Category Archives: Environment

China’s Environment And The Slowly Expanding Pockets Of Dissent

OFFICIALS IN THE southern Chinese town of Luoding in Guangdong province have cancelled plans to build an incinerator plant following mass protests this week. This volte-face followed more citizen concern about an explosion earlier in the week at a PX petrochemicals plant in Fujian that triggered some of China’s biggest environmental protests in 2007. The week also brought news that the environment ministry on March 30 had vetoed the construction of the $3.75 billion Xiaonanhai hydroelectric dam on the middle reaches of the Yangtze River 40 kilometres upstream of Chongqing.

The proposed dam threatened scores of species of endangered freshwater fish. Its cancellation marks a rare victory for Chinese environmental campaigners over the country’s powerful state-owned dam-building industry.

Environmental issues are highly sensitive for the Party. They are increasingly becoming the locus of social activism and dissent, and constitute the largest class of ‘mass incidents’ involving more than 10,000 people. As such, they are a potential source of that most feared threat to the political status quo, instability. Worse from the authorities point of view, environmental non-government organizations are a seed that could grow into political movements able to challenge the Party’s institutional monopoly of political power.

Beijing is managing this dissent by tolerating it in limited areas, and increasingly allowing spontaneous (i.e., no coordinated collective action) small-scale local activism. It has controlled labour unrest in much the same way. Worker incidents are not allowed to be coordinated by preexisting groups. They have to be specific to an individual enterprise. And they can’t have a life beyond the resolution of the specific incident, i.e. they can’t spawn a lasting organisation. The same blueprint is being applied to environmental protests.

The continuing clampdown on academia and on the media, including social media, which is a potentially powerful way to ‘organise without an organisation’, indicates that this tolerance will not be extended to any bigger thinking dissent or organisation against central government. Ideology remains inviolate.

There is to be no joining of the dots between economic development, environmental degradation and social inequalities. Witness the quick censorship of the online documentary about air pollution, Under the Dome, produced by Chai Jing, a former TV presenter and CCTV investigative journalist, once it had gone viral on social media. Such an approach acts as a social safety valve, allowing a build-up of pressure to be blown off and the system to return to its pre-existing stable state.

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A Rare Win For China’s Rare Freshwater Fish

Environmentalists can celebrate a rare triumph. The environment ministry has stopped the Xiaonanhai hydroelectric dam project on the Yangtze River. The dam is being built by China Three Gorges Corp. Its site lies 40 kms upstream from Chongqing and 700 kms upstream of the company’s eponymous dam that has become a poster child for the environmental damage that can be wreaked by large-scale infrastructure projects.

The location is significant. The dam was championed by disgraced Chongqing Party boss Bo Xilai, who redrew the boundaries of a nature preserve so construction could go ahead. Environmentalists have campaigned vigorously against damming the river at that point. Its waters contain 189 species of freshwater fish found nowhere else, two score of which are endangered. Economists have condemned the dam for its cost — $3.75 billion to build and electricity generation at more than three times the cost per gigawatt of other hydroelectric dams along the river.

Both are good reasons to call a halt to the project. However, the ministry does not have a reputation for being the most fearsome prosecutor of its brief to protect the environment in the face of the power of the ‘hydro-industrial complex’. Would it have vetoed the dam if its sponsor had been someone in better political standing than Bo?

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China’s Cities Face Rising Cost Of River Flooding

CHINA IS THE third most vulnerable country to river flooding after India and Bangladesh, with some 3.3 million people at risk, according to data recently published by the World Resources Institute (WRI). It would rank first in terms of absolute GDP at risk, at $18.1 billion a year, though that accounts for a relatively tiny percentage of the country’s entire economic activity.

The rainy season has brought floods since time immemorial. However, in common with other developing nations, China has rising amounts of economic activity exposed to flood risk. More people, buildings, and infrastructure get crammed into vulnerable regions as the country becomes richer and more urbanized. Floods become larger and more frequent because of climate change. The WRI reckons that by 2030, the $18.1 billion of GDP at risk annually will have risen to $94.6 billion. Economic development accounts for $61.6 billion of the increase; climate change for $14.8 billion.

Floods in cities are both more difficult and costly to manage than those in the countryside. Sewers and storm drains are often old and inadequate, run-offs from hard surfaces absent, and ground storage for rainwater scarce. New building covers ever more floodplain. Ancient streams that could absorb overspill from swelling rivers and channel rainwater back to rivers and ponds get filled in. Redressing these problems are huge engineering tasks that cities cannot complete overnight. Beyond that are longer-term policy imperatives: building greener cities that are less encouraging to extreme weather, and not allowing development in flood-prone areas in the first place.

