TAIPEI, Taiwan — More than 3,000 demonstrators gathered outside government offices in December in one of the largest protests Taiwan has witnessed in recent years. The protesters were not demanding political reforms, but freedom from pollution in a nation where all 45 rivers are contaminated with toxic wastes and water pumped from an underground well is so polluted it can be set on fire with a match.
In China, air pollution is so bad that the entire city of Benxi regularly disappears from satellite photographs because of the dense smoke billowing from the city's factories. Two years ago, an estimated 250,000 people died in Shanghai from an epidemic of hepatitis caused by contaminated drinking water.
In Thailand, vehicle exhaust has grown so noxious in Bangkok, where 10,000 new motor vehicles hit the streets every month, that a recent study showed newborn babies have more than twice as much lead in their blood as infants in the United States, raising the prospect of a generation with learning disabilities. A single huge coal-fired power complex being completed near the northern city of Chiang Mai is expected to emit more carbon dioxide than western Germany.
The 1980s were a decade of unprecedented economic boom for Asia, producing double-digit growth in a crescent of fast-developing countries stretching from Taiwan to Indonesia. Belatedly, the people of these countries are realizing that the boom also carried an enormous price in terms of damage to the environment.
"Asia is where America was in the 1950s--there is now widespread air pollution, water pollution, dumping of industrial waste and deforestation," said Erik Scarsborough, an environmental economist who recently did a pilot study on the region for the United Nations. "Environmental degradation is taking place so fast that it may restrain economic development."
Although environmental damage is not as great as in the worst areas of Eastern Europe, many more people are at risk from Asia's pollution. Rapid population growth and continued migration to the cities threaten to intensify environmental pressures.
Asian governments have been slow to act, in part because the top priority is frequently to promote industrial growth and boost employment. "The attractive thing about industry is that it can absorb labor where agriculture cannot. There are only so many guys you can put in a rice field," said Rezaul Karim, a Bangkok-based U.N. environmental expert. "The philosophy is to develop first and look at pollution later."
Taiwan, for example, is one of the fastest-growing "little tigers" of the Asian economy, with a per capita gross national product of $8,159. The island has a population of 20 million, and there are 270 cars and motorcycles per square kilometer (.39 square mile), 18 times the concentration in the United States. White gauze face masks are as common in Taiwan as suits and neckties.
Facts about pollution are just beginning to come to light in Taiwan, because martial-law restrictions prohibited criticism of the government until 1987. Chang Kow-lung, a physics professor and head of a committee of scientists in the Taiwan Environmental Protection Union, said his group has found 43 cancer-causing substances in drinking water, including levels of the chemical phenol that are more than 2,000 times higher than the accepted danger level.
Only 2% of homes in Taiwan are connected to a sanitation system; the rest empty wastes into rivers. The country has 8 million pigs, whose wastes are the equivalent of 50 million people. "Taipei's rivers stink from one end to the other," said Shih Shin-min of the Environmental Union.
A battle is now being waged in Taiwan to block construction of a huge petrochemical complex in a relatively unspoiled area called Ilan County, located southeast of the capital. The complex, which will have 24 "downstream" petrochemical plants and an oil refinery, is being built by Formosa Plastics Co., which last year was fined $8 million for leakage of toxic wastes from a petrochemical plant in Texas--the largest fine ever levied in the United States for such an offense.
The battle over the petrochemical complex is at the center of a growing national environmental debate as Taiwan seeks to replace labor-intensive industries--which it is fast losing to countries such as Thailand and Indonesia--with capital-intensive export industries such as petrochemicals.
"How is anyone going to develop Taiwan without petrochemicals?" asked Winston Wang, general manager of Formosa Plastics. "The only way this island can survive is with industry."
Formosa Plastics has promised that technology at the new plant will be far cleaner than that at similar complexes on the island. The company has also said that it has drawn up plans to go ahead with a similar $4-billion project in China, a barely veiled threat that has brought the government out in full support of the Taiwan plant.