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Seeing the future in Yunnan

The inadequacy of efforts to address water pollution in south-west China exposes failures of imagination and foresight among policy-makers, argues Zhou Lei.

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China’s National Audit Office (NAO) recently published a report on the last seven years of efforts to deal with pollution in the Liao, Hai and Huai rivers and the Tai, Chao and Dianchi lakes, known collectively as the “three rivers and three lakes”. According to the report, 91 billion yuan (US$13.3 billion) in government investment and bank loans was spent between 2001 and 2007 on 8,201 separate water-pollution projects, including environmental infrastructure in urban areas in the river and lake basins, ecological construction and general improvements. Yet the water quality remains very poor.

Almost 100 billion yuan were spent and 515 million yuan (US$75 million) were wasted on false reports and embezzlement. The ecological crisis, the public suffering and the constantly changing plans for megacities along these rivers and lakes all make one fear for the future of China’s environment and its cities.

I started researching the pollution of Dianchi Lake, in Yunnan province, as an investigative journalist and later completed a doctoral thesis on the matter, looking at the lake from an ecological and anthropological perspective. I focus on the paradoxes and conceptual risks at the heart of how China handles the ecological crisis – in particular, the costs of foresight. The German sociologist Ulrich Beck was the first to propose the concept of the risk society, where decisions increasingly produce unforeseen future hazards. These hazards proliferate and can eventually overwhelm safety systems. A nation may fall into crisis due to a loss of foresight.

The NAO said that management of the rivers and lakes had failed because of inadequacies in these areas: environmental examination and approval; environmental compensation; water pollution statistics; assessment indices; implementation of pollution control plans; enforcement of environmental law; and treatment of urban waste-water. It also pointed to a lack of environmental concern in economic development zones.

But none of these are the crux of the issue. Faced with an unprecedented environmental crisis, the real danger arises from a contradiction between awareness and systems. The systems that exist for managing and investing in the environment perpetuate the pollution.

For instance, the authorities in charge of Dianchi Lake decided to bring water in from the Jinsha River to help control pollution in the lake and water shortages in the city of Kunming. By 2010, Kunming’s population will reach nearly 3.5 million, by 2020 almost five million; the urban area will expand from 201.5 to 470 square kilometres. Meanwhile, Yunnan’s government is working on creating a megacity, one part of which is the idea of a third land bridge between Asia and Europe. This “bridge” would run from China’s eastern port city of Shenzhen, through Kunming to Burma, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey. It would end up in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, after passing through 21 different cities – a distance of around 15,000 kilometres (3,000 kilometres shorter than the sea route).

Yunnan – a water-poor, inland province, with a rich yet fragile ecology – has not yet developed an effective or intelligent environmental management system. Nor have policy-makers thought about how to create sustainable cities for the province, preferring to simply propose expansion. Hence long-term plans about land bridges and megacities are unpersuasive.

In dealing with pollution, solving social issues created by urbanisation and searching for sustainable modes of development, there is still a tendency to focus on technological fixes. But these do not clarify our plans for the future of cities or necessarily make them more scientific or advanced – in fact, they often continue to create problems.

This lack of foresight means that many areas in need of assistance have become host to manoeuvring by various power groups. There is a tendency to ignore future dangers and confuse their relationships to current pollution problems. In many cases of dealing with pollution, the influence of power is becoming more complex, and the allocation of resources and interests is changing.

A large-scale plan to build a city and scenic area surrounding Dianchi Lake is already underway. Historic villages and semi-urban areas are being flattened. Under that kind of “long-term” guidance, both natural and social sciences need to provide research and analysis. The combination of technology and power in urbanisation will no doubt lead to controversial projects, such as waste incineration, the transportation of water and the construction of clusters of cities.

Dianchi Lake has been given many names through history, from the “Pearl of the Plateau”, to the “Sick Lake” and the “Geneva of the East”. The question is: which one will prove true in the future?


Zhou Lei is a postgraduate anthropology student at Yunnan University and Chevening Scholar at the London School of Economics.

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

云南的森林可持续性不足

政策制定者对地方少数民族的利益关心不足,同时也似乎确保不了云南现存森林的可持续性管理。

相反,在一些地方,树木要么被一些公司砍伐,要么被低矮的换季植被取代。

Lack of sustainability in Yunnan's forests

Policy makers - who tend not to reflect the interests of the region's ethnic minorities - seem also not to have thought about how to ensure that Yunnan's existing forests are managed sustainably.

Instead, in several locations, they are being chopped down by or on behalf of offshore companies, sometimes to be replaced by short rotation plantations.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

金光集团在云南和海南

很想对金光集团用人工林替代天然林的事情有个全面的认识,看了不少文章但总觉得不得其门而入,忧郁。

Sinar Mas Group in Yunnan and Hainan

I want to have a comprehensive view on the fact that Sinar Mas Group replaced the natural forests with artificial ones. I have read quite a lot of articles but unfortunately still feel confused. :(

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

破除污染需要训练有素的战士

周雷的直率报道值得嘉奖。解决环境迅速退化的过程中存在一个全球性的普遍错误,即区域机构互相孤立的处理问题。土壤、水、植被,大气是国家和人民一切商品的基准资产。有21个造成水质污染的直接原因,增加“淡水”显然不是最终答案。这些年,我在中国任职外国专家顾问,一些地区水污染的状况远比肉眼看到的严重。现在关键的是,我们需要把环境恶化看成一场战争,按季度的制定策略,对抗入侵我们心腹和民心的敌人。我们需要训练有素的战士,在敌人扩展势力、扩大冲突、与其他敌人(就称他们为污染者吧)连同作战之前把他们揪住。防卫训练并不难,而且是低风险高回报的。

见Robert Vincin C4谷歌

Reversing pollution needs trained fighters

Zhou Lei is to be congratulated for forthright open reporting. The global mistake in addressing the rapid environmental degradation is regional bodies look at each issue in isolation. Soil-Water-Vegetation-Atmosphere are the baseline assets of Nations and mankind all else commodities! There are 21 direct causes of water pollution adding more "fresh water" is not the answer. In my years here in PRC as Foreign Expert adviser I have viewed regions where the cause can be 300k+ away from the visible water decay! What is now critical is that if we saw environmental decay as war we would meet the enemy in each quarter with specific tools the stop the enemy reaching the heart of the nation lose of our people. We would have skilled trained fighters capable of spotting the enemy before it could expand move forward to mass with other enemies (lets call them pollutants) and inflict mass damage. The defense training is not hard in fact risks are low rewards high. See Robert Vincin C4 Google

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

中国的水污染地图

推荐“公众与环境研究中心”的水污染地图http://www.ipe.org.cn/

A map of China's water pollution

I recommend the water pollution map by the 'Public and Environmental Research Centre'
http://www.ipe.org.cn/