The numbers quoted here come from WRI’s interactive map of flood risk, the Aqueduct Global Flood Analyser (GFA). They assume China has flood defenses adequate to cope with the severity of flooding experienced every ten years. Changing the assumption to 5-year-flood protection levels turns $27.9 billion a year of urban damage into $139.6 billion over the same period. Change it again to 100-year-flood protection, and current annual urban damage falls to $3.1 billion and the 2030 figure to $18.8 billion.

As that range of numbers suggests, the data is intended to provide policymakers with a guide to the cost-benefit of different levels of flood protection. The GFA looks in more detail at six flood prone river basins in China and two coastal plains that are additionally exposed to rising sea levels.

Estimated Flood Damage ($m)

River Basin Flood protection level
10-yr flood 100-yr flood
2010 2030 2010 2030
Yangtze 5,700 25,200 975 4,700
Eastern Coast 5,500 34,800 1,000 7,100
Xun Jiang 2,200 7,600 362 1,100
Ziya River 1,600 10,400 250 2,000
Huang River 1,600 9,000 264 1,800
Bohai 564 4,200 93 1,000
Southern Coast 138 566 24 92
Tarim 19 32 4 6
Source: WRI Aqueduct Global Flood Analyser


From 2011 to 2020, China’s investment in water conservancy projects, which includes flood defenses, is expected to reach 4 trillion yuan ($617 billion). That would be almost four times as much as spent during the previous ten years.

Nature provides lakes, ponds, streams and floodplains to do much the same job. They cannot be sacrificed infinitely in the name of economic development if China is to deal with flooding and its opposite natural disaster, drought. Urban planners are only just starting understand this. This latest WRI data underscores the urgency of the need to protect, restore and reconnect lakes, ponds, streams and floodplains so they can do what they do best.

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China’s Natural-Disaster Displacement Risk Quantified

China: Disaster-related displacement, 1970-2013. Source: IDMC

China: Disaster-related displacement, 1970-2013. Source: IDMC

CHINA ACCOUNTS FOR a disproportionate share of the world’s disaster-related displacement. That is not only a function of the size of its population. The country is at high-risk of being stricken by drought, seasonal floods, cyclones, earthquakes and landslides induced by the latter two.

Drought and cyclones are the most costly; earthquakes and floods the big killers. Some 130 million inhabitants are exposed to these risks. More than 8 million of them every year are at risk of being displaced, according to a new analysis of regional displacement risk by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC).

Disaster-induced displacement has been increasing and is likely to continue to do so. For one, population growth and the increased concentration of people and economic activity in hazard-prone areas such as coastlines and river deltas are swelling the numbers of people exposed to natural hazards.

Second, better early warning systems and evacuation planning means that more people survive disasters even as their homes and property are damaged or destroyed. Third, climate change is making extreme weather both more frequent and severe.

The richer a country gets, the more resilient it is to natural disasters, not least of all because it has more to lose, so they take steps to protect what they have. Yet though they suffer fewer natural disasters those that do occur are more severe.

Since 2008, China has suffered three disasters that displaced more than 3 million people, five that displaced 1 million-3 million people and 34  that displaced between 100,000 and 1 million people.

All that helps explain why China has the highest absolute risk of disaster-related displacement in the region. It also ranks second in relative displacement for its population size — 6,082 displacements per million residents, after Laos’s 6,542 displacements per million inhabitants.

The IDMC predicts that over the next four years that the average number of displaced will rise to nearly 9 million and the per million ratio will rise to Laos’s current level.  Its study, which is regional, is intended to provide a forecast to help planners not so much to deal with natural disasters as to forestall their worst effects.

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Drought Hits Northern China, El Niño Threatens Worse

EL NIÑO, THE periodic warming of sea-surface-temperatures in the Pacific, is already if prematurely being blamed for the worst drought to hit northern and central China in 60 years. State media says more than 27.5 million people are facing water shortages across at least six provinces.

Previous El Niños caused flooding in the southern rice-growing regions, as they did so disastrously along the Yangtze River in 1998, even as they brought drought to the wheat-growing provinces of the north. The extreme weather produced by El Niño in 1876–77 caused one of that century’s most deadly famines across Asia, with 13 million people dying from hunger in northern China alone.

