Carbon emissions may grab the headlines, but China’s water problems make for equally grim reading. Water supplies are scarce, inefficiently used and often polluted. Greenpeace says that 70% of China’s rivers, lakes and reservoirs are "not safe for humans to use." Ma Jun came to prominence with the publication of his book, China’s Water Crisis, in 1999. In 2006 he was included in Time magazine’s "100 People Who Shape Our World," and went on to found the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, which created China’s first public database on water pollution. Ma talked to CHINA ECONOMIC REVIEW about the country’s water challenges.
Q: China hopes to achieve a 10% reduction in chemical oxygen demand (COD) – a measure of water pollution – by 2010. Will it do this?
A: Although it’s a challenging target, last year’s statistics show we are moving closer to it. But even if we reduce COD discharge by 10% it will still be higher than the environmental capacity. At the same time, a target has been set for just one indicator – there are other pollutants which are equally bad but aren’t subject to targets. In the next five-year plan there should be targets for reducing discharges of ammonia nitrogen and toxic substances such as heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants.
Q: Has the economic downturn affected this and other environmental policies?
A: I think for any government, when it comes to environmental policy, there is always a bit of a trade-off. We know that the downturn is affecting the implementation of environmental goals in China. In some cases, local governments try and give hasty approval to some polluting industries; in others, it becomes more difficult for local environmental agencies to enforce regulations. It was most noticeable during the first hit on the economy. Now, things have calmed down and efforts have been taken to reverse negative trends. The suspension of two major dam-building projects on the Yangtze River is a good example. These are huge projects that would help GDP growth, but the central government intervened and blocked them on the basis of environmental concerns.
Q: Nevertheless, enforcement remains an issue…
A: Many companies can’t meet the basic discharge standards and our judicial system has yet to proactively evolve in dealing with environmental cases. All this leads to a low cost of violation – it costs less to pay the fine than to solve the problem. If we reach deeper into the causes we find that in many local regions officials still put GDP growth ahead of environmental protection.
Q: How do you overcome these problems?
A: We need the courts to get more involved. We need to raise the price of water for industrial use – in many regions the prices are so low it makes no sense for companies to reuse water. We need government agencies to improve enforcement. It’s not just a right to impose bigger fines; we should make sure firms do the proper monitoring and proper enforcement themselves. One starting point is corporations giving factory-based disclosures on discharges. This would enhance public participation in environmental governance.
Q: How has public awareness and involvement on environmental issues changed?
A: If you spoke to someone on the street 10 years ago, most would have said we need economic development first. Now people increasingly say we need to protect our environment. Transparency is a pre-condition for any meaningful public participation: It means corporations are exposed to public scrutiny and start to change their behavior. Responsible firms then start to work with the other stakeholders. Some major companies – GE, Wal-Mart, Nike – now use our national water pollution database to screen their suppliers. We are only a small institute, but many companies pay attention because there is some public awareness of our work. The most important thing when it comes to water pollution is not the lack of technology or the lack of money – it is the lack of incentive to put all this to use.
Q: To what extent is this greater public awareness influencing government policy?
A: There have been some very powerful cases such as the Xiamen paraxylene (PX) project [in 2007]. People gathered information and dissenting voices began to be heard. The government then did an environmental impact assessment of the proposed plant and published a summary of the research, which was very important. Eventually, the government bowed to public demand and decided not to proceed with construction.