China Environmental News Digest

Daily updated Environmental news related to China

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

To save rivers, she helps farmers

Chinese environmental activist Tian Jun found that in order to clean up Chengdu's rivers, she needed to look upstream.

Tian Jun remembers when she could still drink the water from the rivers. But that was long ago, before industrial and agricultural pollution turned the water a fetid brown.

Now, she is working to turn things around.

Ms. Tian is a Chinese environmentalist from Chengdu, the capital of western Sichuan Province. She lives in a small apartment in a city of 10 million people.

But she also makes regular trips to the surrounding countryside. One sunny spring afternoon, Tian toured the family farm of Gao Shengdian, a longtime farmer who, together with his wife, grows wheat, rice, corn, and 10 kinds of vegetables.

Like most farmers in China, Mr. Gao once used large quantities of chemical fertilizer. He purchased this fertilizer from the wheelbarrow of an unlicensed local vendor and he believes it was often impure, even toxic.

Now Gao points proudly to a series of tidy tomato plots. They are labeled with new signs that read, in neatly written Chinese characters, "Green vegetable farmland." He is converting these plots to organic farming, a three-year process. For Tian and other residents downstream, this means less agricultural pollution in their water supply.

This farm is one of a dozen now enrolled in a sustainable-­agriculture program that Tian helped launch three years ago. An environmental group that she heads splits the cost of equipment to produce "biofertilizer" from compost and manure on the farms, provides tips on what crops grow best, and connects farmers with nearby urban consumers who want organically grown produce.

Many more families have requested to join the program. Gao says his neighbors are jealous.

But Tian is growing the initiative slowly, taking time to perfect the model. "When I think about how to make a project sustainable, I don't just think about the land," she says. "The human relationships must be sustainable, too. We need to figure out how to make everyone's interests meet."

Tian didn't set out to save the countryside. She first embarked to clean up the city. But, as she found, those two goals are intertwined.

Her hometown of Chengdu is an ancient city at the convergence of the Fu and Nan rivers in southwest China. Like many Chinese cities, it began to grow rapidly in the 1970s. Factories began to dump wastewater into the rivers. Several thousand food vendors and small shopkeepers did the same. Sewage pipes led directly into urban canals.

At the time, Tian was working as a journalist. There was little precedent for environmental cleanup in China, but through her work she learned about international discussions on the environment, including the 1992 United Nations' "Earth Summit" in Rio de Janeiro, which made "sustainable development" a global buzzword.

In the early 1990s, Tian began to lobby the city government to clean up the rivers. She helped convince local authorities that a cleaner environment would improve the city's image with foreign investors and tourists, and they hired her to establish a fledgling conservation office. In the next decade, she says the city spent about 10 billion yuan ($1.4 billion), on river cleanup.

Today many factories have moved outside Chengdu city limits. Local air and water quality have improved. The rivers are no longer brown. The United Nations Environment Program in 2000 recognized Chengdu at a conference on “Learning From Best Practices.” The city has even built parkland and planted cherry trees along sections of the rivers.
Tian worries about the potential for backsliding if public attention doesn’t remain focused on these issues. In 2003, she founded an environmental nonprofit, Chengdu Urban Rivers Association and began to work with local university students on a “Get More Green” outreach campaign.
“If we don’t have good environmental education after we improve the rivers,” she says, “our progress could disappear.”

Fertilizer overuse hurts rivers

Recently, Tian has turned her attention to another problem. Tests revealed that 60 percent of the remaining pollution in the rivers, which are still not fit for drinking or swimming, comes from the heavy usage of fertilizers and pesticides on farmland upstream.

Three years ago, Tian began to visit farmers in the surrounding countryside. Her purpose was to gather information. “I knew nothing would change if I just said, ‘Do this.’ I had to figure out what they needed, so we could work together.”

Gao’s situation was typical. His family is Buddhist, so he tries to respect natural balance. “I would rather not put all those chemicals in the ground,” he says, “but I must make a living somehow.” He also had a more worldly complaint: He knew he was being overcharged by the fertilizer vendor, who sold him adulterated goods, and by the businessman who bought his crops to sell to supermarkets at high margins.
“But what choice did I have?” Gao wondered. Many farmers had similar frustrations.

Tian designed a program to address many concerns at once, with financial support from city ministries and the World Wildlife Fund China. The farmers needed some kind of fertilizer to keep their yields relatively high, so she equipped them to make their own. They also needed a way to reach customers, so she connected them directly with a small network of health-conscious consumers in Chengdu. They needed information and support, which her group provides on its regular visits.
This time, Tian asks, “Is there anything else you need?”

“Not now,” Gao replies. “I’ll let you know if I find any problems.”
“Please do, Uncle Gao.” (They are not related, but everyone calls him “Uncle Gao.”)
Tian hopes to eventually expand the program, with further financial support from the government and international nongovernmental organizations.

Better methods help certification

This is not the only sustainable-agriculture project in China. Outside Beijing, a husband and wife in 2002 started their own organic farm, “Lovely Green Cow,” and sell produce directly to a health-conscious Beijing restaurant. In Yunnan Province, a Chinese nonprofit, Global Environmental Institute, operates a similar biofertilizer program. The central environment ministry has also established its own Organic Food Development Center.

Observers wonder to what extent such programs can grow, and how they may one day affect consumers in China and abroad. According to the World Trade Organization, China is the world’s largest food exporter.
“The Chinese government understands it needs to shift to higher-value and safer goods,” says Linden Ellis of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. However, she adds, there is often a gap between intentions and implementation.

“China has trouble with myriad health and safety certifications, and food safety and organics are a subset of that,” says Mike Taylor, a professor at the School of Public Health and Health Services at George Washington Uni­versity in Washington.

However, he thinks the situation can be improved if new incentives are introduced. For example, he believes the US Food and Drug Administration should enact “more stringent requirements on importers to work directly with their suppliers to ensure product safety.”

In a country where regulatory enforcement is weak, the crux of Tian’s philosophy is finding common interests. She is starting small, but her philosophy is scalable.

For his part, Gao hopes to one day open an organic and Buddhist restaurant for villagers and day-trippers from Chengdu. “So many people leave the countryside for the city,” he says. “There should be ways to bring people back to the countryside.”

Tian smiled. She knew he was talking about someone in particular. His son left the village to find work many years ago, but says he may return home if business is good.

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Monday, April 28, 2008

China and California Look for Green Energy Solutions

New America Media , News Report, Mary Ambrose, Posted: Apr 25, 2008

Editor's Note: Scientists, inventors and venture capitalists from the US and China came together in San Francisco last week to discuss ways to conserve energy. Mary Ambrose is the environmental editor for New America Media.

The Chinese government is in a conundrum about energy. They recognize their wildly increasing energy needs, but also want to reduce energy consumption and not loot their considerable natural resources.

In search of inspiration and possible collaborators, Chinese scientists came to California for a conference on clean energy, put on by The Asia Society on April 18th. Venture capitalists, inventors and energy policy makers met to discuss the latest science – addressing climate change, technical innovations and investment opportunities.

Both China and California share a sense of urgency about clean energy issues and both are grappling to discover which of the dozens of new technologies being developed to address global warming will succeed on a large scale. As one of the world’s largest economies, California has come a long way when it comes to reducing energy consumption.

Increased energy efficiency has been key to California’s success in this field, said Dian Grueneich – a commissioner with the California Public Utilities Commission and an expert on environment and energy. This is also the cheapest way to address energy needs. One billion dollars was spent on saving energy in the US, this resulted in two billion dollars saved, which Grueneich says is the kind of money, “China will need to build its infrastructure.”

The way to improve efficiency is simple, she said. Establish firm standards for energy use when creating new appliances and buildings, even low income housing. De-couple sales from revenue, so that utilities don’t lose money when they sell less energy. And finally, use the latest technology to develop a clear system of verification so you know how much energy is being consumed or wasted.

“This is consumer driven,” said Matthew Rogers who has consulted with a lot of oil companies, “don’t just look at the source” to save energy. “Green is the new lean,” he said, meaning making a company cleaner will make it richer and more secure over time.

Scientific breakthroughs hold part of the answer. Synthetic biology excites Regis Kelly – Director of QB3, a string of University of California labs working on biological alternatives – so much that he believes it’s “as transformative as computers.” Scientists are now able to write the DNA of cells and he is coordinating some 2,500 scientists who are working on creating bacteria that will help create clean energy.

But China is also poised to make use of the most cutting edge clean energy technologies. “85 percent of China will be brand new in 2030,” noted Zhou Dadi, the director of China’s Energy Research Institute and the Beijing Energy Efficiency Center, as well as advisor to the premier.

