Black rivers, grey skies – environmental issues in China

A factory along the Yangtze River in China. Photo: High Contrast, Wikimedia Commons.China’s rapid economic growth remains resilient, however, its environmental problems are mounting. As urbanisation and industrialisation have increased, the implications of Chinese pollution and resource use have also grown. Today, China has become a world leader in air and water pollution and economy and population are beginning to count the costs. It is thus affecting China’s sustainable development. Public concern about environmental issues has increased and it is to a greater extent publicly articulated. Particularly affected are the provinces and small villages of China which hardly profit from any environmental protection. Only a few defend themselves against deteriorating conditions, such as the villagers of Qiugang in Anhui province near the banks of the Huai River who fought successfully against the pollution in their area. But what about Chinese environmental policies in general, what are the problems and what progress is made?

“We will stand up and fight“, claimed the roughly 1,800 villagers of Qiugang, who are, among many other villages in the industrial heartland of China, victims of China’s ambitious economic growth. In 2004, chemical companies set up in the village to produce pesticides and dyes with hardly any pollution controls. The environmental consequences were unbearable: rivers turned black, wildlife was killed, grain was grown on polluted fields and the air was filled with foul fumes that made the residents ill. In 2007, the villagers, together with the NGO Green Anhui, stood up against this injustice and almost all of the villagers signed a petition for the national government. With the help of the media and the Chinese-American filmmaker Ruby Yang and her colleagues, who spent three years chronicling their fight, pressure was put on the local environmental protection bureau to act and on the Ministry of Environmental Protection in Beijing. Additionally they found out that the factories were breaking the law. According to the law, hazardous chemicals cannot be legally produced within 1,000 meters of residents in China. Their success came in 2008, when the factories were shut down and relocated to an industrial park several miles away. Three years later the Chinese government announced that they were to spend 200 million Yuan ($30 million) to clean up the Baojiagou River, a badly polluted waterway that is used by the villagers. 

Linfen in Shanxi province is the heart of China’s coal industry. It is also one of the most polluted areas. Photo: Sheilaz413, flickr.Like Qiugang, many regions in China present a picture of severe environmental damage. The struggle of the villagers described above is just a reflection of the obstacles faced by China’s many environmental campaigns. Since 1979, China has created over 100 nationwide environmental laws and regulations. However, they are only really enforced in key areas like the more developed east of the country and it is left to local officials who rarely respect the environmental mandates. Ecologically harmful industries are removed to the hinterland of the less developed West. The State Environmental Policy Agency (SEPA) was established in 1984 with subordinate authority on a provincial, district and municipal level. It is responsible for the implementation of governmental environmental policy and since 1998 has been ranked a national ministerial-level organization. Yet it is poorly staffed and the personal is often not sufficiently qualified. National and international Environmental Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have been tolerated since the beginning of 1990, but not yet legalized. They rarely act against the official policy. For a developing country, there is a considerable high level of investment in the environment and pollution control in China. The bulk of the investment goes to urban infrastructure. Nevertheless the actual spending is weak and the corruption and diversion of fees allows the polluters to continue polluting.

Beijing: air pollution due to a high amount of car usage. Photo: Australian Cowboy, Wikimedia Commons.The pressure of rapid industrial development, urban growth, the increased use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides has affected the surface water and groundwater quality since the 1980s. The direct impact of the pollution is damages to human health, fisheries, agriculture and forestry, the productivity of workers is lowered and natural resources are degraded. China is the world’s largest emitter of CO2 and SO2, thereby exacerbating the global climate change. The fundamental problems of Chinese air pollution are on the one hand China’s enormous dependence on coal for power generation, and on the other hand a high car usage in big cities as well as an increased frequency of sand and dust storms as a result of the growth of deserts by 52,000 square kilometres from 1994-99.

A significant downturn in economic growth, social unrest and fatal consequences for the climate change are results of environmental pollution. China’s environmental crisis is ubiquitous and is now seen by both the political leadership and the population as one of the key factors that could threaten China’s road to becoming a major economic and world power. Therefore, new ambitious environmental targets and greater levels of environmental investment are adopted in the twelfth Five-Year Plan. Nonetheless, China faces an enormous long-term challenge. More is required than setting targets and spending money. The difficult access to information hinders public participation and the success in Qiugang has been an exception so far. Whether the existing instruments of environmental policy can be used effectively in the future to make the use of the country’s resources more efficient and sustainable and whether there will be blue skies and clear water in all of China one day will be measured by the success of the announced reforms. 


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