China Environmental News Digest

Daily updated Environmental news related to China

Monday, May 28, 2007

The green view from Beijing


May 26, 2007 7:05 PM PDT

Is it grass? Is it concrete? No, it's Grasscrete, an environmentally sustainable alternative paving system used to create footpaths while leaving room for greenery. It will be part of Olympic Forest Park in northern Beijing, a multimillion-dollar, 680-hectare space being built for next year's Olympic Games.

Cleaning up Beijing is a big undertaking. Ted Dean, managing director of consulting firm BDA, said in an interview in the Chinese capital this week that when he moved here over 10 years ago, one could smell roasting coal because people had coal burners in their home. Coal consumption in the city has been reduced, but cars have increased. Nonetheless, the government and private companies are trying to eke out environmental improvements. Some products in that vein--like Grasscrete and the others that follow here--were on display at China Beijing International High Tech Expo, taking place this week and next

Can Shanghai turn green and grow?

BBC logo
By Steve Schifferes

Globalisation reporter, BBC News, Shanghai, China

Cycles in Shanghai
Prosperity has brought mobiles - but many still cycle to work

Shanghai has been transformed into a global city - but its rapid growth has produced pollution, traffic jams and overcrowding.

In becoming one of the centres of the world economy, Shanghai has grown faster than almost any other global city in the past 15 years.

The population increased from 13.5 million to 21.5 million as migrant labourers flooded in from the surrounding countryside, and the standard of living rose even faster, with per capita income now at $7,000, the highest in China.

The physical size of the city increased sixfold, from just 100 sq km to 680 sq km, as people sought more space and the city government rushed to develop nearby areas, such as Pudong.

traffic congestion in Shanghai
Rapid growth of car ownership has led to congestion and pollution

Three ring roads and six motorways now criss-cross the city, and gridlock grips the bridges and tunnels across the Huangpu river during rush hours.

The city has also seen an explosion in car ownership, with over 1 million car owners in 2006, and private car ownership has doubled in two years.

The increased traffic levels contributed to rising levels of atmospheric pollution.

Now the city of Shanghai has begun to tackle some of the environmental problems that could threaten its future growth.

Building new towns

Despite its size, Shanghai is still much more densely populated than Western cities, with four times more people per square kilometre than New York.

Women through window in Old Shanghai
Overcrowded accommodation in the centre is being replaced

And according to Michael Kwok, head of the architectural consultants Arup in Shanghai, there is very little land left to build on in the central city, after a decade of rapid development.

So Shanghai's planners want to limit population growth in the centre by building satellite towns in the outskirts.

Like the UK's New Towns, constructed not long after World War Two to disperse population out of London's most overcrowded districts, the idea is to provide cheaper housing and jobs to attract people to leave congested areas.

Under Shanghai's "One City - Nine Towns" plan, Shanghai is planning nine new cities which will eventually house 500,000 people each.

Six of the cities are themed to look like European cities, including the UK, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Sweden.

Thamestown, Shanghai
Rich Shanghai residents prefer faux London in the suburbs

Thamestown, which opened in October 2006, has themed pubs and Tudor-looking architecture concealing high-rise blocks.

But critics say that so far, most of the housing built in such towns is out of reach of ordinary citizens.

And they argue that the cities have so far not created enough jobs to prevent most residents from commuting into Shanghai, adding to transportation pressures.

Discouraging car ownership

Shanghai has made it expensive to own a car in the city.

The city sets a strict limit on the number of licenses it will issue for private car ownership - currently around 80,000 per year - and then auctions them off..

With the high demand for cars, the current cost of getting a car license in Shanghai is over 40,000 RMB ($5,500; £2,750).

However, a significant factor in Shanghai is the use of cars - and minivans - by private businesses.

Over half of all cars in Shanghai are owned by companies - who are less sensitive to financial constraints.

Investment in public transport

Shanghai Metro
The modern metro carries 1.8 million a day

According to Professor Chen of Tongji University School of Transportation Engineering, the city is now investing heavily in public transport.

