Events

China's Watersheds Under Stress

June 18, 2009 // 9:00am11:00am

China is facing a plethora of water crises—water scarcity, water pollution, and river ecosystem collapse. China's severe water degradation and scarcity represent a major threat to China's high economic growth rate, limit industrial and agricultural output in some areas, and contribute to migration issues, health risks, food security problems, and rising income disparities.


At this June 18th China Environment Forum meeting, three speakers discussed their work on water problems in five different watersheds. First, Jon Barnett of Melbourne University highlighted the challenges facing the Yellow River in the North of China. Second, Kristin McDonald of the China Rivers Project (CRP) discussed how her NGO is working to raise awareness of the ecosystem threats to the Yangtze River. And finally, Zhang Jingjing, litigation director for the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims (CLAPV), talked about some of CLAPV's recent cases representing water pollution victims in three river basins.

Water Scarcity and its Management in the Yellow River
To start off the meeting, Jon Barnett of Melbourne University talked about the water problems facing northern China. The North China Plain (NCP) is the source of a large portion of China's agriculture; over 60 percent of China's wheat and over 40 percent of its corn is grown there. However, the NCP only has 4 percent of all the available water in China. This small quantity of available water is easily affected by issues such as evaporation losses and mismanagement. Water scarcity represents a major crisis facing communities and cities in the NCP.

Yellow River Issues
Water scarcity reached crisis levels in 1997 when the Yellow River failed to reach the sea for over 300 days. Although not reaching the ocean is part of the Yellow River's natural annual cycle, the sheer length of this event was very unnatural and was seen as a public relations disaster—how could China be seen as a modern country if its "mother river" could not be managed well enough to reach the ocean? The 1997 event evidenced the need for immediate water management reform in northern China.

In reaction to the 1997 event, the Yellow River Conservancy Commission (YRCC) was granted considerable power to manage the distribution of the water for the entire river basin. In addition to assigning water allocation for all provinces in the basin, the YRCC also controls all of the water gates on the river and can change who gets water and when. Jon Barnett stressed that this top-down centralized management system allows for little localized input, which ultimately is one source of continued water wastage in the basin. The YRCC prioritizes water allocation first to municipalities and then industries. The third priority is ecological flows that enable the river to reach the sea. Notably, the last priority is the farmers in the basin. Thus, the farmer's only get water when the first three sectors have been allotted their share.

Despite their low prioritization, farmers use the majority of the Yellow River's water, around 80 percent. Consequently, farmers are commonly blamed for water scarcity. However, as farmers do not control the timing and amount of their water allocation, they lack incentives to conserve and usually resort to flood irrigation in order to take advantage of the water when it is granted. Furthermore, between 50 and 60 percent of the water allocated for irrigation is actually lost through leakage and evaporation due to outdated and ineffective canal infrastructure and management systems.

The combination of the water priority system and large water loss rates means that farmers have been forced to seek sources other than the Yellow River for water for their crops. The majority of this water has come from tubewells, which currently number about 8 million in the NCP. These have lowered groundwater levels and further stressed water resources in the North of China.

Solutions
According to Jon Barnett, over the past decade, most solutions to scarcity problems advocated by Chinese policymakers and international donors have revolved around the following three themes:

1)Top-down command and control style management—This, it is theorized, will eliminate the inefficiencies of farmer-managed water. However, this method has been shown to be ineffective and has forced farmers to rely heavily on groundwater.

2)Large water infrastructure projects—Examples include the Xiaolangdi dam and the north-south water transfer project. These are grand and expensive supply-side management plans that do nothing to promote water conservation or improve the water infrastructure that delivers water.

3)Water pricing systems—The method of increasing water prices is meant to encourage farmers to use water more effectively. However, Chinese farmers already pay high prices, sometimes as high as 30 times official levels on a volumetric basis. Increases in pricing systems would be, in essence, a tax on farmers without any real efficiency gains.

An Alternative Idea
Jon Barnett argued that the real key to solving water scarcity issues on the Yellow River is to emphasize local management systems and invest in small-scale infrastructure. Structures like small reservoirs outside of water control gates and improved piping systems could significantly reduce water loss. Localized management systems would also prevent the disconnect between supply and demand. If these physical improvements were coupled with better water distribution systems managed at the level of irrigation districts, the potential water savings would be significant.

Physical improvements, however, would come at a high price, none of which would have an immediate payoff. Farmers cannot afford the improvements, and people who can afford them would not see any immediate direct benefits. However, there could be investment in exchange for future water savings. Dr. Barnett used an example with a city such as Jinan, Shandong, which could invest in the infrastructure in surrounding rural areas and earn it back by utilizing the water saved in the rural areas for municipal purposes.

China Rivers Project: Protecting the Upper Yangtze River
Kristin McDonald of the China Rivers Project spoke on water issues in the south of China. In striking contrast to the dry north, south China is an area of water overabundance, a situation that has provided many opportunities for dam building and water diversions. The upper Yangtze River is the target of some of the most substantial river development projects in the history of the world. Planned dams would double China's current hydroelectric production to around 320 GW. Additionally, the north-south river diversion project is one of the most ambitious overall infrastructure plans in the world, and if all three canals are completed they would transfer 45 billion cubic meters of water a year from the Yangtze to the Yellow River. All of these infrastructure projects would significantly alter the river's ecosystem.

In addition to proposed infrastructure development, climate change will likely put further stress on the hydrology of the Yangtze. Climate change could cause bigger rain events, more severe flood events, lower base flows, and increased glacial melt. Notably, water construction projects on the Yangtze are not taking into account the potential impacts of climate change.