Wind and sun are popular clean energy sources and China and the US are leaders in chasing wind as the answer. But this energy source has few big problems: the wind is strongest at sea and at night. So it’s far away from where and when it’s needed – plus, no one has found an effective way to store it. In fact the head of the Chinese Association for Science and Technology, Zhao Zhongxian, believes that it will take a lot of technology and time before wind can fill more than 10 percent of China’s energy needs.

Solar energy has a firmer foothold in China, which is the top consumer of solar heated water heaters, mostly in rural areas. Solar energy technology is easier to store but more tricky to harvest. It’s only effective when positioned appropriately, pointed out Gary Conley whose company SolFocus is a leader in the field. In places with less sun, like Beijing, thin film works much better than solar roof panels. Solar devices can provide energy within a year of being installed. Nuclear power plants take nine years to design and build. Coal plants take six.

Biogas, derived from manure or some grasses, is also very efficient because it can be directly turned into energy. This means it doesn’t have to travel and be parceled out on the main grid. It’s becoming another popular alternative in China, which is less interested in ethanol, which every scientist dismissed.

“It’s not scientifically sustainable but apparently, it’s politically sustainable,” said Kelly of QB3.

Ethanol’s efficiency varies radically because it’s only efficient when it doesn’t demand a lot of irrigation. When the energy generated is dependent on abundant water availability, it’s unsustainable. This is especially true for China and California, which suffer water shortages, said Thomas Rooney, a long time consultant on the topic of water shortages.

All in all, the conference saw venture capitalists, trying to stay ahead of other investors, scribbled down the predictions of the scientists. In turn, the scientists are hoping to woo the brightest minds on either side of the Pacific Rim to work with them to develop ‘the big answers’ for clean energy. Right now, the future looks like a mix of solar energy during the day, wind energy at night and perhaps a little fossil fuel as a backup.

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Monday, April 21, 2008

Bitter Waters

Yellow River

Can China save the Yellow—its Mother River?

Can China save the Yellow—its Mother River?
By Brook Larmer Via

Not a drop of rain has fallen in months, and the only clouds come from sandstorms lashing across the desert. But as the Yellow River bends through the barren landscape of north-central China, a startling vision shimmers on the horizon: emerald green rice fields, acres of yellow sunflowers, lush tracts of corn, wheat, and wolfberry—all flourishing under a merciless sky.

This is no mirage. The vast oasis in northern Ningxia, near the midpoint of the Yellow River's 3,400-mile journey from the Plateau of Tibet to the Bo Hai sea, has survived for more than 2,000 years, ever since the Qin emperor dispatched an army of peasant engineers to build canals and grow crops for soldiers manning the Great Wall. Shen Xuexiang is trying to carry on that tradition today. Lured here three decades ago by the seemingly limitless supply of water, the 55-year-old farmer cultivates cornfields that lie between the ruins of the Great Wall and the silt-laden waters of the Yellow River. From the bank of an irrigation canal, Shen gazes over the green expanse and marvels at the river's power: "I always thought this was the most beautiful place under heaven."

But this earthly paradise is disappearing fast. The proliferation of factories, farms, and cities—all products of China's spectacular economic boomis sucking the Yellow River dry. What water remains is being poisoned. From the canal bank, Shen points to another surreal flash of color: blood-red chemical waste gushing from a drainage pipe, turning the water a garish purple. This canal, which empties into the Yellow River, once teemed with fish and turtles, he says. Now its water is too toxic to use even for irrigation; two of Shen's goats died within hours of drinking from the canal.

The deadly pollution comes from the phalanx of chemical and pharmaceutical factories above Shen's fields, in Shizuishan, now considered one of the most polluted cities in the world. A robust man with a salt-and-pepper crew cut, Shen has repeatedly petitioned the environmental bureau to stop the unregulated dumping. The local official in charge of enforcement responded by deeming Shen's property "uninhabitable." Declaring that nothing else could be done, the official then left for a new job promoting the very industrial park he was supposed to be policing. "We are slowly poisoning ourselves," says Shen, shaking with anger. "How can they let this happen to our Mother River?"

Few waterways capture the soul of a nation more deeply than the Yellow, or the Huang, as it's known in China. It is to China what the Nile is to Egypt: the cradle of civilization, a symbol of enduring glory, a force of nature both feared and revered. From its mystical source in the 14,000-foot Tibetan highlands, the river sweeps across the northern plains where China's original inhabitants first learned to till and irrigate, to make porcelain and gunpowder, to build and bury imperial dynasties. But today, what the Chinese call the Mother River is dying. Stained with pollution, tainted with sewage, crowded with ill-conceived dams, it dwindles at its mouth to a lifeless trickle. There were many days during the 1990s that the river failed to reach the sea at all.

The demise of the legendary river is a tragedy whose consequences extend far beyond the more than 150 million people it sustains. The Yellow's plight also illuminates the dark side of China's economic miracle, an environmental crisis that has led to a shortage of the one resource no nation can live without: water.

Water has always been precious in China, a country with roughly the same amount of water as the United States but nearly five times the population. The shortage is especially acute in the arid north, where nearly half of China's population lives on only 15 percent of its water. These accidents of history and geography made China vulnerable; a series of man-made shocks are now pushing it over the edge. Global warming is accelerating the retreat of the glaciers that feed China's major rivers even as it hastens the advance of deserts that now swallow up a million acres of grassland each year.

Nothing, however, has precipitated the water crisis more than three decades of breakneck industrial growth. China's economic boom has, in a ruthless symmetry, fueled an equal and opposite environmental collapse. In its race to become the world's next superpower, China is not only draining its rivers and aquifers with abandon; it is also polluting what's left so irreversibly that the World Bank warns of "catastrophic consequences for future generations."

If that sounds like hyperbole, consider what is happening already in the Yellow River Basin. The spread of deserts is creating a dust bowl that may dwarf that of the American West in the 1930s, driving down grain production and pushing millions of "environmental refugees" off the land. The poisonous toxins choking the waterways—50 percent of the Yellow River is considered biologically dead—have led to a spike in cases of cancer, birth defects, and waterborne disease along their banks. Pollution-related protests have jumped—there were 51,000 across China in 2005 alone—and could metastasize into social unrest. Any one of these symptoms, if unchecked, could hinder China's growth and reverberate across world markets. Taken together, the long-term impact could be even more devastating. As Premier Wen Jiabao has put it, the shortage of clean water threatens "the survival of the Chinese nation."

The Yellow River's epic journey across northern China is a prism through which to see the country's unfolding water crisis. From the Tibetan nomads leaving their ancestral lands near the river's source to the "cancer villages" languishing in silence near the delta, the Mother River puts a human face on the costs of environmental destruction. But it also shows how this emergency is shocking the government—and a small cadre of environmental activists—into action. The fate of the Yellow River still hangs in the balance.

Sitting on a ridge nearly three miles above sea level, a rosy-cheeked Tibetan herder with two gold teeth looks out over the highlands her family has roamed for generations. It is a scene of stark beauty: rolling hills blanketed by sprouts of summer grass; herds of yaks and sheep grazing on distant slopes; and in the foreground a clear, shallow stream that is the beginning of the Yellow River. "This is sacred land," says the woman, a 39-year-old mother of four named Erla Zhuoma, recalling how her family of nomads would rotate through here to graze their 600 sheep and 150 yaks. No longer, she says, shaking her head in dismay. "The drought has changed everything."

The first signs of trouble emerged several years ago, when the region's lakes and rivers began drying up and grasslands started withering away, turning the search for her animals' food and water into marathon expeditions. Chinese scientists say the drought is a symptom of global warming and overgrazing. But Zhuoma blames the misfortune on outsiders—members of the ethnic Han Chinese majority—who angered the gods by mining for gold in a holy mountain nearby and fishing in the sacred lakes at the Yellow River's source. How else could she comprehend the death by starvation of more than half of her animals? Fearing further losses, Zhuoma and her husband accepted a government offer to sell off the rest in exchange for a thousand-dollar annual stipend and a concrete-block house in a resettlement camp near the town of Madoi. The herders are now the herded, nomads with nowhere to go.

China's water crisis begins on the roof of the world, where the country's three renowned rivers (the Yellow, the Yangtze, and the Mekong) originate. The glaciers and vast underground springs of the Qinghai-Tibet plateau—known as China's "water tower"—supply nearly 50 percent of the Yellow River's volume. But a hotter, drier climate is sending the delicate ecosystem into shock. Average temperatures in the region are increasing, according to the Chinese weather bureau, and could rise as much as three to five degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Already, more than 3,000 of the 4,077 lakes in Qinghai Province's Madoi County have disappeared, and the dunes of the high desert lap menacingly at those that remain. The glaciers, meanwhile, are shrinking at a rate of 7 percent a year. Melting ice may add water to the river in the short term, but scientists say the long-term consequences could be fatal to the Yellow.