Since the mid-1990s, it has built an extensive metro system, with five lines, now used by 1.8 million people per day, and it is now planning six new lines.

If it carries out all its plans, the length of the system will exceed London's, the world's biggest.

Buses and the poor

Overall, one-quarter of journeys in Shanghai are by public transport, and the city would like to increase that to 30% by 2010.

Private bus companies have proliterated in Shanghai
Private bus companies have proliterated in Shanghai

According to Professor Chen, that will mean boosting the numbers who ride the buses as well.

Shanghai has more than 1,000 bus routes, run by a variety of private bus companies, but the system of interchanges between lines is confusing and expensive.

She has convinced the city that it should make all transfers free in order to encourage more people to ride the system.

Bicycles and scooters

Despite the spread of car ownership, two-thirds of private journeys in Shanghai are by two-wheeled vehicles such as bicycles and scooters.

Bicycles parked in Shanghai
Bicycles fight for space with pedestrians and cars

The city has already banned larger motorbikes, and has introduced restrictions on bikes on the many commuter highways in the city.

But it is also building 180km of dedicated bike lanes, especially in newly built areas like Pudong, where bicycles will be segregated from scooters.

Affluence and growth

Shanghai has had some success in tackling its environmental issues.

Western ads in Shanghai shopping street
Glossy ads for Western fashion dominate shopping districts

One fact has been a strong planning system, coupled with the fact that the government owns all the land.

This has allowed the rapid redevelopment of the city and its infrastructure - as well as generating money to pay for big infrastructure projects.

Air quality has improved with unacceptable days dropping from 20% to 10% in the past five years.

But water pollution, is worse, as the rapid growth of industry in the Shanghai region, upstream of the city, has made it harder to keep the city's main water source, the Yangtze River, clean.

Human cost

The city's speed at developing its infrastructure has also come with a human cost, with millions of people displaced for public and private building projects..

According to Michael Kwok, in the early days of Shanghai's development it was relatively easy to relocate people to outlying areas, but now people are demanding more compensation.

More broadly, Shanghai is the still the embodiment of China's economic dream of living in an affluent society on a Western scale.

Those aspirations - for more land and housing, as well as more consumer durables like cars and air conditioners - are likely to put further pressure on Shanghai's environment in the future.

This is part of a series on how globalisation is changing China's largest city, Shanghai. Further articles will explore the issue of migrant labour and look at plans for an eco-city.

Technorati Tags: , , ,

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

China's Solar-Powered City

Renewable Energy Access

by Xuemei Bai

Buildings in Rizhao, a coastal city of nearly three million on the Shandong Peninsula in northern China, have a common yet unique appearance: most rooftops and walls are covered with small panels. They are solar heat collectors.

A combination of regulations and public education spurred the broad adoption of solar heaters. The city mandates all new buildings to incorporate solar panels, and it oversees the construction process to ensure proper installation. To raise awareness, the city held open seminars and ran public advertising on television.

In Rizhao City, which means City of Sunshine in Chinese, 99 percent of households in the central districts use solar water heaters, and most traffic signals, street and park lights are powered by photovoltaic (PV) solar cells. In the suburbs and villages, more than 30 percent of households use solar water heaters, and over 6,000 households have solar cooking facilities. More than 60,000 greenhouses are heated by solar panels, reducing overhead costs for farmers in nearby areas.

In total, the city has over a half-million square meters of solar water heating panels, the equivalent of about 0.5 megawatts of electric water heaters.

The fact that Rizhao is a small, ordinary Chinese city with per capita incomes even lower than in most other cities in the region makes the story even more remarkable. The achievement was the result of an unusual convergence of three key factors: a government policy that encourages solar energy use and financially supports research and development, local solar panel industries that seized the opportunity and improved their products, and the strong political will of the city's leadership to adopt it.

As is the case in industrial countries that promote solar power, the Shandong provincial government provided subsidies. Instead of funding the end users, however, the government funded the research and development activities of the solar water heater industry.

Mayor Li Zhaoqian explained: "It is not realistic to subsidize end users as we don't have sufficient financial capacity." Instead, the provincial government invested in the industry to achieve technological breakthroughs, which increased efficiency and lowered the unit cost.