While the latest El Nino conditions are only just starting to form in the Pacific, they are exacerbating the hot, dry weather in northern China, which was already suffering from serious water shortages as a result of years of deforestation, industrialization and urbanization.

The previous El Niño in 2009 triggered a sharp fall in wheat output. State media say that drought in Liaoning Province has so far devastated 2 million hectares of crops. An El Niño would ratchet up that number significantly.

Drought is also severe in Jilin, Inner Mongolia, Shaanxi, Henan and Hubei, affecting a further 2 million hectares of crops. The overall effects on harvests could be significant. A break to a run of 11 consecutive years of rising wheat harvests looks likely. The key question is whether this turns out to be a short El Niño lasting a few months, or a more long-standing event lasting as long as a couple of years.

China is not alone in being affected by El Niño. The net effect around the Pacific could be to cut global grain harvests by upwards of 2%. Sugar, beef, cotton, palm oil, cocoa and coffee output could also be hit, pushing up prices of those commodities. China’s cotton fields are south of the Yellow River, and like the rice paddies, subject to El Niño-related flooding.

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A Beijing Boost For China’s Electric Vehicle Makers

CHINA SEES ELECTRIC vehicles as the way to leapfrog its way to leadership of the global car industry. Promoting green technologies will also help the country tackle its widespread and worsening pollution, even though the impact of electric vehicles will mostly be in mitigating the problem from getting worse.

Despite government backing since 2009, production is currently modest, to say the least. The goal is to be building half a million electric vehicles a year by the start of 2016 and twice that number by 2020.

To that end, the government has announced an industrial-policy boost. Central government departments and municipal administrations will have to allocate a third of their annual vehicle procurement to “new energy” vehicles. That covers hybrids as well as vehicles powered by hydrogen cells, but in practice means electric vehicles. Local authorities are also instructed to install charging stations — one for each electric vehicle on the road.

Some financial incentive for officials to follow these new directives seem inevitable, given the increasing pressure on local-authority budgets now land sales are a less readily available honeypot. Any subsidies will have to be carefully structured to ring fence them from any potential international trade disputes.

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Environmentalists’ Political Threat To China’s Communist Party

ENVIRONMENTAL PROTESTS ARE of even greater concern to the leadership of China’s Communist Party than the threat of domestic terrorism. For one, they are far more widespread. The violence that broke out on May 10th in Zhongtai, a township outside Hangzhou, at a demonstration against building a waste incinerator there, may have been untypically bloody, but such protests in themselves are far from uncommon. Tens of thousands occur every year across the country.

The annual numbers are rising at a marked rate as far as we can tell. Some like one last year against China National Petroleum Corp.’s plans to build a petrochemical plant in Kunming gain international attention, but most remain local affairs. Nor do most secure more than get a delay to the unwanted project. Last year’s cancellation of a proposed lithium battery factory in the Songjiang district of Shanghai following large-scale protests was an exception rather than the rule.

Nor can the authorities point at the finger of blame on outside agitators, as they can do with the recent knife and bomb attacks blamed on militants from Xinjiang — though this Bystander will not be surprised to see the 50-centers on social media and their equivalent official unofficial voices in the public prints doing just that with environmental protests. There is too large a slice of China’s middle class concerned about the environmental degradation that has come with economic development for authorities to crack down on them all. Surveys of public opinion suggest that three-fifths to three-quarters of the public want the government to do more to improve the environment, and particularly to lessen pollution.

There is nothing exclusively Chinese about demonstrations against development projects by those who don’t want them in their backyards regardless of the greater benefit to a broader society. Incinerating waste rather than burying it in landfills and using the energy created as an alternative to coal-burning power generation plants is net for net an environmental gain for Hangzhou and the rest of the eastern China seaboard. Zhongtai residents are more narrowly concerned that what would be Asia largest incineration plant will further pollute their air and contaminate their water.

For the leadership, the long-term threat is that environmental protests will be the kernel form which a political party could grow to challenge the Party’s monopoly on political power. That is one reason it has allowed so many environmental protests to proceed for as long as they remain relatively local and peaceful.  Indeed, thousands of residents have been protesting against the planned incineration plant in Zhongtai for the past couple of weeks.

What the leadership will not tolerate is attacks on symbols of national authority such as police. That puts it on a slippery slope. Throwing a dragnet over the Zhongtai in a search for 15 men suspected of involvement in Saturday’s violent clashes with riot police is meant to show that the leadership will tolerate only so much dissent — and that that has to remain local and disorganized.

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