China’s Environmental Nightmare

Lisa Genasci —  June 29, 2010 — Leave a comment

In Hong Kong we rightly complain about the state of the air we are forced to breathe and the government’s apparent lack of interest in addressing the pollution challenges – despite  HK$ half-trillion in fiscal reserves this year.

The moribund HK government seems incapable of taking action to protect its citizen’s health despite having the financial resources to do so. Clean Air Network is working hard and successfully to educate the public and stir the government to act, providing the tools and support to do so – hand-holding of sorts.

But perhaps part of the challenge is that in Beijing, from where I am working for three weeks, Hong Kong’s pollution pales by comparison – not that this city should set any standard!

Here, my eyes are a constant rimmed-red, a smog headache challenges concentration and my sinuses are in revolt. Here, the clouds are but a memory and weather is either cold or hot but never sunny, it seems, but there is only a steady grey. The near distance fades into a smog that anywhere else would be unbelievable.

This is the price of China’s progress, and, to be fair, of pulling an estimated 600 million people out of poverty over the past two decades by fulfilling our Western need to consume ever-more products. According to the ADB, over the past 20 years, China’s poverty rate fell from 85% to 15.9% – a huge challenge for any government and unmatched anywhere, anytime.

Still, what we hear more about in the West is the fantastic progress machine that is China, the well-oiled production centre for the world’s consumers.

The flip side of that for China’s citizens is the polluted rivers, the smog-filled air, the cancer villages in evidence countrywide, the drained aquifers, the contaminated land. All of these will be the Beijing government’s newest challenges if it is to keep its population healthy and maintain social stability, which is the utmost goal.

Highly polluted areas near factories have shown increasing cases of cancer.  Southern China is replete with communities that recycle electronic waste and here people are exposed to toxic heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury.  The country’s myriad chemical factories produce carcinogens that enter the water and soil, also contaminating food grown on the land.

According to a recent Guardian article, in 2007, cancer was responsible for one in five deaths, and Chinese farmers are more likely to die of liver and stomach cancer than the world average.

Water supplies are polluted and aquifers significantly drained, something leading environmental activist Ma Jun warned about ten year’s ago in his book, China’s Water Crisis, which considered the local equivalent of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

The Qinghai-Tibet plateau area suffers from environmental degradation that is threatening three major rivers: the Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong. Melting permafrost and glaciers in the surrounding mountains are also eroding the grasslands and wetlands, causing the ground to lose its capacity to absorb water, according to AFP.

Xin Yuanhong, a government scientist quoted by the news agency says that at the current rate, 30 percent of the region’s glaciers could disappear within 10 years.

Climate change is also affecting the 580 million people living in these river basins.  This crisis also affects food security; drought and drying up water sources are severely lowering crop yields in the area.

By all accounts, the government increasingly understands the severity of the challenge. Careful Chinese environmentalists are being allowed to speak out. Indeed, many seem to be encouraged by the government to highlight bad practice by companies breaking local laws by emitting pollutants into the water, air and ground. Information disclosure has taken leaps forward in recent months.

Ma Jun and his Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs over the past several years have divulged information in online databases of air and water violations by factories throughout China. He has created a groundbreaking “blacklist” of polluters. At last count, IPE databases listed more than 60,000 air and water violations.

To be removed from the list, companies must take corrective action and accept IPE-supervised environmental audits of their Chinese factories. Ma is also a champion of increasing access to environmental information, which he believes will bring public pressure on companies to operate more responsibly.

In Yunan Province, Yu Xiaogang, another courageous environmentalist I met with recently, is also using information disclosure, to gain bank data. He and his group, Green Watershed, along with a network of nine other NGOs, are compiling information on loans granted to development projects that are damaging to local populations.

The group recently published the environmental record of 14 Chinese banks, looking at their policies, regulations, investments and loan portfolios, noting which were connected with environmentally damaging projects.

Yu is also working with communities to help them open channels with local financial institutions to discuss social and environmental impact ahead of any loan being granted to a large development initiative.

That Beijing seems to be backing the sort of discussion underway in China is certainly encouraging. It seems Hong Kong should be setting standards in the environmental arena not lagging behind its severely challenged neighbour.

Lisa Genasci

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CEO of Hong Kong-based ADM Capital Foundation

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