To save its great rivers, Beijing is performing a sort of technological rain dance, with the most ambitious cloud-seeding program in the world. During summer months, artillery and planes bombard the clouds above the Yellow River's source area with silver iodide crystals, around which moisture can collect and become heavy enough to fall as rain. In Madoi, where the thunderous explosions keep Zhuoma's family awake at night, the meteorologists staffing the weather station say the "big gun" project is increasing rainfall and helping replenish glaciers near the Yellow River's source. Local Tibetans, however, believe the rockets, by angering the gods once more, are perpetuating the drought.

Like thousands of resettled Tibetan refugees across Qinghai, Zhuoma mourns the end of an ancient way of life. The family's wealth, once measured by the size of its herds, has dwindled to the few adornments she wears: three silver rings, a stone necklace, and her two gold teeth. Zhuoma has no job, and her husband, who rents a tractor to make local deliveries, earns three dollars on a good day. Not long ago the family ate meat every day; now they get by on noodles and fried dough. "We have no choice but to adjust," she says. "What else can we do?" From her concrete home, Zhuoma can still see the silvery beginnings of the Yellow River, but her relationship to the water and the land—to her heritage—has been lost forever.

"What are you doing?" the security guard demands. "Nothing," replies the stocky woman lurking outside the gates of the paper mill, tucking her secret weapon—a handheld global positioning device—under her sweater. The guard eyes her for a minute, and the woman, a 51-year-old laid-off factory worker named Jiang Lin, holds her breath. When he turns away, she pulls out the GPS and quickly locks in the paper mill's coordinates.

As an employee of Green Camel Bell, an environmental group in the western city of Lanzhou, Jiang is following up on a tip that the mill is dumping untreated chemical waste into a tributary of the Yellow River. There are hundreds of such factories around Lanzhou, a former Silk Road trading post that has morphed into a petrochemical hub. In 2006 three industrial spills here made the Yellow River run red. Another turned it white. This one is tainting the tributary a toxic shade of maroon. When Jiang gets back to the office, the GPS data will be emailed to Beijing and uploaded onto a Web-based "pollution map" for the whole world to see.

For all of Lanzhou's pride in being the first and biggest city along the Yellow River, it is better known for its massive discharge of industrial and human waste. But even here there is a glimmer of hope: the first seedlings of environmental activism, which may be the only chance for the river's salvation. In the mid-1990s a mere handful of environmental groups existed in China. Today there are several thousand, including Green Camel Bell. Jiang Lin's 25-year-old son, Zhao Zhong, founded the group in 2004 to help clean up the city and protect the Yellow River. With only five paid staff, Green Camel Bell is a shoestring operation kept afloat by grants from an American NGO, Pacific Environment. The name they chose, after the reassuring bells worn by camels in Silk Road caravans, is meant to be "a sign of life," says Jiang. "The bell is supposed to give hope to everyone who hears it."

At long last Beijing appears willing to listen. After three decades blindly pursuing growth, the government is starting to grapple with the environmental costs. The impact is not simply monetary, though the World Bank calculates that environmental damage robs China of 5.8 percent of its GDP each year. It is also social: Irate citizens last year flooded the government with hundreds of thousands of official environmental complaints. Whether to save the environment or stave off social unrest, Beijing has adopted ambitious goals, aiming for a 30 percent reduction in water consumption and a 10 percent decrease in pollution discharges by 2010.

Yet despite the good intentions, the crisis is only getting worse, reflecting Beijing's loss of control over the country's growth-hungry provinces. Leading environmental lawyer Wang Canfa estimates that "only 10 percent of environmental laws are enforced." Unable to count on its own bureaucracy, Beijing has warily embraced the media and grassroots activists to help pressure local industry. But pity the ecological crusader who speaks out too much. He could end up like Wu Lihong, an activist who was jailed and allegedly tortured last year for publicizing the toxic algal blooms in central China's Tai Lake.

Back in the Green Camel Bell office, Jiang stresses the group's cordial relations with local authorities. "The government has been working hard to stop factories from dumping," she says. Nevertheless, along her office wall stand plastic bottles filled with water discharged by factories and ranging in color from yellow to magenta—all unanalyzed for lack of funds. Even with its modest resources, Green Camel Bell has mobilized volunteers to help survey the ecology of the 24-mile section of the Yellow River that flows through Lanzhou. Their most important, and stealthiest, work is publicly exposing the most egregious polluters. It's enough to give a laid-off worker a sense of power and purpose. "I feel like a detective," says Jiang, laughing about her narrow escape at the paper mill. "But ordinary people like me have to get involved. Pollution is a problem that affects us all."

Two hundred miles northeast of Lanzhou, the Yellow River carves a path through the desolate expanse of Ningxia, revealing a problem with even more devastating long-term consequences than pollution: water scarcity. China starts at a disadvantage, supporting 20 percent of the world's population with just 7 percent of its fresh water. But it is far worse here in Ningxia, a bone-dry region enduring its worst drought in recorded history. For millennia the Yellow River was Ningxia's salvation; today the waterway is wasting away. Near the city of Yinchuan, the river's once mighty current is reduced to a narrow channel. Locals blame the river's depletion on the lack of rain. But the biggest culprit is the extravagant misuse of water by rapidly expanding farms, factories, and cities.

Perhaps every revolution, even a capitalist one, eats its children. But the pace at which China is squandering its most precious resource is staggering. Judicious releases of reservoir water have averted the embarrassment of recent years, when the Yellow River ran completely dry. But the river's outflow remains just 10 percent of the level 40 years ago. Where has all the water gone? Agriculture siphons off more than 65 percent, half of which is lost in leaky pipes and ditches. Heavy industry and burgeoning cities swallow the rest. Water in China, free until 1985, is still so heavily subsidized that conservation and efficiency are largely alien concepts. And the siege of the Yellow River isn't about to stop: In 2007 the government approved 52 billion dollars in coal mining and chemical industries to be installed along a 500-mile stretch of the river north of Yinchuan.

Such frenzied growth may soon fall victim to the very water crisis it has helped create. Of the some 660 cities in China, more than 400 lack sufficient water, with more than a hundred of these suffering severe shortages. (Beijing is chronically short of water too, but it will be spared during the Olympics, thanks to engineering feats that divert water from the Yellow River.) In a society increasingly divided between urban and rural, rich and poor, it is China's vast countryside—and its 738 million peasants—that bears the brunt of the water shortage.

The lack of water is already hindering China's grain production, fueling concerns about future shocks to global grain markets, where even modest price hikes can have a disastrous effect on the poor. Wang Shucheng, China's former minister of water resources, put the situation dramatically: "To fight for every drop of water or die, that is the challenge facing China."

For Sun Baocheng, a sunbaked 37-year-old farmer from the central Ningxia village of Yanghe, this challenge is not merely rhetorical excess. Two years ago, after their wells and rain buckets went dry from drought, all 36 families in Yanghe abandoned their village to the encroaching desert. They came to a valley called Hongsipu, where more than 400,000 environmental refugees have settled for one reason: It has water, delivered by a Kuwaiti-funded aqueduct that snakes across the scrub desert from the Yellow River, 20 miles to the north. The Yanghe villagers have settled in a row of single-room brick houses near the concrete aqueduct, tending plots of land given by the Chinese government (along with about $25 a person) as part of a program to alleviate poverty and desertification.

Even though Sun is barely able to coax a few stalks of corn out of the sandy soil, he is inspired by the flourishing crops—and growing wealth—of more established refugees. "If we hadn't left our old village and come here," he says, "we wouldn't have survived." The Mother River, once again, is giving life. But with all the pressures on its dwindling water, one wonders: What will creating another oasis in the desert do to the river's own chances of survival?

Mao Zedong's mantra—"Sacrifice one family, save 10,000 families"—is still seared into Wang Yangxi's memory. Like the Chinese emperors before him, Chairman Mao was obsessed with taming the Yellow River, the life-giving force whose changes of course also unleashed devastating floods, earning it the enduring sobriquet "China's Sorrow." When, in 1957, construction began on the massive dam at Sanmenxia, on the river's middle section, 400,000 people—including Wang—lost their homes. Mao's slogan convinced them it was a noble sacrifice. "We were proud to help the national cause," says Wang, now 83. "We've had nothing but misery ever since."

The idea of conquest has driven China's approach to nature ever since Yu the Great, first ruler of the Xia dynasty, allegedly declared some 4,000 years ago: "Whoever controls the Yellow River controls China." Mao took this, like much else, to extremes. His biggest monument to man's power over nature—the 350-foot-tall Sanmenxia Dam—is a case study in the danger of unintended consequences. The dam has tamed the lower third of the Yellow River by turning it into what one commentator has called "the country's biggest irrigation ditch." But the impact upriver has been disastrous, due to a stunning lack of foresight. Engineers failed to account for the colossal amount of yellowish silt (more than three times the sediment discharge of the Mississippi) that gives the river its name. By mismanaging the silt, Sanmenxia has caused as many floods as it has prevented, ruined as many lives as it has saved, and compelled the construction of another huge dam simply to correct its mistakes. One of Sanmenxia's original engineers even recommends blowing up the whole thing.

