach, once seen as one of the country’s most desirable holiday destinations, has become another victim of China’s growing pollution crisis.
And now, instead of discovering miles of pristine sands, the 3.5 million Chinese tourists who visit every year are just as likely to encounter condom wrappers, chunks of polystyrene and bottles dropped by sunbathers or washed up from the sea – so much detritus that the squads of cleaners who patrol it say that there is sometimes no area of clean sand large enough for people to lie down.
Earlier this summer China’s official news agency – more usually a mouthpiece for more upbeat information – finally sounded the alarm.
The beach was littered with around 60 tons of rubbish, Xinhua reported.
Sunbathing had become “a nightmare of garbage and mounting maritime pollution,” with plastic bags, shattered glass and bamboo sticks scattered along the beach.
This month (SEPT) the Chinese government announced plans to spend £180 billion over the next five years to combat the airborne pollution that has left swathes of the country enveloped by toxic smog.
That followed a public recognition by the country’s new president, Xi Jinping, that China’s environmental problems now pose a grave threat to its economy, as well as to the wellbeing of its people.
But locals told The Sunday Telegraph that pollution on Silver Beach was still getting worse every year.
“On bad days, the beach is almost totally covered with rubbish, leaving only standing room,” said one female cleaner, who declined to give her name. “We can barely keep up.” Further along, tourists posed for photographs beside the putrefying body of a finless porpoise that had been swept ashore. It was unclear how the endangered animal had died but environmentalists blame pollution, growing shipping traffic and illegal fishing in the waters around China for the decline in its numbers.
By the entrance at one end of the beach, just 200 yards from the sea, was an illegal landfill site. Just beyond a sign that read “Beautiful Silver Beach Welcomes You!”, an abandoned mannequin was perched on top of a fetid heap of decomposing rubbish that had been dumped by unscrupulous fly-tippers.
And at Guan Tou Ling, another nearby section of beach, newlyweds picked their way across rock pools filled with rotting shoes and plastic bags to pose for photographs on a coastal outcrop.
“People don’t seem to care about the pollution at all,” complained one woman standing on the rocks, who was counting stray pieces of footwear as they floated by.
The grim scenes are a far cry from the 1980s when Silver Beach in Beihai, then a small southwestern seaside town, shot to prominence – just as a series of reforms began to kick China’s economy into life.
Over the years that followed several generations of Chinese leaders – including former premiers Zhu Rongji, Li Peng and Wen Jiabao and Mr Xi’s predecessor as president, Hu Jintao – all sunned themselves here while undertaking official “inspection tours”.
Jiang Zemin, president during the 1990s when economic growth began to take off, planted a beachside hoop pine, a spectacular Australian conifer, as a symbol of his affection.
But the economic growth that has transformed China into one of the world’s great powers soon began to have an effect. Beihai itself began to grow, its population of 110,000 in 1984 doubling every few years – so that by 2020 it is projected to reach 2 million.
As the city began to sprawl, there was a race to build by the sea. In 2003, the authorities were forced to order the demolition of dozens of seafront developments that had damaged local wildlife and from which wastewater and other effluent had stained the beach’s sands black. Four years later local waters turned red after a factory pumped huge quantities of hydrogen peroxide into the sea.
Environmental authorities in Beihai did not respond to interview requests but last month the city’s Communist Party chiefs signed off on a new law that will impose heavy fines on polluters.
Xu Haiou, a local journalist and environmental activist, said she believed officials were fighting to protect the beach and block the arrival of polluting industries in the area, but complained that severe damage had already been done.
Plastic bags, beer bottles and shattered glass used for barbecues were seen piled up Sanya Dadonghai Tourist Area in south China’s Hainan Province.
“Silver Beach might have been the number one beach in the world in the 1980s but it isn’t any more,” she said. “The sands have changed.” The waters here are not the most tainted in China, according to Wang Haibo, a former government inspector who is now the country’s director of ocean protection for Greenpeace.
