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Tackling China’s water crisis online

Ma Jun captured headlines by launching an unprecedented online survey of water pollution in China. In an interview with Naomi Li, Ma talks about the project’s development and hopes for the future.
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Naomi Li: The IPE website looks like a daring project. You map out levels of water pollution in various parts of China, and even name companies whose pollution discharges exceed statutory levels. What made you embark on this project?

Ma Jun: Water pollution is the most serious environmental issue facing China. It has a huge impact on people’s health and economic development. That is why we have begun to build this database. To protect water resources, we need to encourage public participation and strengthen law enforcement. In some places, polluting factories and companies are being protected by local governments and officials. The public need to take part in water monitoring and management if the situation is to improve. The first step to get the involvement of the public is to inform them.

NL: Please explain the water crisis in contemporary China.

MJ: China is facing a water crisis that includes water shortages, water pollution and a deterioration in water quality. 400 out of 600 cities in China are facing water shortages to varying degrees, including 30 out of the 32 largest cities. In the north, due to the drying up of the surface water, the underground water has been over-extracted. The situation is not sustainable. Though the south has abundant water, there is a lack of clean water due to serious water pollution. Even water-abundant deltas like the Yangtze and the Pearl River suffer from water shortages. Water pollution and shortages are negatively intertwined. Water pollution can not be diluted for lack of clean water; and yet more emissions of pollutants into the water damage the already limited amount of clean water. Now water pollution has started to affect people’s health. We have some figures to demonstrate that discharges of waste water have increased continually over the past five years. 70% of the rivers we have monitored have been polluted at various levels; 90% of the shallow aquifer in urban underground water has been polluted. According to statistics, 300 million peasants’ drinking water is not safe; water quality in one fifth of the main cities is not up to standard. Discharges of toxic and harmful chemicals into the sea are absorbed by marine organisms, and as a result our health is affected through the food chain.

NL: How do you collect your data?

MJ: China has passed several laws on information disclosure in the past few years. Our figures mostly come from government agencies such as environmental protection agencies, and we also use information from other sources such as water conservation agencies, sea monitoring and construction agencies. Some information is from the media, particularly in relation to the 2500 companies that have been named. The figures will be updated regularly. Some localities issue annual reports while others have half-yearly reports. We will renew the figures accordingly. As per figures on sources of pollution, we will keep them up to date and fill in any information that will be reported by media.

NL: What do you expect the benefit to be of putting it together in one place?

MJ: Though a lot of the figures collected on our website have been publicised by government agencies, they are scattering around in various places and not easily accessible to people. We collated and put them together in order to present a clear and comprehensive picture to the public.


NL: Are there plans to produce a version in any other language? English for instance?

MJ: The website’s front page has been translated into English, as well as the rankings. But most content is not yet available in English due to the huge work and cost it might entail.

NL: There are 2,500 offending companies named on your website?

MJ: Yes. I hope those companies we have named will view this in a positive way. Of course, we are not an anti-business organisation. But I think that in a healthy market environment, companies should carry out their social and environmental responsibilities. If they take their corporate social responsibilities seriously, they will be able to gain understanding and trust from the communities in which they operate.

But the premise is that companies should feel some force of pressure from the public. Up to now, companies haven’t felt much pressure from the public regarding their environmental performance. A lot of them still believe they can just close their doors and shut their ears to concerns from the public. This is convenient, cost-saving and trouble-free. But the situation is changing, as the public’s concern for the environment grows, I hope those companies with vision would take the initiative to communicate with the communities in which they operate. I hope we can get to the position where, one day, companies will explain to the public what toxic and harmful chemicals they use in their operations, and what measures are being taken to combat their harmful effects, as well as the necessary preparations to minimise damage if an incident occurs.

We notice that in the west, if companies are serious about their social responsibility, they will enjoy an increase in the value of their brand name. I hope Chinese companies will gradually learn this trick. Most of the companies listed are Chinese owned, however, there is no lack of multi-national companies too. I feel some regret that these MNCs appear in this list, as they seem to have a good record internationally in terms of environmental issues. I hope they would take the lead, and stop discharging levels of pollutants that exceed statutory limits. Shanghai has publicised a comprehensive list of offending companies, with over 1000 names, among which over 200 have something to do with water pollution. Over a dozen MNCs are included in the list, such as DuPont, several Japanese companies including Panasonic and KFC restaurants.

NL: Chinese environment laws stipulate legal sanctions against offending companies. Why does this not stop some companies from polluting?

MJ: Water issues present a dichotomy between development and environmental protection. The central government has adjusted some of its strategies and policies, but at a local level, officials still place too great an emphasis on economic development. As a result, local government officials offer protection to some so-called pillar industries - those companies that generate revenue for local economy. Such protection makes it difficult for the local environmental watchdogs and local courts to punish offending companies. So some local businesses are able to get away with their bad behaviour, and yet the people who are affected by the pollution have a very weak voice.