Wang would be the first to volunteer for such a mission. Husking cotton on his doorstep in Taolingzhai village, about 30 miles west of Sanmenxia, the bristle-haired former schoolteacher recalls a life whose every tragic twist has been shaped by the dam. After Wang and his family were evicted from this fertile land during the dam's construction, they were banished to a desert region 500 miles away. Nearly a third of the refugees died of starvation during Mao's Great Leap Forward, he says. Eventually, half of the survivors straggled home. Wang now farms land near the junction of the Wei and Yellow Rivers. But even here, he is not safe. When heavy rains fall, the Sanmenxia reservoir backs up, pushing polluted water over the banks. Three floods in five years have destroyed his cotton crops and poisoned the village's drinking supply. "All of our young people have left," says Wang. "There's no future here."

Unlike Mao's little red book, the Sanmenxia Dam is hardly a relic of the past. China now boasts nearly half of the world's 50,000 large dams—three times more than the United States—and construction continues. A cascade of 20 major dams already interrupt the Yellow River, and another 18 are scheduled to be built by 2030. Grassroots resistance to dams has emerged, most famously over the forced resettlement of more than a million people by the Yangtze River's Three Gorges Dam, but to little effect. Ma Jun, a prominent environmentalist, says dams on the Yellow River are especially harmful, since they exacerbate the twin threats of pollution and scarcity. The reduced water flow destroys the river's ability to flush out heavy pollutants, even as standing reservoirs allow a badly overused river to be drained even further. "Why cannot human beings give up their ruthless ambition of harnessing and controlling nature," Ma asks, "and choose instead to live in harmony with it?"

The simple answer: Beijing is still addicted to growth. The economic boom has lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty, and the Communist Party's legitimacy, perhaps even its survival, depends on continued expansion. China's leaders pay lip service to conservation and efficiency as a solution to the north's chronic water shortage. But rather than raise the price of water to true market levels—a move that would surely alienate both the masses and big industry—they have opted instead for another pharaonic feat of engineering: the South-to-North Water Transfer Project. The 62-billion-dollar canal system, which is designed to relieve pressure on the Yellow River, will siphon some 12 trillion gallons of water a year from the Yangtze Basin and send it 700 miles north, passing beneath the Yellow in two places. It's no surprise, given the Olympian scale of the project, that it—like Sanmenxia—originated as one of Mao's pipe dreams.

Even as other parts of China careened through droughts and floods in past decades, the village of Xiaojiadian enjoyed a steady supply of fresh water by virtue of its location on a tributary of the Yellow River, less than 200 miles from where it spills into the sea. But the waters, once a source of life, have turned deadly. Nobody here likes to talk about the plague that has struck the village, but the scar running down the chest of a gaunt farmer named Xiao Sizhu has its own eloquence. It shows precisely where doctors tried to remove the cancerous tumor gnawing at his esophagus. In between bites of sodden bread—one of the only foods he can digest—Xiao, 55, whispers about the old days, when his family felt lucky to live in this well-watered corner of the river basin, in eastern Shandong Province. Over the past two decades, however, a parade of tanneries, paper mills, and factories arrived upstream, dumping waste directly into the river. Xiao used to swim and fish in the eddy next to the village well. Now, he says, "I never go close to the water because it smells awful and has foam on top."

Another place he avoids is the grove of poplar trees outside the village, with its burial mounds stretching to the river's edge. In the past five years more than 70 people in this hamlet of 1,300 have died of stomach or esophageal cancer. More than a thousand others in 16 neighboring villages have also succumbed. Yu Baofa, a leading Shandong oncologist who has studied the villages of Dongping County, calls it "the cancer capital of the world." He says the incidence of esophageal cancer in the area is 25 times higher than the national average.

The more than four billion tons of wastewater dumped annually into the Yellow River, accounting for a full 10 percent of the river's volume, has pushed into extinction a third of the river's native fish species and made long stretches unfit even for irrigation. Now comes the human toll. In a 2007 report China's Ministry of Health blamed air and water pollution for an alarming rise in cancer rates across China since 2005—19 percent in urban areas and 23 percent in the countryside. Nearly two-thirds of China's rural population, more than 500 million people, use water contaminated by human or industrial waste. It's little wonder that gastrointestinal cancer is now the number one killer in the countryside.

The ubiquity of pollution-related disease is cold comfort to the villagers in Xiaojiadian, who live in fear and shame. The fear is understandable: 16 more cases of cancer were diagnosed in the village last year. The shame, however, has deeper roots. Even though officials told villagers the epidemic likely stems from the drinking well by the poisoned river, many locals believe cancer comes from an imbalance of chi, or life force, which is said to occur more frequently in those with quick tempers or bad characters.

Like most victims, Xiao suffered in silence in his house for nearly a year, hiding his symptoms even from the local doctor. Medical bills have since wiped out his savings, and the tumor has reduced his voice to a whisper. Even so, Xiao is one of the few willing to speak out. "If we don't talk, nothing gets done," he rasps, spitting up phlegm into a plastic cup. The government recently built a new well 11 miles away and sent in teams of doctors. But Xiao says officials might not have paid attention to Xiaojiadian had a villager not tipped off a reporter at a Chinese television station two years before. Now Xiao only has one regret: that he didn't speak out earlier. "It might have saved me," he says.

A few months pass, and a fresh earthen mound appears in the grove of poplar trees by the river. The grave has no tombstone, just some bamboo sticks and a few aluminum cookie wrappers rustling in the breeze. Xiao has come to the place he long avoided, joining friends and neighbors who were stalked by the same waterborne assassin. Is it a cruel irony or just the natural order that their final resting place overlooks the very river that likely killed them?

It is too late to save Xiao Sizhu, but there remains a flicker of hope that the Yellow River can be rescued. China's leaders, aware of the peril their country faces, now vow "to build an ecological civilization," setting aside almost 200 billion dollars a year for the environment. But the future depends equally on ordinary citizens such as activists Zhao Zhong and his mother, the intrepid Jiang Lin. Remember that Lanzhou paper mill Jiang locked in with her GPS? Not long after the information went up on the Internet, the government shut down the mill, along with 30 other factories dumping poison into tributaries of the Yellow River.

"Maybe the impact of one single person is small," says Zhao. "But when it is combined with others, the power can be huge."

Friday, April 18, 2008

Baldini on Beijing: 'I really haven't seen such a polluted sky anywhere else'

Thursday, April 17, 2008

BEIJING: Defending Olympic marathon champion Stefano Baldini doubts pollution will be a major problem at the Beijing Olympics.

Then again, the Italian said he's never run in a city as polluted as the Chinese capital.

"The pollution could affect the results, but I believe heat and humidity will have a bigger effect," Baldini said Thursday in Beijing during a three-day visit to look at the marathon course.

Chinese organizers have promised clean air for the Olympics, shutting chemical plants and foundries while banning construction and half of the city's 3.3 million vehicles in the days leading up to the Aug. 8 opening ceremony.

On Thursday, however, thick smog blanketed the city, causing skyscrapers a kilometer (half mile) away to disappear behind a gray haze.

"I haven't ever run in a similar polluted situation," the Italian said. "I really haven't seen such a polluted sky anywhere else. ... Other places where the sky is blue, maybe there is pollution, but you can't see it. Here you see it, you sense it."

International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge had warned that outdoor endurance events of more than one hour will be postponed if the city's air is dirty. A delay will be difficult with the men's marathon, as it is scheduled for the closing day of the Olympics.

Rogge had also acknowledged that athletes' performances might be "slightly reduced" because of the pollution. Haile Gebrselassie, widely recognized as the world's greatest distance runner, will skip the Olympic marathon. He's said the city's pollution irritates his breathing. He's also called it "the hardest marathon in history," combining heat, humidity and pollution.

Baldini acknowledged the health risks for runners like Gebrselassie, but said he wasn't worried.

"I don't think that running one race in these conditions would have any effect on your health," Baldini said. "It's true that we have to worry about it because the situation is serious. But I'm not worried that August will be as bad as it is now."

Many athletes will delay their arrival in Beijing until the last possible moment, but Baldini plans to train for about 10 days in China's capital before his race.

"The biggest problem could the be 10-12 days before in the sense that the pollution might have a bigger effect than during the race itself," said Baldini's coach Luciano Gigliotti.

Baldini, who turns 37 next month, has been under pressure in Italy to respond to questions about possible boycotts and the deadly rioting last month in Tibet. He said he opposed boycotts, does not intend to speak out on political issues during the Olympics, and needed to focus on running a marathon.