Proposed projects would affect not only the ecology of the river itself, but also the lives of the people who live on the river. Rising water levels would force the relocation of tens of thousands of people who live near the river and would potentially affect fisheries on which many livelihoods depend. Many historical sites surrounding the upper Yangtze could also be lost due to the potential rise in water level.

Construction of many of these proposed dams has started without being officially approved. An example of this is the proposed Li Yuan Dam near Lijiang, on which construction has already begun although it is still officially in the planning stage. This situation is due to an ineffective approval process, which deals with numerous centralized institutions that can include everyone from local business interests to the Ministry of Environmental Protection. The lack of a single approval institution and many competing interests has meant environmental impacts of dam construction are often overlooked in favor of other priorities such as flood management and power generation.

Floating Forums
The China River Project (CRP) hopes to set up permanent river protection areas in China where a small percentage of rivers could be set aside for their water quality, biodiversity, and natural beauty. To raise awareness of Yangtze River issues, the CRP staff tries to directly expose people to life on the river by taking them on rafting and kayaking trips. The overall mission is to get people to connect with the river so that they develop a vested interest in protecting the river's future.

CRP takes a diverse collection of individuals on its river tips—government officials, environmental activists, journalists, industry representatives, and community members affected by proposed river development projects. The trips become "floating forums" composed of all types of people exchanging information on the river with the goal of educating through experience, showing the participants the value of free flowing rivers.

These trips are usually successful in connecting people with the river. In fact, a recent trip in April comprised of political figures and high-powered entrepreneurs resulted in a letter calling into question a number of proposed dams on the upper Yangtze. This letter was then directed to high-level political officials.

To build on this progress, the CRP is planning to have a Tibet Rivers Year focusing on climate change and its effects on high altitude river ecosystems. These trips aim to bring together climate scientists, local NGOs, and government officials and raise awareness of the threats facing Tibet's rivers.

Water Crisis: Can Environmental Laws and Litigation Solve It?
Zhang Jingjing, the litigation director for CLAPV, discussed three water pollution cases that her organization has handled. CLAPV is a nongovernmental environmental protection organization that offers legal advice and litigation pro-bono to pollution victims. Two of the three cases Ms. Zhang discussed resulted in civil suits seeking compensation for the victims of water pollution. These cases, like most water pollution cases, were in rural areas where industry is more concentrated and infrastructure is less developed than in cities

Sichuan Province
The first case Ms. Zhang discussed was from Sichuan Province. In 2004, a chemical factory near Chengdu accidentally discharged several tons of toxic chemicals into the Tuo River. These chemicals affected the drinking water and livelihoods of villagers downstream. Initially, there were no legal repercussions for the factory as no one wanted to sue; many villagers did not trust the courts and it took time to find a suitable defendant due to the distance between those affected and the source of the pollution.

Although CLAPV was not able to pull together a civil court case on behalf of the villagers, Sichuan Province brought a criminal case against three people in the factory who were subsequently sentenced to serve jail time, which is a rare occurrence in China. Even in the infamous Songhua River benzene spill in 2005, those responsible were not prosecuted. Political pressure led the factory to institute monitoring upgrades and equipment advancements to prevent future accidents.

Anhui Province
The second case Ms. Zhang discussed was very similar to the first, but this time the incident occurred in 2005 on the Huai River in Anhui Province. Like the case above, a factory accidentally discharged a significant amount of pollutants, which contaminated drinking water and damaged fisheries. This time however, the victims were located downstream in another province, which meant they could take their case to a court under control of the local government, and the local government would have little interest in protecting the factory in the neighboring province . Since the court to which the Huai River case was brought had no vested interest in the polluter's economic welfare, it could rule solely based on the facts of the case.

Problems in Prosecution
Despite eliminating the issue of local favoritism from the Huai River case, the litigation process was difficult. The case was filed in 2006 and is still being deliberated in the courts. This slow process is just one example of the difficulties in prosecuting Chinese pollution cases. Aside from sluggish courts and political favoritism, it is also very hard to connect pollution evidence to perpetrators, for courts require a scientific organization to monitor water quality and write a report. Water samples taken by CLAPV lawyers or anyone except scientists are not considered legal evidence in courts.

Because of these difficulties, only one-third of CLAPV's cases win in the courts. But as Ms. Zhang passionately pointed out during her talk, "win or lose, every case has its meaning, has its impact on Chinese society," for cases that go to trial raise awareness of victim's rights and environmental issues.

Guangdong Province
The third case dealt with heavy metal contamination in Guangdong Province. A mine was discharging tons of heavy metals like zinc and lead into the headwaters of the Pearl River. These metals found their way into local ecosystems all the way down the river. This contamination significantly reduced crop yields and increased cancer rates in several villages. Out of 400 people in the closest village to the mine, 28 died of cancer within a few years—an abnormally high rate.

This grim situation made a solid case because there were lots of victims and one clear defendant, the mine. Some cases in China are not so clear cut. Eventually, with the assistance of Ms. Zhang and CLAPV, litigation was successfully brought against the mine.

Ms. Zhang closed by saying that pollution issues are not just about policy or environment, but also about social justice. The poorest people take the largest burden of the pollution in China and in many cases they cannot afford legal representation. She maintained that as environmental law in China is still relatively nascent, pollution victims need organizations like CLAPV to protect their individual rights and rights to a clean environment.

By Peter Marsters
Edited by Jennifer Turner and Alan Campana

 

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