updated 6/5/2006 1:51:51 PM ET 2006-06-05T17:51:51

China’s pollution problems cost the country more than $200 billion a year, a top official said Monday as he called for better legal protection for grassroots groups so they can help clean up the environment.

Damage to China’s environment is costing the government roughly 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, estimated Zhu Guangyao, deputy chief of the State Environmental Protection Agency. China’s GDP for 2005 was $2.26 trillion.

Despite the efforts of half a million environmental officials in his agency and other organizations, China’s environmental picture is worsening and “allows for no optimism,” he said as he released a report that described China’s environmental situation as “grave.”

“Water, land and soil pollution is serious,” the report said. “The Chinese government will mobilize all forces available to solve the pollution problems that are causing serious harm to people’s health.”

Zhu noted that some local officials are reluctant to help — and sometimes even work against — the central government’s environmental protection efforts.

After more than 25 years of breakneck growth, China is in the midst of an environmental crisis that has continued to worsen as local authorities fail to enforce regulations meant to counter severe air and water pollution.

Zhu said that his agency is hopeful that nongovernment environmental groups (NGOs) could play “important roles in promoting or pushing governments to solve the environmental problems.”

He said the importance of NGOs in China lags behind other countries, and that the environmental watchdog wants to play a more important role in developing “legislation to secure their interests and existence in China.”

Environmental groups said such legal protection would be a tremendous help, but cautioned that the environmental agency doesn’t have the power to create or pass such a law without the support of top leaders, which was far from guaranteed.

Currently, activists and others who try to blow the whistle on polluting industries are often ignored or suppressed by corrupt local officials who risk losing income if they try to shut down factories.

Some officials also fear being disciplined by the central government if their districts are found in violation of environmental standards.

“China has not had the political environment for NGOs to work independently,” said Zhu Chunqian, the head of conservation operations at World Wildlife Fund China. “I think at this moment there is no protection.”

Greenpeace’s government and public affairs officer, Yu Jie, said local officials remain too focused on economic growth at the expense of the environment and that outspoken activists risk retaliation if they are seen to be too meddlesome.

“If an NGO has legal status then it can use legal weapons to protect itself” and the local environment, said Yu.

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