Category Archives: Environment

Clean Air And Safety First At War Parade

THE CELEBRATION IN in Beijing on September 3rd to mark the 70th anniversary of the ending of World War Two in Asia will be a breath of fresh air.

Heavy industry, power plants and construction sites in the capital, along with more in Hebei, Tianjin, Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, Shandong and Henan, are being shut down or curtailed between August 28th and September 4th to make the air less polluted. Some 10,000 factories and 9,000 construction sites will be affected, state media say.  The goal is to cut pollution on the day by 40% in the capital and 30% in the surrounding region.

The measures are similar to those taken during the 2008 Olympic Games and last year’s the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings so that visitors wouldn’t have to breathe in the filthy atmosphere residents have to suffer the rest of the year. The tail end of the Athletics World Championships due to start in Beijing on August 22nd and run until September 6th will also get some benefit from this year’s effort.

One difference this time is that Beijing authorities have also ordered a complete halt to production at explosives plants and the sealing under guard of all toxic chemicals in the city. In the wake of the Tianjin disaster, Beijing wouldn’t want the 70th-anniversary parade going off with the wrong sort of bang.

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Tianjin Blasts: Shaking Up Environmental Disaster Denial

THE CITY OF Tianjin is facing an environmental disaster of unknown proportions following the double explosion at the Ruihai International Logistics warehouse on Wednesday. The presence of sodium cyanide, which combines with water to form deadly hydrogen cyanide gas, has been acknowledged along with calcium carbide, potassium nitrate and sodium nitrate — all industrial chemicals whose impact on the population of the northeastern port city may be felt through illness and shortened lives for generations to come.

For the leadership, failure to deal with the aftermath of this tragedy that has cost at least 112 lives with hundreds more injured could be just as toxic. At risk is public trust in the Party to look after the people.

Industrial accidents are commonplace in China, even in large cities. Yet the power of the second blast in particular and the amount of dramatic video footage seen on social media before the inevitable media clampdown puts this one into a class of its own.

By way of comparison, the Jilin chemical plant explosion in 2005, one of China’s worst comparable man-made disasters, killed six and the injuries were in the dozens. However, pollution of the Songhua River was severe. Harbin, 400 kilometers downstream, had to cut off the public water supply to avoid poisoning its residents. Environment agency minister Xie Zhenhua was eventually sacked.

The initial official response to Jilin was to cover it up. That has been the go-to response for authorities to any environmental disaster until the evidence can no longer be ignored. Officials did not admit to the Bohai Bay oil spill in 2011 until a month after it had happened.

A nationwide check ordered on dangerous chemicals and explosives following the Tianjin blasts and a blanket order to officials to enforce safety regulations seems like bolting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Even worse will be if authorities react in their customary way and pursue a carefully managed information blackout.

Signs are not encouraging. Social media accounts and websites are already being closed down; state media is starting to craft a narrative around the laxness of businesses and workers that officials will address.

Even in these early days a finger is being pointed at Ruihai for keeping inadequate records of what was on site, following inadequate storage procedures or turning a blind eye to what safety regulations there are. Regulations keeping public transport and housing at a specific distance from dangerous industrial sites were ignored or flouted by officials.

The first-responder firefighters were ill-informed, inadequately trained and equipped, or all three. Suggestions that attempts to put out an initial fire with water inadvertently caused the chemical reactions that produced the subsequent blasts seem well founded, though, again, this Bystander cautions against early judgments on limited information. Whatever the circumstances turn out to have been, firefighters have paid a heavy toll in human life.

Assurances by officials that air and water quality levels in Tianjin are safe have been met with incredulity by residents. The 3-kilometre evacuation zone imposed on Friday will have done nothing to diminish concerns, any more than the earlier shutting off sewers to stop discharge into Bohai Bay. Many residents already know the water they drink and the air their breathe are polluted enough.

China has long disregarded environmental and public health whenever untrammelled economic development was at risk. Pockets of populations with abnormally high cancer rates in some of the most polluted areas bear silent testimony to that. The Party has seen the delivery of ever higher living standards to the broad population as the basis of its claim to a monopoly on political power.

For most Chinese, higher living standards increasingly include quality of life, not merely the quantity of material well-being — simple things like clean air and water and neighbourhoods that don’t explode.

This Bystander would like to think that the legacy of the Tianjin disaster would be that it was the one that caused that penny to drop for the authorities. That is likely wishful thinking. Scapegoats will again be found; rescue efforts will be lionized; online critics will be silenced. The policy and institutional reforms needed to ensure there is no repeat will not be carried out with the same vigour.

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Drought Diplomacy In North Korea

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits Farm No. 1116, under KPA (Korean People's Army) Unit 810, in this undated file photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on June 1, 2015. KCNA

CORN AS HIGH as Kim Jong Un’s thigh. That, at least, is what the picture above released by North Korea state media on June 1 shows.

The reality is likely to be different.

The isolated regime is suffering its worst drought in a century — probably its fourth ‘worse drought in a century’ of the past decade. Pyongyang’s news agency, KCNA, reported last week that paddies in the main rice-farming provinces of Hwanghae and Phyongan were drying up for lack of rain. Food supplies, never plentiful, are now at risk of falling — again — to the level of famine.

The devastation wreaked on the economy by the drought s compounded by the fact that 50% of the country’s electricity is generated by hydropower. Reports finding their way to this Bystander suggest that most parts of the economy are already feeling the effect of power shortages.

North Korea was hit by severe and fatal famine in the 1990s and relied on international food aid to get through. However, Pyongyang’s suspicion of humanitarian workers and reluctance to allow independent monitoring of food distribution, makes international agencies reluctant donors.

Relations between Beijing and Pyongyang are arguable at their lowest ebb. China even rebuffed North Korea’s putative interest in joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Nonetheless, China’s foreign ministry said last week that the country was willing to help its drought-stricken erstwhile ally avoid a humanitarian disaster.

One set of questions is what price, if any, Beijing can extract from Pyongyang in return over its controversial nuclear program, and whether Pyongyang is ready to grasp an excuse providently offered to it by nature as an opportunity to back down from the nuclear tests and missile launches that have brought international sanctions down on it.

Another is whether Pyongyang can get food aid from Russia or Cuba, both places recently visited by senior North Korean officials, as an alternative to China, and even whether the regime is over-egging the pudding in regard to the severity of the drought. Last year, according to North Korea’s news agency, food production increased by 48,700 tons compared to 2013 — regardless of reports of severe drought.

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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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