FOCUS // CHINA – By All Costs: The Battle to Save China’s Rivers
If I don’t take any risks, if I don’t make some sort of contribution, the work won’t be rewarding. There is a Chinese poem which says that a divine view is beheld from a perilous peak.
-Wu Deng Ming, Chinese environmental activist
‘Black River – China’ is a documentary released in June 1996 by ABC Australia and distributed by Journeyman Pictures concerning the polluted Huai River basin, at the time home to 1/10th of China’s population. According to the report, the Chinese government’s goal was to have a clean river “by all costs” by the year 2000. That lofty target was set over 13 years ago and China has experienced rampant industrial growth since then. So in light of this “hyper-growth” has the extreme Huai makeover been achieved?
Not bloody likely. At least not according to a Radio Free Asia article from July 23, 2009 titled ‘Cancer villages’ battle pollution which reports that according to residents and environmental activists, cancer rates in some villages of the Huai River basin are 10 times the what they were 30 years ago. The statistics from the piece may seem hard to substantiate and much of the evidence referred to is anecdotal, but it is clear that conditions along the river are now a far cry from the Huai’s fabled rural idyll of old. At the same time, even SEPA – China’s Environmental Protection Agency – is upfront about the “millions of tons of waste and urban sewage” that has been dumped into the river. Furthermore, despite government cleanup programs, industries have largely failed to comply and in fact, fertilizer runoff into the Huai has greatly increased in the past few years.
Enter Huo Daishan, activist and former photojournalist who grew up in the Huai River basin. Shocked by the river’s dead fish and poisonous fumes, which he became aware of on a visit for an assignment in his hometown of Huaidian, and further motivated by the deaths of his mother and childhood friend, Huo Daishan founded the Huai River Defenders in 2003. What environmental progress has been made in the region can be attributed to Huo, the Defenders and their publicizing of the plight of the Huai basin, but eco-activists often face stiff opposition from both the state and industry in China. Nonetheless, dedication pays off: Huo Daishan eventually achieved the cooperation of the SEPA and was named China’s Green Figure of the Year for 2007.
In another report by ABC (airdate November 21, 2007) called ‘China’s Pollution Busters – China’, the country’s industry and growth-related environmental problems are highlighted and explored along with the further efforts of Chinese environmentalists. The story follows those who fight for the health of the Chinese people as they try to protect the natural resources of the world’s biggest country. Eco-activists in China face resistance and sometimes hostility from multinational and domestic businesses, hired thugs and the Chinese state, which continues to target what many would consider to be an unhealthy economic growth rate – 8% for 2009.
Created by one of the country’s foremost environmental activists – Ma Jun – China’s online pollution map of 9000 factories shows exactly where and what kind of illegal polluting each factory is doing. But these are only those examples that have been officially fined by the authorities. In other words, just the “tip of the iceberg.” In China 60% of waterways are contaminated, leaving 320 million people without access to safe drinking water. Moreover, rural China’s stomach cancer rates are nearly 2x world averages, while liver cancer rates are more than 3x higher.
Regulations exist, but are largely unenforced, so environmentalists like Huo Daishan and Ma Jun attempt to compensate this official laxity via providing offenders with bad publicity. Fines are also grossly inadequate, making illegal dumping very attractive for many factories. One reaction to the pollution map, from an unnamed European multinational, was to threaten to relocate production to Indonesia or Vietnam, where they could dump chemicals with virtual impunity. Now that just sounds dirty in so many ways.
The national and regional Environmental Protection Agencies of China are making efforts to improve and enforce regulations, but as is the case in other countries of the world, the system requires companies and industry to act in good faith. As shown in China’s Pollution Busters, a prominent yeast factory on the banks of the Songhua River in the northern city of Harbin is a testament to the recent SEPA crackdowns, but it has only complied as a result of intense pressure from the central government, including spot checks, tests and frequent inspections. To me this sounds like a classic example of the inefficiency of “rule by force” when compared to rule of law.
Dissenting voices from the Chinese international community
New Tang Dynasty Television (NTDTV) is a non-profit television broadcast service based in New York, which is often critical of the Chinese government and its policies. The PRC likewise denounces NTDTV and its connection to the Falun Gong religious movement in statements such as this. Here are some NTDTV reports on river pollution in China, “cancer villages” and attributed birth defects.
Finally, here is a BBC News report on the pollution and falling water levels of the famed Yellow River in northern China entitled “China’s famous Yellow River is fading.”
With all the recent talk about China’s rapid industrialization, growth and related ecological consequences, China sometimes faces a collective vilification, which may be unfair, not to mention an excessive oversimplification of a complex situation. This is a massive, diverse country with powerful, competing interests – many of them from European and U.S. based multinationals. As far as comparisons with the West go, China’s per capita greenhouse gas production is still very low on the list and far below that of developed nations. Nonetheless, the sheer size of the country makes matters difficult to conceive and China has already surpassed the United States as the world’s largest over-all emitter. Fortunately there are those within China who fight for the environment and it seems that they are having some success. The Chinese government and business sectors have also not only started to embrace a “Greener” language, but are listening to activists and at least taking some measures to regulate, clean up, and promote greener lifestyles and industries. Any solutions will depend on a combination of responsible business and industry practices, an informed public and probably most importantly, a strong political will. And that goes for America and Europe too.
By Graham Land
Water Pollution in China – photographical essay by Stephen Voss
Huai River Pollution Control Project – a World Bank program to upgrade the water quality in the Huai River Basin.