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In Beijing, Sandstorms Stir Concerns Over 2008 Olympics

China's capital has been hit by 10 dry tempests since February. But officials say steps are being taken to "improve the situation" for Games.

April 21, 2006|Ching-Ching Ni | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Desert winds have dumped 300,000 tons of sand and dust on the Chinese capital this week, turning gray rooftops yellow and forcing residents to wear surgical masks. But officials said Thursday they were confident nature would not disrupt plans to host environmentally "green" Olympic Games in 2008.

"The Olympics will be in August; the sandstorms usually hit Beijing in the months of March, April and May," said Liu Tuo, deputy director of the Chinese State Forestry Administration's sandstorm-control agency, at a news briefing. "Even if there are sandstorms in 2008, we have reason to be confident that the situation will not be as severe as it is now, because we are making efforts to improve the situation and they should be paying off."

Though Olympic athletes and spectators from around the world may be lucky enough to miss the storms, Chinese officials know it could be a long time before Beijing residents can be free from the annual plague.

"Given the millions of square kilometers of desert in China, they will continue to be a source of sandstorms in the future, and we cannot cherish unrealistic expectations this problem will vanish overnight," said Yang Weixi, chief engineer of China's Desertification Control Center.

Nearly one-fifth of China's landmass is desert. Soil erosion caused by overgrazing, farming and deforestation has exacerbated the desertification, especially in the country's arid northwest.

Situated at the foot of an encroaching Gobi Desert, Beijing has been struck by 10 sandstorms since February, the worst record in five years. Those storms have come despite efforts to create greenbelts to shield the city from the dry tempests.

Beijing's pollution is intensified by its ever-growing traffic congestion and ubiquitous construction sites, the product of a furious real estate boom ahead of the highly anticipated Olympic Games.

The capital has recorded only 56 "blue sky" days with relatively clean and clear air this year, 16 fewer than at this time last year. That makes it tough for the city to meet its goal of seeing 230 clean-air days a year to be truly considered the home of a green Olympics.

The sandstorms this year have been so bad that even China's premier has taken notice.

"Comrades, we cannot just sit in meetings behind closed doors. The sandy weather in Beijing has already raged outside for more than 10 days," the official New China News Agency quoted Premier Wen Jiabao as saying during a national conference on the environment this week. "Besides climatic factors, it reflects the critical environmental situation we are facing."

Wen Bo, the Beijing representative for the San Francisco-based group Pacific Environment, said that in some ways the recent sandstorms were a blessing in disguise.

"China's environment has been deteriorating a long time; the government had in the past mostly ignored the problem," said Wen, who is not related to the premier. "If Beijing is not hit by the sandstorms, then officials could not feel firsthand how bad the situation is and really treat it as a wake-up call."

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