NL: What kind of co-operation do you have with other environmental organisations?

MJ: we combine the map with figures on our website, so it is visually easy to find the location of polluting sources and relevant figures and information. We need to investigate and then locate the polluting sources on the map. Pollution sources are spread all over china, so we need to work with local environmental organisations. Now we started to work with Green Home, an environmental NGO in Beijing in investigating sources of water pollution. According to some information revealed by Beijing government, we traced them to the suburbs of Beijing. Some companies and factories located in a industry park haven’t installed water treatment facilities, or some simply do not comply with the discharge rules. After our field trip, we then put this information onto our digital map. I hope people not only use digital map to locate where to eat and where to have fun, they will also use it to understand who is polluting our rivers.

NL: What is the role of the public in your project? If anyone wants to help how do they to get involved?  

MJ: China faces a huge water problem. It can’t be solved by giving an order by a single person, neither can it be achieved by one man’s efforts. It needs consensus from the whole society. Only if the whole society are mobilised that this problem can be resolved. We put this information together for the convenient reference and usage by the public, so they can refer to some figures in their efforts to monitor pollution. We went to give a speech at a journalists’ salon the other day. We were told by the audience about their individual action plans, some are in the initial stages, and some are in the implementation stages. We need to collate more information and employ technologies to consolidate the public efforts, and to explore solutions to the water problem.

Water problem is particularly worse in medium-size cities and countryside. Some NGO from such places want to join us. We also offer training and give speeches to them.

NL: How is this project funded and how many staff are working on it?

MJ: We started collecting data and building this website since May. We have four full-time staff and more than 10 part-time students who have helped us input data and do some mapping work. We gain some support from companies who specialise in data developing and digital map. We are also offered office space and equipment by a company. Apart from that, we receive some fund from a couple of companies who share our vision of environmental protection. We are also in the process of writing a few China water pollution reports and one of them will be completed by the end of this year. I hope there will be more and more support for environmental research in China.

The authors:

Ma Jun’s book China's Water Crisis (1999) was described in Time magazine’s “100 People Who Shape Our World” as China’s “first great environmental call to arms”. He is the director of Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, the organization that produces the China Water Pollution Map website, which was launched on September 14, 2006. He is also an environmental consultant with Sinosphere Corporation.

Naomi Li is a freelance writer based in London. She was recently involved in the production of a BBC television documentary on the environmental challenges facing China. 
 

 

 

 

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

与环保人士共勉!

我们的律师事务所叫做源清元律师事务所,这个名字并非受到某些启发,而是用起名软件加上我的生辰八字起的名字。
现在看起来也许冥冥中和环境保护有天然的联系。
我也是一名环保支持者,我们家的塑料袋至少重复利用一次,以至于卖菜的人都很难理解,但是当他们理解之后,没有不赞赏我的,可见中国的老百姓是绝对支持环保的。
我想,自然科学和社会科学有很大的不同,发现是一回事,但是操作、解决、应用和转化又是另一回事,特别要考虑中国的国情,这真是一个老生常谈的问题,我想表达的是:在中国,解决环境问题也是这样,我们并不是缺少法律,而是缺少执法权威和权力。
环境保护必须要用行政和法律手段,尽管我国的执法层面问题重重,但是我们还是要依靠它去解决,因为你不能够去用更激进的方式(比如西方的方式)来对抗。
在这个前提下,我想提供一个思路,为大家抛砖引玉:
在行政手段上,我们可以采取行政复议方式,或者采用听证方式;
对于行政复议结果不服的提出起诉,这就使管辖法院的级别提高了,容易引起公众和司法机关的重视。
这可能是任何一个人都可能想到的方式,但是选择什么样的案件、什么地区的案件、什么时间去复议和诉讼,却是一门学问。
你要找到容易造成影响的事件去突破,毕其功于一役,让社会上的公众习惯参与环保,你得让大家有一个参与的平台,最好提供一个导火索,并且集中力量突破一个环节。
你会失败一次,两次,三次……一百次,屡败屡战,越挫越勇,你就会感动大家,要知道,人都是有良心的,最起码是有良知的,不然为什么人们永远不会忘记精卫填海,愚公移山。
就象我们律师需要出名一样,因为你出了名,法官也会敬畏你,更不用说老百姓了,老百姓需要权威,权威有能力帮助他们。
我曾经代理很多业主打物业官司,基本上,再有钱的业主也是弱势群体,我曾经一度想放弃,但是有一个女业主感动了我,她说:“我知道不能赢,因为目前没有业主能打赢物业官司,但是我依然去努力,一审和二审都要坚持,为了给自己一个交待,为了增加一个声音的力量”。
在我感觉自己的精神要虚脱了的时候,是她支撑了我,现在的我如此坚强,真要感谢我所有的当事人。
人民一定会支持为人民服务的人,但是你要给他们一个方便,那就是行政和法律的手段。
曾经保险纠纷也是投保人必败,但是经过多年的斗争,情况已经有很大的改善,当然这里也有外国保险公司竞争的功劳,这个经验我们完全可以借鉴到环境保护事业上。
现在,物业纠纷已经引起人大的高度重视,国家调控房地产业又何尝不是在平衡业主和开发商的矛盾,当一个问题威胁到国家经济的时候,政府一定会干预的。
环境问题也是这样,况且中国还面临国际的压力。
政府一定要有一个突破口,一定在适当的时候树立典型案例,你要帮助政府去做。
如果我要是做这方面的工作,可能不但屡败屡战,还要遭受各种危险,可能出名,但是一定赔不少钱。但是,我还是愿意去做,因为环境是我们的母亲,我们应当象保护我们的母亲一样保护环境。
如果我在这个事业上滚打摸爬,一定伤痕累累,但是,中国的执法现状在各个领域都是这样的,见怪不怪,无怪可怪。我有十年的律师工作经验,我的神经我的心灵千锤百炼,削铁如泥。
让我直面惨淡的人生,让我直面淋漓的鲜血……
--与环保人士共勉。

