A series of pollution-related incidents has set alarm bells ringing, since enterprises are largely responsible for them. Two scholars tell us how such incidents can be prevented.
Real effort needed to save environment
A series of environmental disasters have hit Chinese recently. The Zijin mining company is under fire for toxic leaks into the Tingjiang River from its copper plant in Shanghang, Fujian province. Off the Dalian coast in Liaoning province, China National Petroleum Corporation (PetroChina is its listed arm) is scrambling to clean up an oil spill, caused by an explosion in its pipeline. In both cases, marine life is at risk, and the full economic costs have yet to be ascertained. While the cause of, and culpability for, the PetroChina pipeline explosion is unclear, there is no such doubt in the Zijin case.
Government officials have found Zijin was illegally discharging wastewater into the river, and detained some company officials. Earlier reports suggested Zijin might have to pay penalties and compensation of at least 5 million yuan ($738,000).
The real tragedy of the Zijin case is that it is far from unique. Dumping of wastewater illegally by factories is a common practice in China. The health of local communities and the livelihood of farmers and fishermen are under constant threat from companies that take environmental shortcuts.
According to Minister of Environmental Protection Zhou Shengxian, about 25 percent of China's drinking water sources pose a threat to people's health. Last year, a report by China Geological Survey, affiliated to the Ministry of Land and Resources, said 90 percent of the country's groundwater was polluted. China can ill afford to pollute its water, because two-thirds of Chinese cities face water shortages, and the groundwater levels in the country's coastal region are dropping by the year, causing land to sink, roads to crack and villages to relocate.
The country's environmental officials are well aware of the challenge. Vice-Minister of Environmental Protection Wu Xiaoqing said late last year: "Water pollution has become a bottleneck for economic development in China, and a key environmental issue that threatens people's health." With this in mind, officials are seeking ways to rein in the problem.
In 2008, the government revised the Water Pollution Control Law, raising the level of fines that could be imposed on negligent companies and individuals, as well as asserting the responsibility of provincial officials to meet anti-pollution targets such as reducing chemical oxygen demand. Some Chinese cities are raising water prices, too, to encourage conservation and recycling. These are important first steps, but they are not enough.
Effective environmental protection rests on a partnership among local environmental protection officials, NGOs, the media, the public in general and - under the best circumstances - companies that are motivated to avoid harming the environment. China has all the actors in place, but none of them is fully empowered to do the right thing. A few small reforms would make all the difference.
First, local environmental protection bureaus are often understaffed and their employees underpaid. Indeed, according to Zhou Shengxian, only about 25 percent of the country's more than 660 cities are even capable of monitoring water quality once a month to check for pollutants.
One way of enabling them to do so would be to place local environmental protection bureaus under the auspices of the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) rather than local governments. This would allow for more capacity building and the establishment of uniform training and standards throughout the country. This may help reduce corruption, too, which causes roughly half of environmental funds to be spent on other things. Of course, this would mean substantially increasing the government's environment budget, which at 1.3 percent of GDP is woefully small for the task at hand.
Second, a critical element of any environmental protection effort is a watchdog - independent actors committed to keeping business and government honest. Many countries rely on NGOs, the media and individual citizens to perform this function. China, too, has an increasingly vibrant environmental NGO sector and the media interested in environmental issues. But government regulations often make it difficult for them to find funding, expand their activities and operate freely. These watchdogs need independence of action, as well as legal protection to do their job well.
Finally, the legal system underpinning environmental protection remains a weak link in the country's environmental work. More environmental lawyers and trained judges, the ability of NGOs to bring class action lawsuits on behalf of multiple victims, and a greater degree of independence for the judiciary - freeing it of other parts of the government, for instance - would help build a more robust environmental protection system.
There is no silver bullet. Environmental disasters happen everywhere in the world, all the time. One need only look at the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of the United States, to see one of the worst environmental disasters of the decade.
Yet in China, Zijin is the norm, not the exception. The Chinese people want and deserve much better from those responsible.
The author is a senior fellow and director of Asia Studies, Council on Foreign Relations, an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank and publisher in the US.