"We do all have an opinion about the situation in Tibet," he said. "We do have our personal opinion, although I am someone who likes to follow what the rules are."

"There is sadness for the situation in Tibet, because I don't like what I see," he added. "But there are many other situations around the world that are similar. As a person I am very sad about this and everyone should be. These are things that are not nice to see."

Asked to pick a winner, Baldini singled out the Africans — particularly London Marathon winner Martin Lel of Kenya. The Kenyans are expected to name their Olympic runners after next week's Boston Marathon.

Defending Olympic and European champion Baldini said the tough conditions in Beijing could level the field, turning it into a slow, tactical race. Unlike big city marathons, the Olympic marathon often produces unusual fields and upsets.

"I do believe I have a good chance because of my experience," Baldini said. "I already have several medals in important championships. That experience counts a lot for this event. The Olympic marathon is a totally different marathon from other marathons."

This Olympic marathon, in particular.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Recycling That Harms the Environment and People

Croucher Institute for Environmental Sciences/Hong Kong Baptist University

Discarded circuit boards in the town of Guiyu, China, where scientists found environmental contamination from crude recycling practices.

Recycling is supposed to be good for the environment. But if it’s not carried out properly, certain kinds of recycling — notably the dismantling of electronic circuit boards, which contain lead, zinc, copper and other metals — can cause environmental harm.

It can also be dangerous to human health, as a new study of electronics recycling in China shows.

Anna O. W. Leung and Ming H. Wong of Hong Kong Baptist University and colleagues went to the town of Guiyu in southeastern China, home to a cottage industry of family-run recycling workshops. These are typically set up inside homes, where family members melt the tin-lead solder on the boards to remove chips and other components for sale, with only small household fans for ventilation.

The researchers collected surface dust samples in and around these workshops, at local markets and schools and in other nearby residential areas.

As reported in Environmental Science and Technology, they found extremely elevated levels of lead, zinc and other metals in the workshops. Lead levels, for example, were up to 2,400 times commonly accepted optimum levels.

The contamination extended beyond the workshops into adjacent streets. Lead levels were still high, although about one-fifth the levels inside the homes. But even neighborhood schoolyards and markets were affected, suggesting that people spread contaminated dust as they walk around.

Beijing Stops Construction for Olympics

Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
Published: April 15, 2008

Chinese officials said that they will freeze construction projects in Beijing — like this one shown last year — in an attempt to clear the air for the Olympics.

BEIJING — Officials laid out an ambitious series of measures on Monday that will freeze construction projects, slow down steel production and shutter quarries in and around the capital this summer in an attempt to clear the air for the Olympics. Even spray painting outdoors will be banned during the weeks before and after sporting events, which begin Aug. 8.

Although officials initially suggested the city’s wholesale transformation would be complete long before the opening ceremonies, the announcement nonetheless represents the most detailed possible plan for how Beijing might reach its long-standing pledge to stage “green Games” in one of the world’s most polluted cities. In earlier proclamations, officials had said that the city’s makeover would be competed by the end of 2007.

The measures announced on Monday include a two-month halt in construction, beginning July 20, and government directives will force coal-burning power plants to reduce their emissions by 30 percent throughout most of the summer. Officials said that 19 heavy-polluting enterprises, including steel mills, coke plants and refineries, would be either temporarily mothballed or forced to reduce production. Gas stations that do not meet environmental standards will closed, cement production will stop, and the use toxic solvents outdoors will be forbidden. If Beijing’s air remains unacceptably sullied in the days leading up the Games, officials said they would take “stringent steps” to curb polluting industries, although they declined to say what those measures might be. “We will do everything possible to honor the promise,” Du Shaozhong, deputy director of Beijing’s Environmental Protection Bureau, said during a news conference. “Just tell everybody they don’t have to worry.”

Some Olympic officials and athletes remain unpersuaded. Although the government has made notable strides in reducing the brown haze from coal-burning heaters and stoves, the unabated surge in car ownership has erased many of those gains. There are about 3.5 million vehicles choking Beijing’s roadways, with about 1,200 new cars joining the honking parade each week. Last August, in a four-day exercise that will most likely be repeated this summer, the authorities forced more than half the Beijing’s cars and trucks off the road. Officials said that they would present plans to restrict traffic at a later date.

In recent months, independent scientists who have sampled Beijing’s air say that levels of ozone and particulate matter from diesel engines remain five times higher than standards set by the World Health Organization. The head of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, said a particularly smoggy day could prompt officials to postpone outdoor endurance events. Some runners have said they will practice outside the city to avoid the worst air, although the outskirts may not provide much refuge: a good deal of Beijing’s foul air drifts in from distant cities and neighboring provinces, and sometimes from regions as far as Inner Mongolia, miles to the north.

Mr. Du, the environmental official, dismissed suggestions that Beijing had failed to make strides in reducing harmful pollution. He said that the number of Blue Sky days – a measure of whether the air is acceptably clean — has more than doubled since 1998, when there were just 100 such days. (Last year, he said, that number reached 246, adding that levels of nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide have dropped significantly in recent years.

The authorities reached that goal by forcing local factories to upgrade pollution-control equipment and by compelling about 200 of the most hopelessly noxious to shut down for good. Even on a day when the horizon was notably hazy and the fumes from idling cars undeniably acrid, he urged the roomful of skeptical reporters to tell the public how much better Beijing’s air had become in recent years. “Please assure all the athletes,” he said.

But even if they find the city’s air cleaner than expected, visitors to the capital will likely be disappointed by the indoor environment. Earlier in the day, government officials announced that a proposed smoking ban, which is to take effect on May 1, had been modified in the face of opposition by business owners. Smoking will be restricted in hospitals, schools and sports stadiums, but it will be permitted in bars and restaurants.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Goldman Environmental Prize Winner Yu Xiaogan on Hydropower and Community in China

by Alex Pasternack, Beijing, China on 04.12.08 Via

Yu Xiaogang at Tiger Leaping Gorge with Hydropower Dam in Yangtze River China photo

This is the last in a series of interviews with previous winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize. Founded in 1990, the prize is given annually to six grassroots environmentalists working for change around the globe. So far, we've met a salmon saver and an Amazonian advocate. This year's prize winners will be announced on April 14.

If the dam represents the trade-off between China's heavy energy needs and the health of local communities, Yu Xiaogang (于晓刚) represents China's hope for a sustainable balance. His career began with a focus on improving water resource management, but the 2006 Goldman Prize winner has become one of China's leading crusaders for the rights of local populations affected by development projects, funneling helplessness and anger into participation. In the process, he's helped turned dam-building projects into a rare chance for the public to get involved in decision making in China.

A report he wrote in 2002 on the social impact of the Manwan Dam on the Lancang (Mekong) River--the dam had decimated the local fishing economy and turned many villagers into scavengers--was endorsed by the prime minister, leading to a change in how Beijing provided for the affected communities. Around that time, Yu launched Green Watershed, an NGO based in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, that has used the Manwan example to educate other communities about the negative impacts of controversial development projects, especially a series of dams proposed on the Nu River (Nujiang, or Salween River), the last free-flowing international river in the area and one that passes through a UNESCO World Heritage site. His lobbying and work with locals -- in 2004 he even brought a group of peasants to a hydropower conference in Beijing sponsored in part by the United Nations -- helped lead the government to order a temporary suspension of the project and made environmental impact assessments (EIAs) on such projects more common. His involvement also reportedly helped put Yu in the government's sights.

Today, Yu focuses his attention on the Lashihai [Lashi Lake] area near the city of Lijiang, and continues to educate local communities on sustainable fishing practices and watershed management. As official support grows for dams along the Nu river, and companies make plans to turn local forests into resorts, Yu knows he has his work cut out for him. But the specter of follies like the Manwan -- not to mention the Three Gorges, and numerous other examples across Asia and elsewhere -- propel him to work hard on combining China's development needs with its basic human ones.

I spoke to Dr. Yu by phone in Kunming.

TH: Your focus is foremost on the people who are affected by dam projects, as opposed to the affected eco-systems. Is this a more productive approach to environmental protection in China—to focus on the social issues first?

Yu Xiaogang: I think in China the biggest environmental impact is a result of large companies, sometimes state owned companies, implementing very big development projects, with support from the government. When it comes to the impact, the local people and the environment are usually conjoined. This is very important when we studied the Manwan dam. We can say that the community suffered from two kinds of impacts: one is environmental -- they lost their land, their forests, and development caused landslides -- and the second is the direct social impact of resettlement. In some places, resettlement was involuntary, and they lost their livelihood completely. So when you combine these together, the desire to protect their homeland and to safeguard the environment that surrounds their village -- this is how you can best involve people in protecting their livelihood, their surroundings, and environmental resources.

