The smog in Beijing and other Chinese cities is a visible manifestation of a larger pollution problem, one that costs the country between 8 and 12 percent of GDP and thousands of lives each year, analysts estimate. And it's not just affecting the air -- all of China's resources are threatened by pollution, leaving the nation in a state of environmental crisis, "one the world has become aware of," Alex Wang, the director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Environmental Law Program in China, said.
The global leader in carbon emissions, China faces both the problems of an advanced, industrialized country -- like the air pollution from increased automobile use -- and those of a developing country -- like soil erosion. One of the greatest domestic environmental threats is the scarcity of clean, safe drinking water, observers said.
"While a lot of attention is paid to air pollution, really the water problem is the wall that is going to stop everything," Jennifer Turner, Director of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said.
Chinese officials themselves estimate "that 50 percent of the water should not be drunk, and between a third and a quarter of that should not be used for anything," even industrial uses, Turner said. Still, the polluted water cointinues to be used, contaminating soil, preventing crops from growing, and poisoning the public.
The Ministry of Water Resources in China has said "700 million people drink contaminated water every day, and 100 million people drink water that's so contaminated it makes people sick," Elizabeth Economy, the Council on Foreign Relations C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies and author of "The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenges to China's Future," said.
Jonathan Watts, the Asia Environment correspondent for The Guardian and author of "When A Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save the World -- or Destroy it," said pollution has an extreme impact on health.
"The World Bank estimates that 460,000 people die prematurely every year in China" due to pollution, Watts said. "Air pollution causes respiratory disease, but the real health risk is water pollution, and what it does to the stomach."
Cancer is another concern; Watt described "cancer villages," or clusters of the disease "around big, dirty industrial plants."
The health costs of pollution "are really disproportionately borne by the poor people in society," Wang said. "It's really a justice issue."
Richard Fuller, the president of the Blacksmith Institute, a not-for-profit organization that works in the world's most polluted places to help local agencies and governments stop pollution problems and clean up contaminated sites, said toxins that seep into the water supply and the air are "a public health risk of substance."
According to the Blacksmith Institute's annual report, pollution affects over 100 million peoples' lives around the world, a figure that "puts pollution in the same category of HIV, TB and malaria," Fuller said.