/ 29 July 2008

Beijing haze recedes but rights concerns remain

Haze that has covered Beijing for the last few days cleared on Tuesday as rain fell 10 days before the Olympics begin, but the government came under renewed pressure from a damning human rights report.

The city’s chronic pollution, an acrid mix of construction dust, vehicle exhaust and factory and power plant fumes, has been one of the biggest worries for Games organisers, who promised a green Games and have enacted emergency measures to lift the pall.

They have raised the prospect of more pollution controls, in addition to keeping nearly half of Beijing’s 3,3-million cars off roads and shutting many factories near the capital, but have refused to give details, insisting air quality is improving.

Du Shaozhong, deputy chief of the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau (BEPB), said the haze, which reduces visibility to a few blocks, did not mean air quality was necessarily bad.

”We do not approve of the use of pictures to pass judgement on air quality … you have to look at the complete monitoring system, and scientifically look at the data,” Du told reporters.

”Cloud and fog are not pollution. This kind of weather is a natural phenomenon, and has nothing to do with pollution.”

Beijing is not the only city to suffer under the pall of pollution. Hong Kong, host to the Games’ equestrian events, was hit by its worst air pollution ever recorded on Monday.

The pollution was thick again on Tuesday, making it hard even to see across the former British colony’s famed harbour.

”I think it’s very difficult for the horses and for the riders too, they have to acclimatise,” said Reinhard Wendt, the chef de mission for the German equestrian team.

”We can see how the horses and riders feel. But we don’t know if it’s from the heat or the humidity or the dirty air. We are not used to such circumstances, and the feeling is not so good at the moment.”

Prevent risks
Many athletes have delayed arriving in Beijing until the last minute to avoid bad air, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said it may reschedule endurance events such as the marathon to prevent health risks to athletes if pollution is bad.

”The IOC medical group has said that the air quality will be okay for any competition up to an hour, and beyond that we’re in a position to reschedule,” senior IOC member Kevan Gosper said.

”Our concern is the toxin level in that air — you get fogs, you get cloud, you get wind storms and you get high humidity and you get high temperatures, but the real issue is whether any of this will be injurious to the athletes,” he said.

Japanese athletes may don masks made for construction workers to guard against air pollution during the Games, a doctor affiliated with the Japanese Olympic Committee said on Tuesday.

Australian team officials said this week Australian athletes would be allowed to withdraw from their events if they felt the pollution posed a threat to their health and safety.

Australians competing in athletics events also will not attend the August 8 opening ceremony in Beijing, in large part because of pollution concerns.

World record holder Haile Gebrselassie has pulled out of the marathon over fears of damaging his health.

Also in Hong Kong, Amnesty International took aim at another Olympics sensitivity — human rights — in a report saying China failed to honour pledges made when seeking to host the Games.

”There has been no progress towards fulfilling these promises, only continued deterioration,” said Amnesty’s report.

Amnesty said China targeted human rights defenders, journalists and lawyers to ”silence dissent” ahead of the Games.

Chinese officials had no immediate response to the report.

Last minute
Beijing will take more steps to control pollution if needed, the BEPB’s Du said, but denied a report in the state-run China Daily that 90% of private cars could be taken off roads.

Environmental Protection Ministry Vice-Minister Wu Xiaoqing ordered officials to make worst-case plans for pollution and report honestly on environmental quality, state media said.

But Guo Wenli, director of the Beijing Meteorological Bureau’s climate centre, told the overseas edition of the People’s Daily that historic patterns showed recent ”sauna” weather would not last throughout the two-week Games.

Cars in Beijing are already banned from roads on alternate days under an odd-and-even licence plate system and many government cars have been ordered off the roads. Taxis, buses and Olympic vehicles are exempt. Around Beijing, heavily polluting factories, such as steel plants, have also been closed. — Reuters