I think if you go into a village and do some underground work, you'll find htat protecting the environment and local sustainable development go together, they have the same goals; there's no contradiction. But some governments will say that environmental protection and development is a contradiction. That's their point of view. They often think environmental protection will stop development.

TH: And what about the locals? To them, is development necessarily bad?

Yu: Development doesn't adequate pay the local people. The companies want to reduce their costs, the local people can calculate carefully how much money they can get and for how many years. If they give up their land, what will they be giving for the next generation? If they get a small amount of money for their land, they often know they'll lose their livelihood, and also impact the following generation, their children. Even villagers have their own opportunity cost analysis. They never just take the money, they will calculate very carefully. I've never seen a case in which the government just promises more money or development and the people are happy. Sometimes, it's just the government offering compensation plus the threat of force. The people are intimidated, and they're not happy with the money.

TH: What kind of intimidation do you mean?

Yu: The local governments can be very strong, and have very good propaganda, telling people that these projects are important for development. And the sense is that whoever will be against this development, they will be punished. The public may also think that these are political issues, and they don't want to get involved. But they don't always realize that they will lose their own natural resources.

TH: What are the most important needs for villagers who are affected by dams and similar projects, and what rights do they still lack?

Yu: Of course, they need, for example, the right to be informed. Their rights need to be protected, and they need to participate in some decision-making that will impact the environment and their livelihood. "We don't need money," they say, "we need to participate, we need to know."

TH: What projects are you working on now?

Yu: We're implementing three projects now, but the largest remains our Lashi Lake [Lashihai, Yunnan] watershed management project. With this project we want to empower local people [most of them of the Naxi minority] in local watershed management, mostly through six components: water uses group, fishery assessment, macro-water management group, eco-tourism, eco-compensation, and a watershed management committee. It's a long project that we've been working on for about eight years.

We want to set up a good practice in China for participatory watershed management. We have two advocacy projects going. One is social impact assessment, which I can talk about later, the other is green finance. Green finance advocates banks to have good social and environmental policy when they decide to give financial support to large development projects. We are preparing some training workshops for Chinese NGOs so they can learn more about this, and can join us to advocate that banks develop these policies.

TH: What sort of challenges are you and the locals facing at Lashi Lake?

Yu: One is that the government built a dam there—the purpose is to transfer water to Lijiang city. The local community has suffered from loose land along the reservoir. Because the people have lost their livelihood, many people are using illegal nets to fish, and this too has caused the fishery reserve to become degraded.

Another challenge is a big development project at Lashi Lake. A Hong Kong company is investing about 8 billion RMB [about $1 billion] to develop a golf course, a real estate development, and so on. But the local people they don't know how to deal with such a project, one that will require large amounts of land. How can the people get compensation? How can the people be sure this development will not cause a huge environmental impact? We are there doing some investigation, trying to have the people understand how to proceed, and we also want to set a good example of watershed management.

TH: How does the situation in Lashi Lake compare to the conditions you saw when you began your work around the Manwan Dam?

Yu: We can see that the problems are mostly similar. In Manwan, the dam had already been built. The people suffered. The people were already aware, they had already been affected by the time we did a social impact assessment. The people very much understood what was wrong, and they very much wanted to participate. At the least, they were very cooperative, and even wanted to help us do our analysis, which was very useful to them.

But at Lashi Lake, many things are just starting to happen. And the impact is not fully known understood by the people. Some people think this development is good for them. But most of the people think it's bad. Still, when projects like these are implemented, the government exercises very close control, so many people dare not fight construction.

TH: What kind of power do private developers have over people in this area?

Yu: They will actually exercise power through the government. The government will usually guarantee that the company's investment will be smoothly implemented. But it's also hard to tell where the power is coming from. Sometimes these projects get approval from the central government, up on high. Gradually, the orders are passed down to the provincial, and then the local governments. Usually, government officials have good cooperation with the company.

TH: It's argued that corruption is the biggest threat to China's environment...

Yu: I think that's true. Two very important driving forces here: the GDP is still the no. 1 criteria when the government evaluates officials. If local officials want to get a promotion, they will have to show they have created a high GDP, and, if they can drive very fast development or very strong development, all the better.

Usually this is on the surface, the central government wants high GDPs. But on the ground, there's a lot of corruption. That's the second problem. We often see in the newspapers or magazines officials who once appeared very powerful, very good at economic development – they'll end up in jail three years later for corruption.

TH: It's generally understood that China needs dams in order to meet the country's energy demands. What is your position about the need for dams in China? What alternatives exist?

Yu: Of course China needs hydropower -- this is a very basic thing. The challenge is how to get it. We don't think that China doesn't need hydro. That isn't realistic. But what we're debating is what kind of hydropower. And in what areas. Do we have other, more sustainable ways to solve the energy problem? For instance, if we had a very integrated, systematic plan for overall electricity needs, and an integrated method to meet these needs. And when we really do need to build this dam, we need an environmental and social impact assessment. And then make sure we reduce the ecological impact. There are many things we should do, not just simply say, “we need hydropower, let's just build it.”

TH: The central and some local governments seem to be acknowledging the negative impact of dams, even the controversial Three Gorges project. What's your opinion of that dam?

Yu: I don't want to say too much – I haven't done very much research on this dam. But generally I agree with environmentalists and many researchers on this. At the time of construction, they were no social impact assessments or environmental impact assessments. It's natural there would be problems.

468_08-Yu%20holding%20meeting%20will%20village%20elders%20at%20Lashi%20Lake%20Watershed%20Project_0.jpg Yu holding a meeting will village elders as part of the Lashi Lake Watershed Project.

TH: At this point, as speculation rises that dams will be built along the Nu River, what are your hopes and fears?

Yu: Of course, I think that to dam the Nu River would impact this World Heritage site. I don't want any dams to be built. But recently I've heard that the National Development and Reform Commission (NRDC) gave the green light one of the small dams along the main stream. That means the Nu will be developed as hydropower base; if this dam is built than all 13 will be built.

But on the other hand, I also think that the local government needs the revenue. If they don't build dams, they should at least get some ecological compensation from the central government.

Let's face it: the local government is in need of revenue. But the central government needs to recognize that this is a natural heritage site, and it needs to be preserved as a national park. It should designate this a "forbidden development zone," and for such zones the central government should allocate some kind of budget to local governments. We fought for this sort of thing, but making demands from the national government and telling the local government not to build dams can put NGOs and scholars in an awkward situation. We can advocate for no dams, but we can't solve this problem unless the central government takes action. So the local government would be forced at last to develop hydropower here. Of course we uphold a no-dam solution. But we think our advocacy has become increasingly weaker.

TH: Would you say that's true in general for NGOs in China? Or is the climate for NGOs improving?

Yu: That depends on what you're doing. If your advocacy or your influence on some specific projects are not very challenging to government power, it's easy. For example, the air conditioning or energy efficiency movement—that isn't challenging the power of the government. The government will agree.

Of course, in the past few years, the debate over the Nu River also offered a very good opportunity for environmental NGOs to challenge the dam company and also the local government's decision. That case is very important and well-known in China. And this year, a lot of NGOs have grown in big and small ways, and are building influence.

Still, I think compared to the threat that China's environment faces, NGOs need more influence. NGOs are still weak. We, Green Watershed, also don't feel like we have many NGOs who can and will collaborate with us. We need more.

TH: How are social impact assessments, like the kind you helped initiate at the Manwan dam, implemented by the government today?

Yu: If the government really wants to implement a harmonious society, if it really wants to create qualitative development, good development, it must have social impact assessments as part of decision-making. But sometimes, "harmonious society" is only a phrase, it's not really implemented. This is a very sad situation. They are not really implementing this concept. But this concept is not from the government's mouth; it's the desire of people across Chinese society. So we can use this idea, and hopefully gain some political space to advocate for social impact assessments.

In 2002, we implemented the social impact assessment around the Manwan dam and advocated for a social impact assessment in the government. We held many training workshops about this for NGOs. And last year, we gave training to teachers at the central Party school in Beijing. Forty teachers attended our one-day training, after which they said that it's very important that they teach these principles at the school. They said it could help political leaders know how to make good decisions.

Also, gradually more and more people found out about this through the media. Many people are now aware that social impact assessments can help protect their rights, their livelihood, and regulate some development projects.

TH: So these assessments aren't mandatory?

Yu: In 2006, we heard that some components of assessment are already in some secret government documents, and that the central government has tried to implement it. Some officials say that big projects need this kind of impact assessment as a tool. However, that is still not an open policy or regulation. It's still closed.

So there is no social impact assessment law or regulation. That means that almost all development projects do not include one.

TH: Aside from making social impact assessments mandatory -- and, it at all possible enforceable -- what else can the central government do to ensure protection of the environment going forward?