Urge on environmentalists!

...I am a supporter of environmental protection. In my home, plastic bags are re-used at least once. As for the men who sell me food it was very hard for them to understand, but after understanding, there are none who don't praise me--it seems that China's ordinary people refuse to support environmental protection. I think that natural science and social science have a huge difference between them, discovering is one thing but implementing, solving, making use of, and transforming is something else, especially one must consider China's national conditions. This really is a problem of old platitudes. What I want to express is that, in China, solving environmental problems goes thus: we are certainly not lacking in laws, but in the authority to enforce the law....

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

环境法

我是觉得中国虽然有立法,但政府没有执法机构去实行。

environmental law

I have the impression that there is legislation in China but no execution.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

法律制裁

中国的环保法律规定了对违规企业的法律制裁,但为什么阻止不了企业对环境的污染?

Legal Sanctions

Chinese environment laws stipulate legal sanctions against offending companies. Why does this not stop some companies from polluting?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

法规问题

凭借我在水及废水处理领域20多年的工作经历,我不得不承认这个问题确实令人担忧。在美国,我们认为有3个州在这个问题上扮演着“先锋”角色,新泽西州、马赛诸塞州和加州是最不容易获得运营基础设施资质的州,并且这三个州的法规比联邦环保局的更加严格。专业人员和公众组织都认为这种选择机制是一种具有优势的机制,它能够导向公众环境意识的提高和更多人对环保要求的接受。

Regulatory Issues

Being activley involved with water and wastewater for over 20 years, I must say this issue is extremely alarming. In the USA, there are 3 States that we consider "pioneers' when it comes to regulatory issues. New Jersey, Mass. and Califirnia are the three hardest to gain CERTIFICATION to operate and maintain a facility. Additionally,these states have MORE stringent regulations than the Federal EPA. This is a selective progress that is seen by both the professional and public entities as an advantageous mechanism toward environmental awareness and acceptance.

David W. Lodge CEO
Blue Water Inc.
[email protected]

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

可恢复水质的人工降雨

人工降雨可恢复水

在美国,专家建议可通过建立水库储存枯水期的雨水来提高低流量地区的流量。同样地,人工降雨可增加径流和有助提高水质。工业部门因排污而污染河流,所以它们有义务来资助一共同机构来实施人工降雨,在特殊的水库中储水以便把这些水放入河流来稀释河中污染来保持水质。

来自印度的教授T.Shivaji Rao.M.S.

Cloud seeding helps to restore water quality

In the US, experts suggest augmenting low-flow areas by constructing reservoirs behind dams to store rainwater for utilisation during low flow periods in the rivers that receive industrial and municipal waste waters. Similarly, cloud seeding can augment the flow in rivers and help promote better water quality. Since industries are causing pollution by discharging effluent, it is their duty to fund a common agency that can conduct cloud-seeding operations and store the water in special reservoirs for subsequent release into the rivers so that the pollution load gets diluted, thus restoring the quality of flowing waters.

prof.T.Shivaji Rao.M.S.[Rice,Texas,1962]
Director,Environment centre,Gitam University.Visakhapatnam.India and Expert,cloud seeding project of A.P.state Government, Hyderabad.India