Last month I received a letter from Yun Jianli, head of “Green Han River”, an environmental NGO based in central China’s Hubei province. It described how the day before he had taken a party of eight people to visit three rivers: the Diao, the Tang and the Bai, which they saw blackened by untreated effluent.
The Tang and the Bai flow through the ancient town of Xiangfan, and are the most important tributaries of the Han River, which has a basin that spans 24,500 square kilometres. In the early 1990s, a number of highly polluting enterprises set up in the area, and the once-clear water of the two rivers suffered terribly. Since then, efforts by the local government and Green Han River led to the shut down of paper plants on the river. By 2006, the water was not crystal-clear, but it was a lot than cleaner than it had been. However, Yun’s letter told me: “I had never thought that a year later it would be filthy again.”
Recently I added the names of two corporations mentioned in a provincial environmental report to my map of China’s water pollution. They were both in south China’s Guangdong province: Fu'an Textiles, Printing and Dyeing Company and Meishan Mauri Yeast Company.
I went to visit the first of these two companies. A joint investigation by the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) and the Guangdong environmental authorities – prompted by public complaints – had found it to be in serious breach of environmental law. It is understood to be the first complaint from the public that SEPA has ever passed on to the Guangdong authorities. The firm was found to have been secretly discharging almost 20 times the accepted amount of effluent.
Driving to a nearby town, I stopped by the Yun River; the water was pitch-black, a thick layer of oil covered its surface.
Guangdong listed Meishan Mauri Yeast Company as a polluting enterprise in 2002, 2004 and 2006. Standing at the factory gates today you can still smell it. I asked the guard on duty what the odour was. “Nothing to do with us,” he replied.
Pollution is a serious threat to China's rivers – and the country’s seas are also suffering. In October last year, experts predicted that a failure to control pollution will cause the Bohai Sea to die within a decade.
A Xinhua report last month painted a terrible scene: “Effluent has turned the sea a dark red and given it an acrid stench at Guanxi’s Silver Beach, a national tourist attraction. Local staff it is not the first time this has happened – sometimes it occurs every few days. they blame the cleaning runoff from nearby shellfish processing plants.”
China has 18,000 kilometres of coast and over 3 million square kilometres of sea. Protection of this environment is crucial for our economic, social and ecological sustainability. A few years back, I interviewed Zhou Haixiang, a photographer of birds. He indicated out one of his photos: “Next to the sea, here, you can stand on a hill by the coast and look out – but you can't see the sea. All you can see is little black dots: the rafts used to grow kelp. You have to sail out for 50 minutes before you get past them. You can hardly find any natural seaweed on the coast any more.”
And it’s not just the seaweed that's gone – large-scale aquaculture has even stopped the waves. The nets, ropes, cages and floats used – covered in kelp and shellfish – keep the waves down to mere ripples. In summer the sun warms the water on the surface, but the lack of waves stops the water circulating, meaning that top layer just gets hotter. Zhou asked me: how can the ocean remain endless if it can't even breathe?
A SEPA survey showed that 81% of China's 7,500 chemical and petrochemical plants are near environmentally-sensitive areas – densely populated regions or water resources. “To a large degree this is due to local government's own interests,” said the report. “There is no consideration of the environment.”
The pollution of China's rivers and seas is a long-term problem, but Chinese officials only stay in their posts for five years, making it hard to implement environmental assessments. Water pollution is also not constrained by particular areas – it is a mobile problem, and confounds attempts to attribute responsibility. In recent years, environmental protection has been included in the evaluation of local officials' performance, but rarely has it been genuinely enforced.
Water pollution has become China's most pressing environmental issue. A World Health Organization survey found that 80% of human illnesses are related to water pollution. Every year over 25 million children die due to polluted drinking water – more than are made refugees by war.
China is one of the 108 signatories of the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-Based Activities, which was launched by the United Nations Environment Programme and passed by an inter-governmental meeting in Washington in 1995. In the years since, China has made significant achievements in this field. It has continued to manage both its rivers and its seas, it has produced the Bohai Sea “Blue Sea Plan”, it has written guidelines to protect the Liao river and the Zhun River, and implemented the plan for the prevention of Ocean and River pollution. It has brought in the China Biodiversity Conservation Action Plan and National Environmental Protection Outline to strengthen protection of the environment on the mainland, coastal areas and seas.
But tragically, despite all these plans and principles, we are still facing the death of a sea.
Environmental security, as a new aspect of national security, has been attracting increasing international attention. It means ensuring that the environment is free from threats to the basic necessities for human survival and growth. As the global ecological crisis has worsened, international environmental law has developed quickly to protect species and biological resources and save the atmosphere and the oceans. Many western countries, besides having conventional environmental laws, also have an “environmental security law” to deal with ecological incidents and assign criminal liability.
China deals with environmental accidents incidents through financial compensation and civil proceedings. Criminal prosecutions are rare – occasionally the charge of 'endangering public security' is used, but this is imprecise. To deal with frequent environmental incidents and increase the cost of environmental crime, experts str calling for this kind of security law.
Zhou Ke, a professor at Renmin University Law School, says that the nation’s sustainable development relies on the sustainable development of its environment and the realisation of continuing environmental degradation. Understanding this urgency gives rise to a strategic view of environmental security.
Ensuring environmental security is a huge and complex undertaking. But regardless of the challenges, emphasising the environment's capacity and the state of our resources is vital for sustainable development – and for the security of all of our lives.
Yongcheng Wang is a reporter for China National Radio. Wang founded Green Earth Volunteers, a Chinese environmental NGO, in 1996. She is also a winner of the Globe Award, China's top environmental prize.