The cost of a solar water heater was brought down to the same level as an electric one: about $190, which is about 4-5 percent of the annual income of an average household in town and about 8-10 percent of a rural household's income. Also, the panels could be simply attached to the exterior of a building. Using a solar water heater for 15 years costs about 15,000 Yuan less than running a conventional electric heater, which equates to saving $120 per year.

A combination of regulations and public education spurred the broad adoption of solar heaters. The city mandates all new buildings to incorporate solar panels, and it oversees the construction process to ensure proper installation. To raise awareness, the city held open seminars and ran public advertising on television. Government buildings and the homes of city leaders were the first to have the panels installed. Some government bodies and businesses provided free installation for employees, although the users pay for repairs and replacement.

After 15 years of effort, it seems the merit of using a solar heater has become common sense in Rizhao, and "you don't need to persuade people anymore to make the choice," according to Wang Shuguang, a government official.

Widespread use of solar energy reduced the use of coal and help improve the environmental quality of Rizhao, which has consistently been listed in the top 10 cities for air quality in China. In 2006, the State Environmental Protection Agency designated Rizhao as the Environmental Protection Model City.

Rizhao's leaders believe that an enhanced environment will in turn help the city's social, economic, and cultural development in the long run, and they see solar energy as a starting point to trigger this positive cycle. Some recent statistics show Rizhao is on track. The city is attracting a rapidly increasing amount of foreign direct investment, and according to city officials, environment is one of the key factors bringing these investors to Rizhao.

The travel industry in the city is also booming. In the last two years, the number of visitors increased by 48 and 30 percent respectively. Since 2002, the city has successfully hosted a series of domestic and international water sports events, including the International Sailing Federation's Grade W 470 World Sailing Championship.

The favorable environmental profile of Rizhao is changing its cultural profile as well, by attracting high-profile universities and professors to the city. Peking University, the most prestigious one in China, is building a residential complex in Rizhao, for example. More than 300 professors have bought their second or retirement homes in the city, working and living in this new complex at least part of the year. Qufu Normal University and Shandong Institute of Athletics have also chosen Rizhao for new campuses.

Xuemei Bai is a Scientist in the Urban Systems Program for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Organization in Australia. This article was adapted from an article that first appeared in the recently released report State of the World 2007: Our Urban Future, and was reprinted with permission from the Worldwatch Institute.

Technorati Tags: , ,

Drinking Water Quality Declining In China

By Joseph Popiolkowski

22 May 2007

Officials from China's top environmental watchdog have told the state news agency some of the country's most polluted rivers and lakes are not getting any cleaner.

Chengdu's location within China

The quarterly report by China's chief environmental regulation agency delivers a sobering warning, the quality of most of its cities' air and water has declined since the beginning of the year.

China has been not been able to successfully balance the integrity of its environment with heavy industrialization driven by record-breaking economic growth.

In light of the report's findings, a key Chinese official on environmental policy was quoted by the state news agency Tuesday as calling for impact studies for all future projects.

Wen Bo, China Program Director for the U.S.-based activist group Pacific Environment, agrees the situation is serious, and wants to see companies penalized for harming the environment.

"They are conducting a crime," he said. "They are conducting a serious crime, although they didn't kill individual persons directly. But by massively polluting the environment they are killing a whole lot of people. So they should really make environmental pollution a criminal charge."

State media last week quoted officials as saying that worsening water and air pollution was partly to blame for making cancer the top killer in China last year.

Wen also wants Chinese people to become more aware of the increasingly diseased environments outside their cities and take action.

"Everybody can do their part. Everybody can do their share," he added. "Teachers can teach that in school. Consumers can pressure the markets by what kind of products they choose."

The government's latest report said the quality of drinking water in most cities has declined significantly since the beginning of the year.

The government has made environmental protection a priority but has so far failed to meet any of its own targets for cutting pollution and improving energy efficiency. As the environment worsens, economic growth rates continue to soar, more than eleven percent so far this year.

