Thursday, September 6, 2007

Canary in a coalmine

A dolphin's demise: another alarm bell for China's blighted environment
Jonathan Adams, Newsweek 'Why It Matters' blog, August 10, 2007

For the last few years, scientists have feared that the baiji -- a freshwater dolphin unique to China's Yangtze River -- was critically endangered. Late last year, an international team spent six weeks scouring the river for any remaining baiji. On Wednesday, they published their results: they didn't find squat, despite twice covering the dolphin's range along a 1,669-kilometer channel of the Yangtze. That means that -- barring an errant baiji here or there -- the species is, for all intents and purposes, extinct. It now represents the first global extinction of any creature exceeding 100 kilograms for more than half a century.

That fact alone is enough to depress animal-lovers. But the baiji's fate has a far larger significance. It's the latest warning sign that China’s paying an increasingly high price for its breakneck economic development. The baiji's demise was caused in part by overfishing and an increase in ship traffic on the Yangtze -- many of the dolphins got fatally entangled in nets or sliced to ribbons by ship propellers. But another cause was the pollution dumped in ever-larger quantities into the Yangtze, by factories, farms and communities.

That pollution is exacting a high toll, and not just for the baiji. In a report last month, the OECD said that up to 300 million people are drinking contaminated water in China each day, with 190 million suffering from water-related illnesses each year, and 30,000 children dying annually from diarrhea caused by befouled water. One third of China's rivers and three-quarters of its major lakes are "highly polluted."

China's government appears to be taking notice. The nation's environmental agency last month announced strict new rules on lake pollution, which include banning all projects discharging ammonia and phosphorous, the removal of all fish farms by the end of 2008 and a ban on fish ponds, vegetable fields and flower farms that use fertilizers within one kilometer of a lake.

Yet recently I’ve talked with Chinese environmental activists, and the picture they paint is far from optimistic. Government crackdowns, new regulations and promises are usually only lip service, backed up by weak enforcement, they say. Nor are courts immune to the pressures of politics and cronyism. Central government diktats are often enforced only temporarily, until Beijing's attention turns elsewhere. Then, things go back to business as usual: powerful bosses, in collusion with local government officials, keep the factories and farms churning away.

Those officials are at times out-and-out corrupt. But they also have a strong incentive to avoid measures that would slow development: GDP growth is a key yardstick by which their performance -- and so, their promotions and salary -- is measured.

Public activism could pressure local governments, but that's rare due to a culture of fear. Those who speak out publicly against local business bosses or officials are often intimidated and beaten, and are quickly abandoned by friends and family afraid of trouble.

Take Zhang Zhengxiang, 58, an environmental gadfly I met recently in Kunming. For decades now, Zhang has fought to protect his beloved Lake Dianchi from illegal logging, pollutants and mismanagement. He says his land was taken away, his wife and daughter left him, and he had to sell his house. He's been roughed up many times by thugs he says were hired by local village officials or factory owners; in May they beat him and smashed his camera when he was taking pictures of the lake.

He pulled up his shirt to show me one nasty scar on his lower back. Now, he says he's heard that local officials plan to throw him in prison next month. He's agitated, angry, and more than a little eccentric -- living proof that some of the only Chinese brave (and crazy) enough to stand up to powerful local interests are those with little left to lose.

What Zhang says openly and defiantly, other environmental activists say off the record: China's environmental crisis is rooted in a rotten culture of corruption. Local officials incentives just aren't aligned with the public interest. Grassroots authorities and courts need to be more accountable to their communities, rather than to Communist party bosses who can make or break their careers. Only a more responsive political and legal system is likely to force such officials to better protect China's blighted waters.

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