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Fighting pollution on the Pearl River

A unique agreement in south China could have provided a model for cooperation between provinces, writes Reut Barak. But institutional issues have impeded joint action.

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China’s rapid economic growth has brought not only a rise in living standards, but also serious environmental pollution, which has continued despite greater central government funding for environmental protection and the promotion of the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) to the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP). It is estimated that more than 80% of China’s coastal water and about 70% of its rivers and lakes are polluted with industrial waste, raw sewage and agricultural run-off. The core reasons for this are institutional, relating to the incentive structure for local government officials and the limited powers and independence of the MEP.

However in 2004, a group of 11 provinces and administrative regions along the Pearl River Basin, in southern China, joined together in a unique, bottom-up initiative. Members of the Pan-Pearl River Delta (PPRD) declared their willingness to cooperate in water pollution abatement and sustainable development. This suggested a new path for environmental resource management in China. But five years on, did this approach really represent a new horizon for managing transboundary rivers in China? Or did institutional issues still constrain the project?

The Pearl River Basin covers one-fifth of China’s area, contains one-third of its population and produces 40% of its GDP. The PPRD comprises the provinces and administrative regions of Guangdong, Guangxi, Yunnan, Sichuan, Guizhou, Hunan, Jiangxi, Fujian, Hainan, Hong Kong and Macao. Since 2004, these provinces and regions have taken part in mutual investment, industrial transfer, labour mobility projects and trade promotion, activities that have successfully promoted economic growth in the region (see Figure 1). 

Source: National Bureau of Statistics

Although not severely polluted when compared with some of the other river basins in China, pollution in the Pearl River will grow with further industrial transfer and investment, which is directed towards the poorer, upstream provinces of the Pearl River (Guizhou, Guangxi, Yunnan and Jiangxi).

Guangdong province is the main victim of this pollution: in 2004, around half of the pollution in the river originated from outside Guangdong province, which is not only downstream, but is also obliged by prior agreement to transfer clean water to Hong Kong and Macao. Therefore, Guangdong initiated the PPRD. There have been some impressive results in terms of joint environmental education and awareness-raising projects, but there has still not been any successful environmental cooperation in terms of joint, active steps to reduce or abate water pollution along the river. To understand the complexity of this situation, we must consider the institutional structure in which local governments and environmental protection bureaus (EPBs) operate.

China’s government has a multi-levelled structure, with the central government in Beijing as the highest level in the chain of command. Every office has an assigned bureaucratic rank, which determines its decision-making and bargaining powers. Each government official is appointed and promoted by an official higher in the command structure and is thus accountable mainly to that person. Provincial governments hold the same bureaucratic rank as central ministries. Thus, they cannot force one another to act.

Central government evaluates and promotes local government officials according to their ability to show a high level of economic growth in the area under their jurisdiction. Thus, local government officials are often unwilling to invest in environmental protection projects, which may conflict with advancing growth. (Either in terms of shutting down polluting enterprises, or diverting resources towards sustaining the environment). China’s upward-accountability governance system also means that public pressure from below rarely forces local government officials to protect the environment or safeguard public health.

The process of decentralisation that accompanied economic reform over the past three decades has reduced the central government’s ability to enforce the implementation of its policies at the local level. Policies aimed at environmental protection are especially prone to poor implementation, as local officials focus on economic growth. One indication of this problem is that compliance with central government requirements on treatment of domestic waste-water is less than 20% in most of China’s cities.

The MEP is responsible for the protection of the natural environment in China, but it is weak, with limited funding and staff. Most importantly, the local branches of the MEP, the EPBs, depend on local governments for funding. Therefore, when local governments are not willing to invest in environmental protection, the work of the EPBs can be severely constrained.

Moreover, China’s process of decentralisation has created fierce competition between localities for resources, investment and market shares of products. Hence, they have great difficulty in managing shared resources. The central government has not been able to compel localities to act jointly. Although 86% of the Chinese population reside by and depend on transboundary rivers, such as the Pearl River, there is little sustainable management of these water resources.

Looking at China’s institutional structure, it is clear that there are many factors that reduce local government incentives to invest in environmental protection. However, the PPRD is an organisation of localities that aims to act together to control water pollution. How can this be explained?

Existing economic interdependencies between the provinces and their platform of cooperation – the PPRD economic development agreement – have allowed the promotion of cooperation in environmental protection in the region. But why has this cooperation not yielded active joint action to fight water pollution? I suggest that the main reasons for this limited cooperation are: the dependence of the EPBs on funding from local governments; the unwillingness of local governments of poorer upstream provinces to invest in joint efforts to reduce pollution; the inability of Guangdong province to oblige upstream provinces to act, because of the hierarchical rank structure of the respective governments; the unwillingness of Guangdong, though a rich province, to bear the burden of the costs of regional cooperation; and the efforts of Guangdong, as well as other provinces, to shift the responsibility for funding on to the central government.

Thus, the existing governance structure in China limits even this bottom-up initiative for environmental cooperation. It is also unlikely that this structure will be significantly reformed in the near future, since the central government continues to focus on strengthening its central power. However, under the existing structure there are some steps which could be taken to promote environmental cooperation and improve sustainable management of environmental resources in China.

