China takes pollution fight to threatened villages

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BEIJING, Nov 21 (Reuters) - Pollution in China's vast countryside is threatening health, water and arable land, the government said today, vowing to stop toxic industries shifting pollution to villages.

The top environmental official also told a newspaper that big polluters would be barred from stock listings.

China's cities have been the focus of official efforts to clean factory smoke and car exhaust from often smoggy skies.

But as richer areas have set stricter controls, polluting factories have sprung up in the poorer countryside, where hundreds of millions live.

''The environmental situation in our countryside is extremely grim,'' said the directive issued by the office of the State Council, the cabinet, on the government Web site (www.gov.cn).

''Some rural environmental problems have become a major factor threatening the physical health and property of farmers, and they are constraining the sustainable economic and social development of the countryside.'' A government report said last month that birth defects in Chinese infants had soared nearly 40 percent since 2001, and officials linked the rise to environmental degradation.

But cleaning up the countryside will not be easy.

Factories can be big polluters -- but also big revenue contributors to stretched local governments and bribe-taking officials. And as rural residents become richer, they are also consuming more.

China has promised to cut two key pollution measures by 10 percent between 2006 and 2010, but last year the country failed to meet the annual target.

The cabinet directive written by the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) and other agencies set broad goals for cleaner toilets and drinking water and reining in polluting factories.

''Adopt effective measures to prevent urban pollution transferring to the countryside,'' it ordered, calling for tougher enforcement of emissions limits and stricter controls on poultry, livestock raising and fish farms.

A recent national survey of water showed pollution was a widespread threat to taps and wells, the Health News said.

In recent years, stench and toxins from factories have sparked protests by farmers complaining of ruined health and crops.

Since 2006, SEPA had investigated 261 ''sudden environmental events'' -- bureaucratic code for serious pollution spills -- and 53 involved dangers to drinking water, the paper said.

''Severe water pollution has become a threat to public health and is affecting social stability,'' it said, citing a SEPA official.

SEPA's chief, Zhou Shengxian, said that from next year companies ''guilty of environmental violations or failing to meet discharge requirements will not be allowed to list their shares'', the China Daily reported.

The threatened squeeze on stock listings -- which may be hard to enforce in China's disjointed regulatory system -- comes after vows to choke off polluters by withholding bank loans and export approvals.

REUTERS SG VC0945

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