Technorati Tags: ,

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Chinese activists looking to Africa

As its economic role in Africa expands, China's budding civil society takes cautious steps to hold its government to account.

| Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor


Amos Kimunya could hardly have been blunter.

As the annual meeting of the African Development Bank (AfDA) here last week celebrated China's booming aid and trade with Africa, the Kenyan finance minister verged on the undiplomatic.

"The question we have to ask ourselves" as China plows billions of dollars into Africa and snaps up its oil and minerals, he told fellow ministers, "is, 'is this a blessing or a curse?' "

At a much smaller and more discreet gathering on the sidelines of the AfDB shindig, African and Chinese civil society groups were meeting for the first time to plan how they could at least take some of the rough edges off a relationship that has sparked controversy well beyond Africa's borders.

But holding the Chinese government to account for its behavior in Africa will be a tall order for Chinese nongovernmental organizations that are still testing the political waters and have no international experience.

"The problem for us Chinese is that we are not aware of the projects" Beijing is funding in Africa, says Wen Bo, a leading Chinese environmental activist. "Chinese people don't know what Chinese companies are doing in Africa."

That worries Charles Mutasa, head of the nongovernmental African Network on Debt and Development. "The absence of Chinese pressure groups lobbying about environmental damage makes the whole business of China [in Africa] a bit tricky," he says, because there are no Chinese civil society watchdogs keeping an eye on their government and investors.

The Chinese NGO community is still small and politically constrained, says Nick Young, who heads the Beijing-based China Development Brief, which monitors the development of Chinese civil society groups.

While international campaigning groups deliberately seek issues on which to attack their governments, Chinese NGOs navigating in often ambiguous legal limbo are a "mirror image," says Mr. Young. "Most of them will look for points on which they agree with the government and start there. They are committed to being constructive."

Nor do many Chinese NGOs, most of which work on the environment, health, and poverty reduction, pay any attention to the world beyond their borders. That is partly because they are overwhelmed by the problems they face at home and partly because they are ill informed about Chinese activities abroad, activists say.

"It is a far leap for Chinese citizens to think about the problems of African farmers," points out Justin Fong, the founder of Moving Mountains, a Beijing-based NGO that trains public-interest activists.

But as China plays an ever larger role on the world stage, he forecasts, its people will broaden their horizons, too. "As Chinese step into their role as global citizens, hopefully they will become more engaged in foreign policy," he says.

A South-South solution

That would add a new dimension to "South-South cooperation" – a development model that held out hope that the developing countries that dominate the southern hemisphere and of which China has long seen itself as champion – could benefit each others' economies through technical assistance and increased trade. The governments of many developing countries hoped that such cooperation would spare them the self-interested economic policies perceived to come from the North's developed nations.

Today, with China pledging to double its aid by 2009 to around $12 billion and having already grown its trade with Africa 10-fold between 1999 and 2006, "South-South cooperation" is no longer a dream. But nor is it all milk and honey.

China's natural resource grab carries "disturbing echoes of the way the West dealt with Africa," worries Walden Bello, an activist academic from the Philippines who has long promoted closer links among developing countries. "There is a lot of caution among lots of us who had been looking forward" to a new era of international relations, he adds.

South African Finance Minister Trevor Manuel explains the dilemma more starkly. "The key must be mutual benefit," he told Chinese and African officials at the AfDB meeting. "Otherwise we might end up with a few holes in the ground where the resources have been extracted, and all the added value will be in China."

Aside from allegations that China is treating Africa in a neocolonial economic fashion, the Eastern giant has also been accused of propping up dictators just as Western countries have done, and of showing little environmental or social responsibility in its African investments.

By deliberately attaching no conditions to its aid and investment, in a sign of South-South solidarity and noninterference, China has also been charged with failing to encourage better governance in Africa.

A 'huge gap' open for Chinese aid

But with Western donors failing to keep their promises to double their aid to Africa, and World Bank and International Monetary Fund pro-privatization policies frustrating many African leaders, "China's entry onto the scene on the whole offers a lot of promise," argues Jeffrey Sachs, the economist who heads the Earth Institute, a New York development think tank.

