Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The River Runs Black

I am back in Hong Kong after visiting the major cities of the Pearl River Delta: Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Foshan, Zhuhai and Macau.  To my great surprise, it was sunny today!  China, to my friend Jan Curry, is mostly black and white, since the smog almost never permits colors to shine through.  But today in Hong Kong it’s pretty clear by local standards.
During my travels, I finished a wonderful book about China, the longing for freedom, and the burden of water pollution on this great country.  I wish you all could read it, but it’s a must for students looking to understand the world’s largest country and the challenges it faces in the next two decades:
“The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future” by Elizabeth C. Economy; Cornell University Press.  Find it here.
To whet your appetite, here’s an excerpt from the author’s concluding chapter:
The River Runs Black…
China’s leaders face a daunting task. With one-quarter of the world’s population, centuries of grand-scale campaigns to transform the natural environment for man’s benefit, intensive and unfettered economic development, and – most recently – its entry into the global economy, China has laid waste to its resources.
The results are evident everywhere. Water scarcity is an increasingly prevalent problem. Over one-quarter of China’s land is now desert. China has lost twice as much forested land over the centuries as it now possesses. And air quality in many major cities ranks among the worst in the world.
Of equal, if not greater, concern than the immediate environmental costs of China’s economic development practices, however, are the mounting social, political, and economic problems that this clash between economic development and environment has engendered.   China’s leaders must also now contend with growing public health problems. Rising rates of cancer, birth defects and other pollution-related illnesses have been documented throughout the country. The public health crisis also contributes to growing numbers of protests, some peaceful and some violent, as the government, either through corruption, incompetence or lack of capacity, proved incapable of taking appropriate action to address the people’s concerns.
Pollution – straining China’s economic boom
The economic costs of China’s environmental degradation are rising sharply. Most immediately, poor air and water quality have direct costs in terms of crop loss, missed days of work from respiratory disease and factory shutdowns from lack of water.
Much of China's surface water is now hopelessly fouled
Even greater challenges are on the horizon. Several of China’s major river systems are running dry in places, necessitating huge and costly river diversion schemes. Much of China’s north is under increasing threat of desertification, prompting vast afforestation schemes, with only mixed results. 
These depleted land and water resources, coupled with the river diversions will contribute to migration on the scale of tens of millions over the next decades. While this will relieve population pressure on some of China’s most overgrazed and intensively farmed land, it will increase the strain on many urban areas. Chinese officials are greatly concerned about the growing water demand by China’s wealthier, urbanized citizens.

The folly of mass “campaigns”
Already cities such as Shanghai are experiencing significant stress to their sanitation and waste systems, as well as difficulty in gaining access to natural resources, such as water.
At the same time, as the reforms have exacerbated old (as well as introduced new) environmental challenges, they have not managed to break free of other aspects of China’s environmental legacy. Particularly damaging has been Beijing’s continued reliance on campaigns to address vast, often complex environmental problems.
History has demonstrated repeatedly that the challenges of deforestation, pollution and scarcity of natural resources are poorly addressed by grand-scale campaigns that attend little to the complex social, economic and environmental/scientific issues that underpin these challenges.
Moreover, even as China assumes a leadership position in the global economy and the international community, its leaders struggle to move beyond traditional notions of security that contribute to large-scale development programs with potentially highly deleterious environmental consequences, such as the grain self-reliance and “Go West” campaigns.
Weak environmental protection
China’s post-Mao leaders have developed a far more institutional system of governance, with a codified system of laws. This is a critical step forward for environmental protection.
Still, by most measures, the central environmental protection bureaucracy in China remains weak. With roughly five times the population of the United States, China possesses a central environmental protection bureaucracy only one-twentieth as large. 
Central government funding for environmental protection – while increasing steadily over the course of the reform period – is still well under the level that Chinese experts claim is necessary to prevent further deterioration. China’s weak enforcement of its own environmental protection laws also undermines the potential environmental advantages of foreign direct investment.
Pressure to cut costs
Many multinationals complain that despite their best efforts, local officials and enterprise managers prefer not to use the pollution control technologies they provide in order to decrease the costs of operating the plants. Or, in other instances, foreign firms simply cannot compete against domestic firms that do not abide by the country’s environmental regulations.
Fearing broad social change
The Chinese government is wary of the potential for NGOs and the media to move beyond issues of local enforcement to criticize central government policy or potentially serve as a force for broader social change. The environment may serve as a locus for broader political discontent and calls for political reform, as it has in other countries.
End of excerpt.
For Americans, China is hugely important.  Whatever your opinions of this enormous rival, they are our partners -- for good or ill -- in leading the world's ecological future.  We might as well get used to it.  The U.S. and China are joined at the hip in the fight to save -- or destroy -- our Father's world.  Why not buy the book for yourself? 
Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.
J. Elwood

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