How changing seasons can mean life or death in one of China’s most polluted cities

The annual suffering of asthma patients in Xian underscores the scale of the challenge Xi Jinping faces in cleaning up the skies

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 March, 2018, 2:09pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 March, 2018, 9:13pm

Yan Qijiao sits contentedly with her eyes closed, head tilted towards the sky, on a wooden bench along Xian’s ancient city wall in China’s northwest. 

It is not often that she can come outdoors to enjoy the warm spring sun, light blue skies and snatches of fresh air here in the capital of Shaanxi province. 

It’s a lightly polluted day in Xian, according to the official air quality index, and the skyline in the distance is a smoggy grey, but at least Yan isn’t confined to her bed, struggling to breathe today. 

The past winter was especially bad for the 79-year-old who suffers from severe asthma and has increasingly struggled during the coldest months of the year. 

Despite efforts to switch from coal to gas for household heating, the authorities have struggled to ensure adequate gas supplies, which means many households still rely on the more polluting fuel to stay warm.

Yan’s condition became so serious that she was admitted into hospital twice in two months for respiration failure. She was hospitalised for a total of 30 days and said she felt “like strangling myself” at times.

“Every winter when the air quality plummets, I have to be admitted to hospital,” Yan told the South China Morning Post. “When the weather grows warmer and the smog disperses, I get well again.” 

Her daughter Grace Li said that during the summer months her mother was “dancing and walking every day”. 

But she added: “In winter, she’s a totally different person. We have to prepare two oxygen bottles at her home and ensure there’s adequate supplies of medicine for her.”

Xian, which has a population of 8.7 million people, has seen its air quality deteriorate in recent years despite the drive by the country’s leaders to tackle the nationwide problem of pollution.

According to the NGO the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs it ranked 374 among the 387 cities monitored by the government last year in terms of average levels of PM2.5 – the tiny particles that are most damaging to public health. 

Government data shows that over the past two years the quantity of PM2.5 had risen to 73 microgrammes per cubic metre, up from the total of 61 recorded in 2014.

The World Health Organisation guidelines state that any level over 25 microgrammes per cubic metre over a 24-hour period is unhealthy.

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The Fenwei Plain on which Xian sits was identified by the central government as a major battlefield in the fight against air pollution last month.

The other two main areas are the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area and the Yangtze River Delta. 

“As Beijing and its neighbouring areas make progress in improving their air quality, attention has now shifted to Xian and the Fenwei Plain,” said Li Pengbo, who founded the local environmental NGO Green Shaanxi. 

China is planning to introduce tougher goals under a new three-year plan to win the “battle for blue skies”. 

A government reshuffle announced last week saw the environmental ministry renamed the Ministry of Ecological Environment.

A clean environment is one of a series of ambitious goals President Xi Jinping has set for the nation to achieve by 2020, with the reshuffle highlighting the importance he has placed on this challenge.

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Xia Qing, former deputy head of the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences, said the authorities see pollution control as being especially important for maintaining social stability.

“[The top leadership] emphasises as the slogan goes, ‘everything is for the people’ ... What people want now is not numbers [meaning economic growth], but an improvement in the quality of life,” said Xia.

He said that was a broad international consensus about the importance of protecting the environment and China was now doing what it should have done earlier. 

“China took the wrong road in the past years by putting too much stress on economic development and sacrificing our environment,” he added. 

A senior official from the Shaanxi provincial Environmental Protection Department reinforced the point by saying: “Now pollution control is the key performance indicator [for local officials], not GDP.”

Xian aims to lower the yearly average PM2.5 concentrations to 51 microgrammes per cubic metre and raise the number of non-polluted days to 263 by 2020.

The official said that the main causes of pollution were the most common ones across China, including the large number of vehicles on its roads and reliance on coal as a source of heat during the cold winters. 

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Green Shaanxi’s Li said local residents had been slow to wake up to the problem and the authorities did not attach due importance to curbing pollution until last year. 

“People started to notice the smog issue in 2012 and things got worse in 2013 and 2014. In those years local residents were somehow aware of taking measures to protect themselves, but in recent years they didn’t seem to care as much,” said Li.

“Before 2017 I think there wasn’t enough action [from the government].” 

He said that in the past the main focus was on the problems in Beijing-Tianjin- Hebei (also known as Jingjinji).

“There was nothing to worry about with regards to Shaanxi,” he said, “But now the air quality in Jingjinji is getting better and it may be Shaanxi’s turn.”

In November 2016, the city government announced plans to limit the number of private vehicles on the roads on selected by adopting similar policies as Beijing. 

But the restriction in Xian only applies to the winter season – which officially runs between November 20 and March 15 – when the use of coal reaches its peak and there is little rain to wash away the pollutants. 

The official, who did not wish to be named, also said the city’s geography and weather made things worse.

Located in a basin between the Loess Plateau and the Qinling Mountains, Xian is sheltered from strong winds and heavy rains, which could help dissipate the pollution.

“In the old days, it made it a good place for growing crops, but today it means the pollutants can’t disperse effectively.

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As part of the drive to tackle pollution, the city government announced last month that it would close the most heavily polluting businesses – including petrol refineries as well as fertiliser and cement manufacturers – in six districts by the end of the year. 

A more innovative measure is the installation of a giant outdoor air purifier that has been operating on the southern outskirts of the city for the past few months.  

The 60-metre (195ft) tower was set up as experimental project by the Institute of Earth Environment at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. 

In January Cao Junji, the head of the project, said that it had improved air quality over an area of 10 square kilometres (3.9 square miles), and that on severely polluted days the tower had reduced smog to close to moderate levels.

But residents living nearby said they could not observe any difference on seriously polluted days. 

“The difference may be beyond human eye observation. But I still don’t think this is an effective solution. It’s such a large city and the tower is in an open space …” said Yang Dali who lives in the residential community across the street. 

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The local official suggested that the authorities should recruit more investigators to check up on businesses to see how much pollution they are producing.

Under new regulations that came into force this month a company can be fined between 100,000 and 1 million yuan (US$15,8000-US$158,000) for breaching pollution limits. 

If they receive a 1 million yuan fine and fail to act within 30 days the penalty can be increased to 30 million yuan. 

Li, from Green Shaanxi, said warned that many government employees received inadequate training - which sometimes lasted for as little as one day. 

“The patrollers, in many occasions, can’t find out the problems, and they can’t tell whether the problem has really been rectified,” he said.

More members of the public are getting involved, but he said they were also ineffective because they often lacked professional knowledge. 

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For Yan and other asthma patients, the most effective cure may be to simply leave the city. Many people age now chose to spend the winter in the south for cleaner air and warmer weather. 

Jiang Meifeng, a woman who lives in Xianyan, a city near Xian, said her 85-year-old mother, also an asthma patient who suffers greatly in winter, had not shown any ill effects during a two-month stay in the coastal city of Zhuhai. 

Although Yan is recovering now, she still needs to take oxygen for 1.5 hours a day from an oxygen bottle at home, and taking medication daily. 

She said that next year she was considering renting an apartment on Hainan, a popular tourist island in southern China which is known for its good air quality.