Western donors' reluctance to help African governments fund large public-sector infrastructure projects, he says, fills "a huge gap in needs where the Chinese are finding their way.

"China could end up doing things that are unhelpful," he adds, "but more likely than not, its presence will be helpful."

Certainly Chinese money has offered African leaders an alternative to Western aid that often promotes privatization and painful belt-tightening economic policies. "We offer African governments a choice, and more choice is a good thing for them," says Li Anshan, deputy head of the department of African studies at Peking University.

Striving for a louder voice

Chinese NGOs trying to monitor the choices on offer, though, must take their political circumstances into account.

Even if an NGO did find a way to galvanize Chinese public opinion about the social impact of a dam in Sudan, for example, it would not dare attempt to mobilize a mass movement, as a Western NGO might try. But other avenues are open, argues Ge Yun, director of the Xinjiang Conservation Fund.

"China wants to be a responsible member of the international community," she says. "The government cares about losing face in the international arena. This is the perspective from which we can appeal to the government."

Already some local NGOs are adopting some of the tactics their Western counterparts have refined, such as pressuring banks not to lend to companies that abuse the environment or their workforce.

Yu Xiaogang, an environmental activist from the southWestern province of Yunnan, hopes to take that further.

"Chinese NGOs must develop good knowledge of Chinese financial institutions' international policies and their impact," he says.

"Our hope," he adds, is that within three to five years, we NGOs can join in large project policymaking" by institutions such as China Eximbank, which funds billions of dollars' worth of infrastructure projects in Africa.

Will Chinese activists help in Sudan?

Ali Askouri is trying to stop a dam. He came to the Shanghai NGO meeting looking for allies in China. He wants to publicize the fate of 70,000 of his fellow Nile villagers in Sudan, who are being displaced by a dam funded by China Eximbank.

But he had little success in reaching the ears of China's top brass.

As president of the Leadership Office of Hamdab Dam Affected People, his campaign has linked up with a global NGO, the International Rivers Network, with the goal of shaming ABB, the Swiss engineering giant, into withdrawing from Sudan. His group is also trying to put pressure on Alstom, a French company that is also involved in the project. But Mr. Askouri will be leaving with little expectation, at the moment, of Chinese activists joining his cause.

"NGOs here have too little experience and too little [political] space," says Askouri. "I'd love to see them put a lot of pressure on Eximbank, but it is hard to know how they might do it. And they might put themselves at risk. It's a hard issue for Chinese NGOs to get into at this stage."

Technorati Tags: , , ,

Three Gorges Dam shrinking Yangtze delta

Science and technology news

Chinese scientists have determined how China's Three Gorges Dam -- the world's largest dam -- affects downstream sediment delivery in the Yangtze RiverResearchers from East China Normal University found river damming can damage downstream environments by retaining sediments and nutrients.

Shi-Lun Yang and colleagues at the university's State Key Laboratory of Estuarine and Coastal Research calculated supplies of water and sediment from ungauged areas and combined them with data sets from gauging stations.

They discovered the Three Gorges Dam, which has regulated the waters of the Yangtze River since 2003, retains two-thirds of the upstream sediment each year and, in response to that retention, significant erosion occurs in the riverbed downstream of the dam.

Since the erosion doesn't offset the sediment lost in the reservoir, and because sediment flux to the Yangtze River mouth has decreased by 31 percent per year, the Yangtze delta is shrinking.

The researchers said continued sediment retention at those rates, combined with more dams planned for the watershed, will severely affect the people and various ecosystems in the Yangtze delta.

The study appears in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Technorati Tags: ,

Toxic soup on Games menu

Mary-Anne Toy in Beijing and Ben Cubby | May 22, 2007 via Brisbane Times

FIFTEEN months out from the Beijing Olympics, China is wallowing in the toxic by-products of its lightning economic expansion, prompting fears for athletes and tourists who will travel there, as well as the Chinese population.

Chronic water and air pollution caused by industrial toxins and pesticides mean cancer has risen to be China's leading killer, accounting for 23 per cent of all deaths, it emerged yesterday.