But, he said, China is doing least of all the major developing nations to protect its seas, far less than Brazil, for example. “They just hope the eco-systems can recover by themselves,” he said. “It’s not their priority.” The government’s own figures underline the scale of the problem. Last year, 72 rivers pumped more than 17 million tons of pollution into China’s seas, including 93,000 tons of oil and 46,000 tons of heavy metals.
In March, China’s State Oceanic Administration conceded that the country faced an “acute” crisis with around 26,300 square miles of sea receiving bottom marks for maritime pollution, more than double the previous year’s figure.
And there is no let-up in sight at Silver Beach, where local politicians are pushing ahead with an ambitious five-year plan to double the size of Beihai’s economy.
There is one bright side, though, from the 1,800 tons of rubbish removed from the beach each year. A muscular 66-year-old pensioner, who gave his name as Long Wushu, said that the water was dirtier than it had been a decade ago. But he added that he, at least, was benefiting from the continuing pollution: he makes up to £215 a month hauling bulging nets of litter from beach and selling it for recycling.
“It is good for the environment, good for my income and good for my health,” he beamed.
Tourists crowd into the Silver Beach in Beihai city in South China’s Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region Oct 1, 2012. [Photo/Xinhua]
Tiananmen Square obscured by air pollution
Silver Beach, Beihai, in the Guanxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, has often been dubbed “China’s No.1 beach,” but at the beginning of this month silver gave way to shades of grey and brown, as almost 60 tons of garbage washed up along the shoreline.
Alongside natural waste such as seashells, seaweed and dead crabs, rubbish dotted the site, turning Silver Beach into a land of garbage. Plastic bags, beer bottles, shattered glass and bamboo sticks used for barbecues were seen piled up in the middle and eastern areas of the beach, thanks to southwestern monsoons that drove the trash from the ocean onto land.
Last year alone, an estimated 1,800 tons of garbage was found on the beach, according to Yin Fengzhang, environment management director with the Management Office of Beihai Silver Beach Tourist Area. He said that Silver Beach had to hire 55 sanitary workers, operating in three groups, to collect garbage. “The scenic spot had to spend about 800,000 yuan ($129,257) on sanitary workers and trucks for collecting garbage.”
This rubbish is just part of a broader picture – China’s coastal areas are increasingly suffering from maritime pollution as scenic spots and local environments are threatened.
Beihai provides a good example of the issues faced by coastal areas across China, said Chen Changrong, director of the Policy, Regulation and Planning Section of Beihai’s Oceanic Administration Bureau, who boasts 25 years of experience on maritime issues.
He said that Beihai is located in the Beibu Gulf area, where large-scale industries are still in their infancy, so the maritime pollution the city faces is actually less severe than in other coastal cities.
What’s most concerning is how rapidly the quantities of garbage floating in the ocean is increasing – approximately doubling within the space of a year.
An official report on the maritime environment issued in 2012 showed that floating chunks of rubbish on supervised swimming areas off the country’s coastal cities averaged 17 pieces per kilometer in 2011, and the number more than doubled to 37 in 2012.
Meanwhile, the national average density of garbage on beaches around the nation was 1,114 kilograms per square kilometer in 2011, and jumped to 2,494 kilograms per square kilometer last year.
Human activity to blame
According to the 2012 national report on marine environment quality, 87 percent of garbage floating on the surface of the sea was a result of human behavior, and that rate reaches 94 percent when it comes to beaches.
Experts note that an obvious source of the garbage is tourists, who often leave litter such as plastic bags, bottles and snack-boxes at tourist destinations by the sea. On Silver Beach, for instance, tourists can be seen throwing napkins away, largely ignoring the garbage bins available.
Tags: air pollution, airborne pollution, “The Number One Beach in the World”, China, China's water pollution, China’s pollution, Communist Party, culture, effluent, environment, environmental problems, hydrogen peroxide, maritime pollution, ocean pollution, polluters, pollution, pollution into China’s seas, rubbish, society, stained the beach’s sands, Trash, wastewater, water pollution, water pollution in China, wildlife, Xi Jinping