First, environmental protection efforts should be included in the evaluation of local government officials, to enhance their incentives to invest in environmental protection programmes. Second, the independence of the MEP and EPBs should be strengthened through direct funding of their operations, in order to help them act independently of local governments and enhance their enforcement of regulations on environmental protection across China. Finally, the central government could improve the incentives of provinces and localities to participate in cooperative mechanisms, such as the PPRD. The central government could provide support both in clear administrative recognition of such mechanisms – and in financial assistance when it is needed.

Reut Barak ([email protected]) is a PhD candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. 

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匿名 | Anonymous





Some ideas

Central government and local governments,more developed provinces and less developed provinces,environment protection agency and other related departments, all above mentioned have their own considerations but also they individually have their own hardship.Those are reasons,discovered by the author of this article after his objective analysis of the hardship facing the environmental protection in the Pan-Zhujing Delta Area,thereupon,is the common situation that China's environmental protection course faces.The cause of developing economy while protecting the environment itself is a challenging mission. With regard to transitional China ,its reform of economy and politics as well as the transformation of people's concept are not to be realized just by big talk.At present, people's increasing environmental consciousness as well as their life quality awareness stimulate them to oppose the way that we develop economy to the expense of environment.Ordinary people's participation in environmental protection will make huge contributions and it will turn out to be pleasurable tasks.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Conflict between upstream and downstream

The upstream places introduce industrial projects to prop up economic development, e.g.chemical plant,paper mill,while Guangdong,the rich downstream province,need Pearl River water with a good quality. One reason for pollution control plight of the Pearl River is the failure to coordinate the concern between upstream and downstream,as well as the absent of integrated planning of Pearl River development.

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匿名 | Anonymous


Walter Parham( [email protected]

First things first

In order to include environmental protection efforts in the evaluation of local government officials it would be necessary first to quantify the desired environmental accomplishments expected for each local official. Unless an official were given an explicit, quantifiable goal with a well-defined time frame at the start of his/her work there would be no way to measure his/her effectiveness. Measuring economic growth is a much simpler process and easier to quantify. For example, an official might be given the charge “to increase factory profits by one percent over one year.” Without an official having a specific, quantifiable, stated goal at the start it would be impossible to measure the accomplishments of that individual even though he/she may possess appropriate environmental skills and knowledge. To measure environmental services that provide humans with clean water, air, and food is complex and not an easy process in any event, but establishing a quantifiable goal comes first.
Walter Parham; [email protected]

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匿名 | Anonymous





The disastrous consequences of ignoring human rights

The environmental crisis is one of the primary global issues faced in modern societal development. It is forcing humankind's survival and development to face a serious challenge and threat. The Declaration on the Human Environment passed by the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment states: "Both aspects of man's environment, the natural and the man-made, are essential to his well-being and the enjoyment of basic human rights, the right to life itself."

Respecting and protecting human rights is inseparable from a certain social and international environment, and it is particularly inseparable from a specific natural ecological environment, because any activity, career, or behavior relating to respecting and protecting human rights can only happen in a certain natural ecological environment. Therefore, creating a natural ecological environment of respecting and protecting human rights is the collective responsibility of human society. Besides, the natural rights enjoyed by humans are a kind of natural (innate) right bestowed at birth; they cannot be taken away.

Respecting and protecting human rights is the greatest topic for peace and development in the 21st century, and an eternal pursuit of human values.

In a harmonious society, the country must treat "respecting and protecting human rights" as its soul, as a guide for society. It must be a society in which the people's survival rights, development rights, health rights and environmental rights all receive complete respect and protection.

The degree to which a society is civilized is not only determined by its economic achievements, more importantly it is determined by the degree of its emphasis on and respect of human rights. Therefore, the respect and protection of human rights must be implemented at every level of life in society, including the aspect of the natural ecological environment, thus allowing every citizen to live with dignity, freedom, and happiness.

Humans live in the larger environment of the universe and society; their physical and psychological wellness, their overall development, are inevitably closely linked to the environment. Some experts maintain that it is now known that aside from the approximately 20% of diseases that are purely hereditary, about 80% of diseases are caused by a combination of environmental and physical hereditary factors.

For a period of time, in some places and departments, due to a lack of the necessary emphasis on environmental issues, have mistakenly understood development as purely development of production capacity of material goods. Thus, from the urging of profit and "political achievements", they unapologetically sacrifice and destroy the environment to pursue a higher GDP. In their one-sided view, environmental pollution can be fixed; they absolutely do not understand that complex ecological environments have been destroyed, and cannot all be saved by technological measures. They are irreplaceable. In some fields, the pursuit of profit has taken precedence over protection of the people's right to survival and development.

The relationship between human development and the future is essentially the relationship between human development and the environment. The history of respect for and protection of human rights is also the history of the interrelationship between humans and the environment. The earth is the cradle of all life, and society is the system of our lives, so "respecting and protecting human rights" is a value system. Humankind's overall development - the fate of the future path of the respect and protection of human rights and the system of life in society will be determined by the harmonious relationship between man and nature. This is the basic implication of "respecting and protecting human rights" and the values it expresses.

Translated by Tiffany Gray