At the same time, it was revealed that 40 of China's top athletes fell ill because of foul air-conditioning in the country's sports headquarters in January and have been forced to withdraw from competition.

Filthy air-conditioning systems have been blamed for outbreaks of disease in hotels and apartment blocks in the capital.

Australia's Olympic committee is about to begin a program of inoculation for athletes who may be involved in the Olympics, and may issue health warnings in co-operation with the Department of Foreign Affairs as the Games draw closer.

But the committee denied last night that it had any concerns for the health of athletes and officials, saying Beijing's new Olympic Village would be clean and safe, and that the vaccinations were standard procedure for teams travelling to Asia.

Chinese authorities have promised to crack down on air-conditioning in Olympic hotels and sporting venues after a recent investigation by China's national broadcaster CCTV.

It found many air-conditioning systems were rarely cleaned because it was cheaper to risk being inspected and paying the paltry fine, just 800 yuan ($130) in Shanghai, than spend tens of thousands of yuan maintaining the systems.

In one case, two tonnes of waste, including dead rats and takeaway food left by construction workers, was collected when the ventilation system of a 19-storey Beijing office building was cleaned recently for the first time since it was built in the early 1990s.

Despite the health fears, Australian Olympic authorities said there would be no preliminary scouting of venues or hotels before the Games, and that the Olympic village, where food will be supplied by an international catering company, was considered safe.

"Other team support staff will be staying in modern hotels in the city, and we are not concerned about health standards at these hotels," an Australian Olympic Committee spokesman said. Athletes will drink bottled water and are allowed to take some packaged foods to China.

About 1000 potential team members will be offered jabs for hepatitis, typhoid, polio, tetanus, whooping cough and diptheria, measles, mumps and rubella, and influenza.

"This is simply a precautionary measure to ensure the athletes don't fall ill before or during competition," said the committee's president, John Coates.

China's Olympic organising committee has said air pollution will be its first priority before the Games.

But the use of pesticides and food additives was the main cause of the alarming rise in cancer rates, said the Chinese Health Ministry, which surveyed 30 cities and 78 counties.

"Many chemical and industrial enterprises are built along rivers so that they can dump the waste into water easily," said Chen Zhizhou, a health expert who works with the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences.

"Excessive use of fertilisers and pesticides also pollute underground water. The contaminated water has directly affected soil, crops and food," Mr Chen told the China Daily, adding that pollution "is getting worse day by day".

Big contributors to the growing cancer rates were found to be air pollution that causes harmful particles to become lodged in the lungs, formaldehyde and other compounds used in building renovations and furniture, and additives used to make livestock grow faster.

After the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003, the Government legislated that all air-conditioning in public places had to be cleaned at least annually, but a Ministry of Health official told CCTV that less than 1 per cent of buildings in Shanghai and Beijing complied.

The health figures come amid a rash of related health scandals. Yesterday the Herald reported that some textiles imported from China contained up to 10 times the amount of formaldehyde permitted under international standards.

The Chinese Government moved to soothe the anxieties, saying it paid attention to consumer safety.

Technorati Tags: ,

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Pollution blamed for China's cancer rise

Contaminated air and water getting worse, health experts say
Reuters Via

Updated: 9:46 a.m. ET May 16, 2007

BEIJING - Worsening air and water pollution and frequent use of food additives and pesticides made cancer the top killer in China last year, state media reported on Wednesday, citing health experts.

The official Xinhua news agency said earlier in May that cancer topped the list of 10 most lethal diseases for urban and rural residents in China, according to a Health Ministry survey in 30 cities and 78 counties.

“The main reason is that the pollution of environment, water and air is getting worse day by day,” the agency quoted Chen Zhizhou, a health expert from a cancer research center, as saying.

“To pursue the growth in GDP, a lot of chemical and industrial enterprises were built along the rivers so that they could dump the waste through water easily,” Chen said.

“The contaminated water sources have directly affected soil, crops and food,” Chen said, adding that it, along with polluted air, is closely linked to the rise and high fatalities of cancer.