Yu: If the Chinese government wants to protect the environment, it's most important to ensure peoples rights. They need to be able to participate in decision-making for big projects. If they can give these rights to the people, that will be the threshold to protecting the environment. It's very difficult. If not, local governments can still have illegal deals with companies, deals that lead to environmental disasters.

Second, not just GDP, but environmental conditions should be important when judging the achievement of government officials. If environmental protection isn't achieved, no matter what the GDP is, it should not help an official's promotion. Environmental quality should even be reason for promotion or punishment.

The third is the business, the investment side. We need green finance. With improved regulation, companies would be required to disclose the details of their project to banks, who would take the companies' responsibility for the environment and society into account when giving loans.

Just one approach is enough. But I think among these approaches, ensuring people's rights comes first.

TH: Dam building was once a much more heated topic of debate in the United States than it is now. Have you learned anything from the US example, and how does it apply to China?

Y: I've learned a lot from cases in developing and developed countries. In some ways, they are the same situation as China. Either in socialist countries or capitalist countries, people have the same concern: the impact of big projects on local communities. People cannot participate. Decision-making is kept in a black box. People suffer. This happens in India, in the southeast Asian countries -- think of the Narmada dam in India, the Pak Mun dam in Thailand -- and even in some developed countries. We need to learn from many cases. The World Commission on Dams has summarized 900 in the world. So we can learn a lot from them and we do.

TH: How did the 2006 Goldman Prize -- the recognition and the $125,000 -- help you and Green Watershed?

Y: It gave us more support when we didn't have other resources to focus on projects related to green finance, social impact assessments, NGO trainings. We also supported some expeditions that tried to investigate watershed areas, including a Yangtze to Yellow River expedition. We also supported some local people so they could do a social impact assessment themselves.

TH: Amidst all of the challenges in China, and the common belief that mei you banfa [nothing can be done], from where do you draw your determination?

Y: There are 100 million people in the world who suffer from these kinds of projects, and in the future even more people will suffer. Even if today you may not suffer from bad decision-making, maybe tomorrow you will. We think that affected people have a right to be informed in the decision-making process. But most people in the world won't think that these things could ever happen. We need to do something for them.

The second reason is that now there are many good practices out there. We have a lot of ways now that we can do better. If there were no solutions, we might say "there's nothing you can do." But if there are some solutions, and we don't practice them, then we can't tell the next generation that we tried. The government too couldn't tell the next batch of leaders that they tried. So we know that this is a long battle, a long march, but we must try to promote good practices, good solutions, and not just let things happen. There are many good experience and some very bad lessons to learn from. We cannot simply say that hydropower is necessary. We should say we need hydropower, but we need hydropower to do good.


2006 Goldman Prize: Yu Xiaogang Green Watershed China Dialogue on the Nu River Wilson Center: 7 Commentaries on Public Participation in Chinese Sustainable Development

All photos courtesy of Tom Dusenbery

Sunday, April 13, 2008

To go green is glorious

Published: 2008/04/13 00:09:02 GMT

From Tibetan monks to human rights activists, recent events have shown that China can still be a dangerous place to be vocal. But when it comes to environmental lobbying, there are signs the system may be changing, reports Mukul Devichand.

Ancient woodland, new politics, in the shadow of the Great Wall

In the shadow of the Great Wall of China, I watch men in blue overalls hack at the soil of the forest floor and carefully plant new saplings.

They are trying to restore this depleted ancient woodland to the high international standards of the Forest Stewardship Council.

Sustainable forests like this are a symbol of how things are slowly being changed by the new kids on the political block in China: green activists.

Charismatic campaigner Wen Bo has lobbied against deforestation, which he says has caused violent dust storms and floods - and a host of other effects.

He is not like most Chinese politicos, with a stylish haircut and a fleece jacket rather than a Mao suit. But what really sets him apart is the language he uses.

"We are not passively being governed, being ruled by the government," he told me. "We have our rights."

This is electric stuff in the world's biggest one-party state. Some outsiders hope that movements like his will give birth to a civil society - and even democracy - in repressive China.

They hope that China's reaction to the epic environmental consequences of its growth - with a quarter of drinking water contaminated - will allow people power to break free and put a brake on pollution.

But on a visit to Beijing to meet activists and experts on the environmental movement, I found it hard to gauge the size and effectiveness of this new green political space.

The limits of tolerance

None of the environmentalists I spoke to risk lobbying for democracy or challenging the political system overtly.

"That would be like throwing an egg against a stone," says Wen Bo.

Instead they work together with officials who will listen. The activists say their ideas, such as "public participation," fit into a Communist Party framework.

It seems to be working somewhat on paper, with the central government recently upgrading the main environmental agency to a ministry.

Official statistics say there are now over 2,000 "green" NGOs. One unofficial study says there are up to two million informal groups of students, farmers or other activists. Several campaigns have received positive coverage in the state-controlled media.

But Wen Bo told me intelligence agents sometimes pose as green volunteers to keep an eye on what's going on.

And it's still not unusual to see activists arrested - one was recently charged with subversion. So is green politics making any real difference?

A Chinese Erin Brockovich

Zhang Jingjing, who works at a centre that helps pollution victims get legal aid, has been called the Erin Brockovich of China because of some famous victories in class action cases.

In 2005 she worked with the centre's boss, Wang Canfa, to help residents of a village in Fujian Province successfully sue a factory for compensation.

The factory was poisoning local crops with chromium - the same chemical Ms Brockovich fought in California.

But Ms Zhang sees limits to China's "green political space" because of the clout polluters have with local governments and judges.

In a country focussed on economic growth, factories and developers allow local officials to boost their area's GDP figures. The officials in turn pressurise judges.

"We have no independent judiciary, that is our problem," she says.

Because local officials and judges often side with polluters, the greens see central government as their ally. It's an internal power struggle in China that outsiders rarely see.

Outsourcing harm

So although the activists do challenge the government, they themselves say it would be premature to call them a democracy movement.

Instead they are seeking much more basic mechanisms of accountability, like planning law and public hearings, which still don't exist in China.

What's more, many Chinese green activists don't see their own system as the sole cause of the problem. Instead, they blame the West.

I met Xiao Wei, the popstar whose message of love and green harmony inspired several of the 30-something activists I'd met, back when they were teenagers.

Given his soft style and hippy lyrics, I expected him to rail against the consumerism of today's China, with its 10-lane highways and enormous shopping malls.

Instead he said: "Everybody has the right to pursue a good life, to buy a big house or a car if they want to."

He pointed out that China is still a developing country and that much of the pollution is actually caused by factories which make products for the West. The waste generated by "Made in China" products is left for Chinese people to deal with.

Chinese environmental groups call this "the outsourcing of harm".

Technological solutions

The basic dilemma for China is that polluting factories mean cheap exports, and potentially more jobs for the 300 million still living on less than $1 a day.

Chinese green groups often face the taunt that they put nature above the needs of the poor.

But Lo Sze Ping, the young director of Greenpeace's Beijing branch, thinks this very dilemma will force China's ecologists to come up with creative technological solutions.

"Imagine if China could produce solar panels just like China is producing DVD players now," he says.

"It would genuinely kick-start an energy revolution, not just in China but for the world."

Mukul Devichand's report for Analysis on Radio 4 can be heard at 2130 British Summer Time on Sunday 13 April.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Australia to aid China's solar city plan April 11, 2008 - 2:02PM

Australia is to help China develop what could be the world's largest solar city.

It will also fund the trial of an Australian system to monitor the health of three rivers - the Yellow, Pearl and Da Ling - in China.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd revealed details of the projects while visiting a power plant on the outskirts of Beijing on Friday.

The coal-powered plant is the site of a pilot post-combustion carbon capture project, a joint initiative of the CSIRO, the China Huaneng Group and China's Thermal Power Research Institute.

Australia will fund a feasibility study into the development of the largest solar-powered city in the world at Weihai, in north-east China.

It will also fund a pilot project of Australian carbon-measuring systems in regional China.

Mr Rudd said there would also be a new ministerial level dialogue between the two countries that will provide high-level oversight to clean energy technologies, climate change science, adaptation and building the capacity of China to respond to climate change.

"These practical climate change and water projects are making a small but significant contribution to the Chinese government's efforts to be part of the global solution to climate change," Mr Rudd said.

"If successful, each of these small projects has the potential to be rolled out nationally across China."

Thursday, April 10, 2008

China’s Top TV Journalists Learn to Report Green

Internews’ Earth Journalism Network Trains CCTV in Environmental Reporting

Journalists at tables in a workshop at CCTV
James Fahn/Internews
Internews China Country Director Filip Noubel addresses journalists at a workshop on environmental reporting conducted by Internews' Earth Journalism Network.

