China Environmental News Digest

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Thursday, April 01, 2010

An Environmentalist's View on China's Drought

As China's worst drought in a century wreaks havoc across southwestern China, one of Beijing's leading environmentalists arrived in Hong Kong to push for stronger rules forcing listed companies to be more transparent about industrial emissions and their environmental track records.

Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs, a Beijing-based domestic non-governmental organization focused on water pollution, said the drought was the starkest reminder yet that China is pushing its resources to the limit — with major repercussions for China's environment and economy.

Below are edited excerpts from an interview Wednesday:

WSJ: What's your understanding of the primary cause of this drought?

Ma Jun: Since September, there hasn't been much rainfall. That's the primary and direct cause, but behind that are some factors that exacerbate that.

One is logging, deforestation and general eco-degradation in that region. That's weakened the ecological capability to regulate water. In recent years, many eucalyptus, rubber trees and other non-local species — what we call "economic trees" — have been planted by paper mills in much of southwestern China. Monsoons and droughts are not unusual, but forests can hold some of that excess water and release it in the dry season. Right now, that has been very much weakened.

Another problem is water pollution in the region. Lakes have been polluted, so the water is no longer good for drinking or irrigation.

Recently, large hydropower projects and mining activities in the region have all worsened the problem. We really need to prevent overexploitation of our resources. And I do want to call attention to the fact that the Chinese government has suspended building 13 cascade dams on the Nu River, which flows into Thailand and Burma as the Salween River.

This drought is the worst in a century, and it's another demonstration that our water supply system is on a very tight balance.

WSJ: The government has already expressed its concern about this. What should the government be doing?

Ma Jun: Premier Wen Jiabao has been trying to make sure that people have drinking water, which is the most important. Water is being shipped in from the big cities to help. But this is only short-term emergency relief. In the long term, we need better water protection.

WSJ: Do we know how long this drought could last?

Ma Jun: The region has started to get moderate rainfall, so it's already being alleviated at the moment. With the rainy season on the way, hopefully the drought will be relieved.

– Jonathan Cheng

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