Farmers used additives on pigs, poultry and vegetables to make them grow faster, and the frequent use of fertilizer and pesticides were also to blame, the report said.

The survey showed cancer deaths had risen by 19 percent in cities and 23 percent in rural areas from 2005, the report said, without giving an exact figure.

The number of cancer patients in China has been soaring since the 1970s, and 80 percent of them died from common cancers of the lungs, liver and stomach, Chinese media have reported.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Trouble for China's Model Green City

A much-ballyhooed plan of American architect William McDonough to build a model environmentally sustainable city in China has gone awry.
By Sarah Schafer
Updated: 9:15 p.m. ET May 10, 2007

What William McDonough's model city was supposed to look like

May 10, 2007 - When American architect and industrial designer William McDonough visited the Chinese village of Huangbaiyu in the summer of 2005, he brought a great message of hope. As the co-chair of the China-U.S. Center for Sustainable Development, McDonough was the visionary behind an ambitious plan to transform the hamlet into a green village—a model of ecologically balanced living (see “Building in Green,” NEWSWEEK International, Sept. 26-Oct. 3, 2005). On that dusty summer day, Chinese officials unveiled an ambitious project to build a new village, with hundreds of energy-efficient homes constructed with state-of-the-art material that would not harm the environment.

That was two years ago. According to plan, by now the Huangbaiyu project should have been well on its way to becoming a world model for environmentally friendly living, not to mention the kind of international cooperation between the developed and developing world that many leaders say is essential to combat big environmental problems. Instead, it has become a cautionary tale in what can go wrong with grand plans to save the world from environmental catastrophe. The project appears to be a mess. Construction of the 400 houses is way behind schedule. The 42 that have been built still have no heat, electricity or running water. Walls are already cracking and moisture seeps through the ceilings. According to people who’ve worked on the project, many of the houses don’t adhere to the original specifications—meaning they could never achieve the energy savings they were meant to achieve. The biomass gasification facility meant to burn animal, human and agricultural waste, doesn’t work. Not surprisingly, no one in the village has volunteered to move into the new community.

From the beginning, the nonprofit China-U.S. Center (which has high-ranking Chinese ministry officials and U.S. donors on its board) and the locals seemed to have held vastly different expectations of what the project should be and the benefits it should bring to Huangbaiyu. McDonough and his team seemed convinced the local government and the villagers understood that the Americans—including several major corporations who provided technical expertise—were willing to supply the vision but not the investment. But from early on, the locals thought the project would bring them money and jobs—and were even convinced that one of the big U.S. corporations would build a factory in the village. Even among villagers who initially supported the program, it’s clear that the concept of sustainable development, at least the way McDonough envisions it, doesn’t mean much to them. Whereas McDonough meant living in harmony with the environment, locals expected jobs. Village elder He Wenfu, who voted in favor of the project, said he heard a lot of talk about sustainable development and building a pretty village with a nice lake, but essentially thought McDonough was “a guy with a lot of money who would help the Chinese build factories.” He asks, “Why would they develop this plan if they had no plans to invest in the village?”

The master plan for the village, which McDonough designed with a team of Chinese and Americans, was ambitious. It called for 400 houses to be built by 2008—the first 150 were to have been completed by 2006. By locating the houses in a centralized town center, the idea was to create more available farmland for the villagers, many of whom derive at least part of their income from farm work. Each house would be built using local materials, all of which would be either biodegradable or easily recyclable. To avoid creating pollution during the construction process, the walls were to be made of pressed-earth blocks. Straw would provide insulation for the homes. The community would be fueled by energy from a biomass gasification plant, and eventually have a water system that would conserve water. There were plans to build a new school that would also be environmentally sound. The entire project was to be implemented by a local entrepreneur, Dai Xiaolong, who would act as the developer and put up an initial investment of about $250,000 (he says he has invested four times that amount already). He was to receive technical assistance from the China-U.S. Center, but the project was originally supposed to be financed by the local government and Dai’s company—with no funding from either the Chinese central government or the center itself.

