Ma Jun: the call of rivers
By Gong Yidong
BEIJING, Oct. 28 (Xinhua) -- When Ma Jun stood on the banks of the mighty and yet polluted Yangtze River in 1994, he had vague idea that one day he would devote himself to a Mission Impossible: saving China's dying rivers.
Named as one of 100 Most Influential Persons of 2006 by Time magazine, Ma has spared no efforts to raise public participation in environmental protection. Backing him up is a brand-new information platform linking government, businesses and ordinary people.
Born in 1968, Ma often recalls the "good old days" of his childhood by the Jin'gouhe River, or Golden Hook River, a major source of water for Beijing residents. "The water glistened with swarms of fish," he remembers. With his friends, it was where Ma learned to swim.
On summer nights, Ma liked to go out to observe insects in the dim lamplight along the street. "Beijing was much smaller then, and surrounded by undeveloped farmland."
But, the Jin'gouhe River had smelt foul by the late of 1970s when the country's economic reform and opening-up started. And, Masays, "the water quality of the river was rated Category V, meaning not drinkable, by China's national standards."
"Many rivers in Beijing have lost their functions, except as outlets for waste water discharged by factories or households. Some of them simply dry up, for good. "
By the time Ma Jun graduated from university in 1993 and went to work for a media, his anxiety had been further aggravated by visits to the Yangtze River, the most important lifeline for people living in the south of China, whose ecology was deteriorating.
"The rushing waters reminded me of the poem by Chinese poet Du Fu of the Tang Dynasty -- Falls boundlessly wooden whinny, endless Yangtze River is billowing, but what I saw in the deep of the mountains was rampant deforestation, soil erosion and damage to the environment. The locals said what they owned were just messy patches. "
Nationwide, nearly all China's rivers and lakes were suffering growing pollution. Take the Dongtinghu for example. Once the country's largest freshwater lake, Dongtinghu had dwindled substantially in volume and area. The Fenhe River in north China's Shanxi Province was threatening local people's health due to heavy industrial pollution.
In the face of water shortages, China's governments investigated different options, but engineering took the upper hand, culminating in the construction of reservoirs and large dams in southwest China and projects to divert river from south to north.
Ma, however, questioned their feasibility, as these measures failed to take into account ecological questions.
"The water issue concerns the formulation and implementation of public policy, and influences the public interest to a great extent. But it was restricted to professional circles and very few people had idea of what it means."
Ma turned his observations into a book named China Water Crisis, which has been compared to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. This was China's first major book putting its environmental crisis under the microscope.
In the book, Ma analyzed problems with the seven basins in China and expressed his concern: "If the policy-makers do not approach water treatment from the basics of environmental protection and sustainable development, many regions in China will be stricken by water crises in the near future."
His concern is echoed by the reality: more than 60 percent of China's fresh water is contaminated and more than half of major cities fall below the country's modest air quality standards.
Unsatisfied by merely pointing out problems as a journalist, Ma continued thinking about remedies for China's water crisis, further developed during a stay with an international environmental consulting company and tenure as visiting scholar for a year at Yale University.
"I came to realize the power of the market in its disciplining role over the company performance, which might be applied to environmental protection.
"What should be concomitant is the widespread participation of citizens, without whom the process can hardly be meaningful or effective."
Ma transformed his thoughts into actions.
Soon after returning to China in 2006, he set up an NGO, the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) and launched the China Water Pollution Map followed by the China Air Pollution Map, providing searchable databases though which the public could access thousands of environmental quality data and factory-based infraction records released by various government agencies, including the Ministry of Environmental Protection and its subordinate agencies across the country.
"We aim to promote dialogue engaging enterprises, governments and the general public through our information platform," Ma says.
The Chinese government's Measures for the Disclosure of Environmental Information, released in May 2008, bolstered Ma's confidence. Starting from 2,500 records, the two databases have proliferated to include 49,000 records at the end of August, involving about 30,000 domestic and foreign companies, which have been warned or penalized by governments for their violations of environmental rules.
"In the past, it was hard for the public to access these documents, but they now do thanks to our platform, and can exert pressure on companies to comply with the rules," says Ma.
A recent case involved the shoe-maker giant Timberland.
Since 2004 residents in Shanghai's Baoshan district repeatedly complained to the city government about the "foul odor" emitted by Shanghai Richina Factory, which had been targeted by pollution watchdogs for exceeding emissions limits. The factory, however, seemed to be blind and deaf to the locals' petitions
Ma discovered the Shanghai factory stood out because it was the only one to have breached regulations six years in a row. "We then found that this factory was listed as one of Timberland's suppliers."
In collaboration with the Friends of Nature, an influential NGO on environmental protection, Ma wrote a letter to Timberland's chief executive Jeffrey Swartz in mid-July after the two groups had failed to get a response from the factory.
Then, the HK-based South China Morning Post newspaper carried a story based on Ma's database records and made public Richina's performance. Ultimately, the report drew the attention of Timberland, which ordered Richina to desist from substandard behavior.
In a letter to the Friends of Nature and IPE, the CEO of Richina said his company planned to conduct third party audits. "We are reaching out to the community and neighborhood groups. Part of this process will be an open house event for the community, local residences and other interested parties."
Ma believes the handling of the Richina case showed a shift from "management" to "governance" in the arena of environmental protection. In the old days, environmental management was a sheer work of the government and many companies would rather pay limited penalty fines year after year rather than resolving their pollution problems.
"The advent of information like the Water Pollution Map and Air Pollution Map is changing the pattern as it touches upon different stakeholders because of its accessibility, " Ma says.
The Shanghai case also illustrates what Ma defines as a Green Choice Alliance (GCA) for Responsible Supply in China Management Program, with the ultimate target of better environmental management by companies.
"It aims to curb environmental pollution in China's manufacturing hubs by integrating transparency and stakeholder participation in the existing supply chain management system. "
Tapping into IPE's database of specific citations of companies violating emissions standards and other environmental rules in China, corporate users can use the search engine of the database to compare their list of suppliers with IPE's list of violators, Ma says.
Some multi-national companies, including General Electric (GE) and Wal-Mart, are already using the databases to monitor sourcing practices in China. This extends to thousands of suppliers.
Up until now, more than 130 companies have approached Ma's institute, explaining what went wrong and how they planned to fix the problems. Many hoped to be removed from the list by the introduction of third-party audits of their improved performance.
Ma and his colleagues are also reaching out to governments. Earlier this year, they developed a Pollution Information Transparency Index (PITI) evaluating 113 environmental protection bureaus' performances across China. On top of the list was Ningbo, a medium-sized city in eastern China. Beijing took the 16th ranking.
Ma believes China's NGOs should build credibility on reason and hard evidence. "When they (NGOs) were born in the early 1990s, they made great contributions by letting their environmental voice heard, regardless of being emotional or not. But when we are entitled to the right to speak with the advancement of China's civil society, we must get down to solid science."
"I'm here for the long run," Ma says, looking into a sky enveloped by haze.