(April 9, 2008) With audience ratings that reach as high as 800 million people, China Central Television (CCTV) is one of world’s largest broadcasters. It is also the predominant media organization in a severely environmentally challenged country that has the most people on the planet.

Now CCTV’s reporters and producers will be better able to cover those challenges, thanks to the broadcaster’s first ever environmental workshop, carried out and supported by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network (EJN) in collaboration with Environment News Trust (ENT) in Beijing in March. Led by US trainers currently and formerly based at CNN, 40 Chinese TV journalists engaged in some intense training and fascinating discussion.

“We have had a wonderful experience of getting an overview of current environmental [issues] and various angles of environmental journalism,” said Zhang Xin, Human Resources Management Director at CCTV. “The active response from participants convinces us that the workshop is an effective and fruitful way to enhance the mutual understanding and cooperation between Earth Journalism Network (Internews) and CCTV… We look forward to more exchanges between our two sides in the near future.”

Among the participants were journalists from CCTV Channel 1, CCTV-2 (Economic Affairs), CCTV-9 (International Affairs, in English), CCTV-10 (Science and Education), CCTV-12 (Society and Law), from the TV news magazine World Insight and from GreenSpace, a half-hour primetime program on the environment. Some of the journalists produce news stories on the environment and other issues that are broadcast directly to the Communist Party leadership, and not made available to the public.

Gary Strieker, CNN International’s former chief environmental correspondent who currently produces his own programming at ENT, was the lead trainer for the workshop. He was joined by CNN Executive Producer Peter Dykstra and EJN Executive Director James Fahn.

The CCTV reporters and producers received training on environmental issues such as biodiversity and pollution, along with journalistic training on topics such as the use of sources. Participants learned various techniques to create compelling stories and discussed the elements of good and bad stories. They also explored how to confront the challenge of the Internet to the mass media and how to use it to the advantage of TV journalism.

The most riveting debate focused on the content of the pieces, since they often covered issues that are sensitive on Chinese television. A piece on the Three Gorges Dam, for instance, discussed some of the negative impacts and also featured an interview of anti-dam activist Dai Qing. An extended excerpt from CNN’s Planet in Peril, meanwhile, showed graphic footage of the use of endangered wildlife for traditional medicines and the impact industrial pollution is having on people’s health.

Reaction from the CCTV journalists was mixed. Some were clearly shocked by, for instance, the wanton disregard of environmental health captured by the CNN piece. Others said they had already seen the show, even though it was not aired publicly in China. The Three Gorges Dam story drew criticism that it was too one-sided against the dam, although Strieker commented that he had also been criticized by Western environmentalists who felt the piece was too pro-dam.

The piece also helped reveal some of the preferences of Chinese TV journalists. Several felt that the opinions of an educated urbanite such as Dai Qing carried more weight than the pro-dam views of local people interviewed near the dam. But as one of the Chinese participants noted, “Foreigners may value local views over those of remote experts.”

Some participants also complained that the US-produced stories contained “too much emotion.” They felt it was wrong to link environmental issues to human rights and argued for a more factual, scientific presentation of the issues.

Overall, the journalists were enthusiastic about the training. There was a general consensus that EJN and CCTV should team up again for future workshops, including more targeted trainings. This will take place after the Beijing Summer Olympics.

Internews and EJN are also conducting separate environmental media development activities in China with the support of the International Center for Communications Development on issues such as climate change and environmental health.

How Fair Is Reporting On China's Environment?
by Alex Pasternack, Beijing, China on 04. 9.08
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If anyone wants to read an uplifting, positive portrait of the environment in China today, this feature (and photo essay) at Mother Jones is not that. Departing by car on a metaphor-rich trip westward from Beijing, Jacques Leslie guides us deep into the folds of the country's looming and existing eco disasters and the opportunities tucked within. "As it happens," he writes in a sanguine moment, "many of the best ideas for moving toward sustainability are already getting a tryout in China... Yet as smartly conceived as many of these efforts are, virtually all are pilot projects still overwhelmed by the immensity of the problems they take on."

With a glut of damning statistics, quotes, and stops along the highway at all the key landmarks -- U.S.-style consumerism, health crises, cross-Pacific pollution, and of course cars -- the article makes for some depressing reading. And at a time of a lot of criticism of China (and plenty of angry responses), it leaves us with a question: is this, and many other damning reports on China's environment, fair?

One thing that got me thinking was an email from my friend John Romankiewicz. He's one half of the team behind China's Green Beat, which is a series of straight-forward (and increasingly fun) video podcasts on China's pollution and its solutions. Last weekend, he led a workshop at People's University in Beijing to help college students make their own inspirational videos on the environment.

The inspiration to make optimistic, solutions-based videos came from my own personal reaction to negative foreign media on China, pieces like the New York Times series "Choking on Growth." While extremely informative and very well reported, after reading such articles, it seems as if there is no hope, why would anyone even try and help China's environment. In Chinese "mei you banfa 没有办法".

When we in developed countries talk about China's environment, it's important to remember that alongside the country's lax environmental laws and poor enforcement, our own consumption habits help to underwrite China's coal-fired growth. (Leslie points this out, but doesn't quite follow develop it.) When we point the finger at China, we should remember to take a good look in the mirror too. Nick Stern wrote about the responsibility of Western countries just before Bali.

To China's chagrin, This won't stop journalists from reporting on China's dire eco situation (or its human rights record, or its food safety, etc.), and it shouldn't. Western media may even have a greater responsibility to keep the heat on given the limitations that the Chinese government imposes on domestic media. Smartly, the New York Times included Mandarin text and audio along with their Choking on Growth series.

But there can still be something unbalanced and even sensational about foreign environmental coverage of China. That China has 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities is a widely reported fact, but that it has the world beat on solar hot water heaters is clearly not as sexy a story.

Beyond the question of fairness is whether the harsh media coverage is anti-Chinese. Sometimes "pollution" sounds more like a convenient metaphor for Western fears about China, another unproductive divider between "us" and "them."

Following a November entry by The Atlantic's James Fallows about the Western media's obsession with Beijing's pollution at his China blog, Graham Webster at Transpacifica asked for some perspective in environmental reporting on China, in a post titled "Are Pollution Stories Anti-Chinese? Sometimes, yes":

Whether or not it’s the only focus of the “Western” press ... putting across the message that “holy moly these people have dirty cities” does not create the understanding we’ll need to put together real solutions in the future.

Recently at Spiked, which is running an interesting series on Western China-bashing, Tim Black wonders if harping on Olympic air pollution simply calms the West's insecurities, while keeping us from good dialogue.

Demoralised, anxious and desperately wanting purpose, Western elites have sought ever-deeper refuge in the semblance of a rationale offered by environmentalism. In such a context, economic growth and development, once the source of capitalist legitimacy, have acquired a threatening aspect. As one of the most rapidly developing nations on earth, under Western eyes, China appears as merely the most potent symbol of baleful modernity.

It is from this perspective that pollution, the problem of ‘Beijing’s smog’, is too easily understood not as a practical problem with a practical, technological solution, but as an indictment of China’s economic development, and of China itself.

If one danger of China-hating media coverage is that it shuts off our ability to better understand and address what's going on in China, another danger is shutting off Chinese audiences. The infuriated responses across the Chinese media and blogosphere to the Western media's coverage of Tibet show just how damaging simply the perception of China-bashing can be. The brand of nationalism that has emerged as a result will certainly not help in forging common ground with China over Tibet--and perhaps other issues too.

To be sure, few Chinese citizens could deny the country's dire environmental situation. But what might happen if the Western media's coverage of China's pollution also starts to be commonly perceived as an opportunity for sanctimonious sniping?

In this context -- and considering how much environmental education may be needed both about China and in China -- balanced reporting is important. This isn't just a matter of putting pollution into historical and economic context. It also means reporting on some very positive solutions China has up its sleeve (just read what Worldwatch president Christopher Flavin has to say). As John from China's Green Beat writes,

In fact, there are good things going on, and in my view, the best way to inspire and encourage people (from citizens to businesses to governments) to lead greener lives and make greener investments is through smart, fun, and optimistic media.

China's state-run media may be optimistic, but it's not necessarily "smart" or "fun." One media outlet that more often takes a balanced perspective is China Dialogue. Founded by former BBC China correspondent Isabel Hilton, the online magazine is rare in that all of its content, from articles to comments, is bilingual, in the hopes of getting Chinese and English-readers to share opinions and ideas. Among other projects, China Dialogue is sponsoring a contest that will follow the China's Green Beat training session.

Certainly, it is crucial that the Western media's reporting on China's environment be as critical as it would be anywhere else. In doing so, it needs to also be both accurate and fair. Even for the Western press, which we consider to be free, it is dangerously easy to skimp on at least one of those.