The plan looked great on paper. Each house was supposed to cost no more than $3,500, but cost overruns have doubled that figure. As a result, the new homes are too expensive for Huangbaiyu villagers, who earn just under $1,000 a year on average. Two families have moved in, but one told NEWSWEEK that they had little choice in the matter. When their old homes were destroyed in an electrical fire, provincial authorities gave them the choice of putting any compensation the state gives to fire victims toward a down payment for one of the new homes, or receive nothing. The families don’t even seem to know about the original intent of the project. “I don’t know why these houses were built,” said Yin Shiqin, who, after the fire, moved into one of the new homes with her family six months ago. When a NEWSWEEK reporter told her the homes were part of a larger, environmental protection project, she giggled nervously. “Environmental protection?” she asked, clearly not understanding the meaning of the phrase.

The American team at the China-U.S. Center, including McDonough, admit there have been more challenges than they anticipated. One big problem was a change in county leadership, which caused delays in funding for critical aspects of the project, such as the electrical infrastructure. The American executive director for the China-U.S. Center, Rick Schulberg, blames the local government for underestimating what it would cost to develop a model village. He also said that Dai moved too quickly in building the houses and that his priority was not in making the houses environmentally friendly. Feng Huandu, an environmental engineer who used to work on the project, said that the houses weren’t built to the specifications called for in the original plan—some materials not in the original specs were used. (Dai has admitted to departing from McDonough’s plan, but wouldn’t get into specifics.)

The China-U.S. Center told local officials that villagers should not be pressured into moving into the new homes, says Schulberg. The center will soon send a team will go to the village to evaluate the homes that have been built. The center also hopes to develop a manual sometime at the end of this summer that will discuss its experiences—both good and bad—in working with the village so that others can learn from the experiment. “Would it have been better to ratchet down the expectations? Absolutely,” Schulberg said, but added. “I have no doubt that something good will come out of it.”

The local Chinese seem less sure. Local leaders and farmers in the village say they were led to believe the Americans would be building a big factory, and that if the Americans don’t invest a huge amount—and soon—the project might die. Former county party official Zhang Shuyuan said he was led to believe that the Americans would eventually make a big investment—and that one representative from the center told him that as soon as the houses were built, factories and industry would be moved in. Representatives from the center deny making any such promises. Rumors of a big factory coming to town won’t seem to die, however. “Mr. Dai doesn’t have any more money to continue this project,” Zhang complains. “It was called a joint venture, but the American side only shouted slogans and didn’t invest anything.”

Now, most people involved in the project are trying to find ways to move forward, but with more realistic expectations. Dai said the county government has promised to give him enough money to at least finish the 42 houses that are standing. (The center has confirmed the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology has provided the county with the needed funds.) McDonough says he now simply wants to build a school that will provide village children with the same quality of education they could receive in a city. That way, he said, children in Huangbaiyu would not have to leave home to go to school during the week. He said his team also continues to explore “small-scale” environmentally friendly enterprises that would provide jobs and raise income levels in the village. When talking about the Huangbaiyu project now, he no longer uses lofty phrases or talks about changing the way the Chinese live, as he did two years ago. “This is the hardest project I’ve ever volunteered for,” he says. It’s like climbing a mountain, and we’re on our way to getting the base camp stocked. I think we’re just at the beginning.”

Technorati Tags: , ,

Sunday, May 06, 2007

China closes down 3,176 polluting companies last year


Updated: 2007-05-05 22:33

China closed down a total of 3,176 polluting enterprises amid a campaign in which 720,000 companies have been checked for their pollution discharges last year, according to the country's top environment watchdog.

In the campaign, the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) and other departments investigated 28,000 cases violating related environmental laws and regulations and settled 13,000 of the total.

Threats to the sources of drinking water, industrial parks densely distributed with polluting enterprises and construction projects likely to damage the environment were the major targets in the campaign, according to the administration.

"Pollution by industrial parks has been curbed effectively," said an official with the administration.

A total of 1,981 industrial parks across the country, involving 29,890 enterprises, were subject to investigation, and 4,162 polluting companies got severe punishment, the official said.

Other six ministerial departments, including the Ministry of Supervision, participated in the campaign.