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SUMMER DAVOS: Crisis Zone Tianjin - Where is the Water?
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Ma Jun has been leading China’s battle against water pollution for well over a decade. He founded the environmental NGO, IPE in 2006. IPE is a major trendsetter which has developed new ways of working with the community to combat major polluters like Apple Inc. His hard work has been recognised many times, most recently by being awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2012. Today he talks to Business Tianjin about the World Economic Forum’s 2012 Summer Davos event and his ongoing role in China’s water crisis.
 
What was it that got you interested in changing China’s environment?

During the 1990’s I worked for the media and I travelled to different parts of China. I was struck by the environmental damage, especially in terms of water of resources. Many rivers in the north had run dry or were polluted. There was also a lot of serious contamination in the south and west of China. 
 
I wrote a book about what I had seen: ‘China’s Water Crisis’ (1999). Its target audience understood the main point of the book and agreed that there would be a crisis if we didn’t change our approach to water management, so I was pushed by the readers and some other people to get into environmental work.   
 
Why did you choose water as the main focus for your environmental activities?
 
Water has a special impact. I think both water and air pollution are equally serious and expose hundreds of millions of people to harm. However, water involves disadvantaged groups of people, who are hugely affected by its scarcity and pollution. Water is not just about the environment, it is also about resources. Water is a limited resource, but now it’s being destroyed by pollution and overuse.
 
What role did you play in the WEF’s 2012 Meeting of New Champions in Tianjin?
 
Firstly I want to thank the forum for providing me with a large platform and to reach out to a large audience. I participated in an important panel discussion, on the use of resources and sustainable development. I spoke with Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, and also chatted with the audience.
 
I wanted to bring civil societies’ perspective to the table. I did’t just talk about the grave situation that we are facing, I also discussed some of the creative, bottom-up efforts in China; which many stakeholders do not know about. I see this as a great platform to communicate our message and to engage with other stakeholders. I wanted to explain that there are opportunities for us to work together on a different type of environmental governance. I tried to show that there are methods which involve more transparency and participation from the government, big corporations and citizens working together.  
 
Can you tell our readers a little bit about IPE. What are its goals and achievements so far? 
 
Our goal is pollution control and promoting sustainable development. We achieve this through expanding environmental transparency. The real barrier to environmental sustainability in China is not lack of technology or money; it’s the lack of motivation. Government enforcement in this area is weak and environmental litigation is difficult. This needs to be changed by getting more people involved, but to do that people need to know more. We built a national pollution database compiling all of the government sourced environmental data including a list of violators of environmental laws. When people accessed this information polluters came under pressure especially after we added a green supply chain management tool to our site. Some brands started using our database to track the performance of their suppliers; which led to more than 700 polluters publicly disclosing their problems.   
 
You measure many environmental factors such as air quality and energy consumption.  Will you continue attempting to solve China’s water problems or is water quality a stepping stone to a larger scale reform? 
Water will remain a major part of our work, but air pollution is equally serious. Therefore, as of 2008 we started making air pollution records. One reason for this was that companies wanted comprehensive pollution tracking. The goal is to create a comprehensive environmental database. Another objective is to create more transparency within China, because transparency is the foundation for all of our work. To that end, when companies want to be removed from the pollution record they can check the audit reports published on our website.   
 
What can people do to change their local water quality?
 
Tianjin is where the Hai river runs into the Bohai sea. It used to have a lot of clean water, but now Tianjin is suffering from water pollution and serious water shortage. Of course, the external impact from Beijing and other northern regions has a huge impact, but the massive urbanisation and industrialisation in Tianjin is also taking a toll on local water resources. I think people need to work with Beijing and other external polluters, but also try to grow in a more efficient and cleaner way. 
 
As someone who is working in China’s burgeoning civil society movement, how do you see civil society’s role in a rapidly changing China? 
Civil society is a new idea in China. The first environmental NGO was only registered in 1993/4, but now there are several hundred NGO’s in China and there is definitely a lot more space for them to act. But there are also constraints and limitations, so every day is a balancing act. When we developed our pollution map database we decided to comprise it by only using government sourced data. So we try to involve a very broad range of stakeholders.
 
Do you think environmental regulation is more effectively monitored than food regulation? If so, why is that?
 
Unfortunately I think neither of these aspects has been regulated enough. Many environmental laws have been passed, but enforcement is still weak and fines are too low. I think there are a lot of similarities and links between the two. As for food safety, people pay attention to food processing, but don’t consider the contamination of soil or pollution of water for irrigation, which will eventually create huge food safety problems. I think both need more transparency and public supervision.
 
What is your view on China’s large scale water transfer project?
 
The South-North Water Diversion Project was raised in the early 1950’s. I think the currently unsustainable use of water in this region, especially in the Hai river basin, is a result of thinking that when we run out of water, water will flow from the south. In many people’s view that time is now. We need to put this into perspective. This is an emergency relief project. This area is losing water and some regions are almost completely out of water. So we need this water for emergency relief.
 
I believe that water from the south will not be sufficient in solving this problem. It will only make-up a small amount of the current demand, which is rising as we speak. So later we will face a water crisis again and some people say we could widen our canals, but to me that is not feasible. We should take these 1,200 kilometre long canals as the limit. We have to shift our priority from expansion of water supply to water conservation. We are reaching our limit because the social and environmental costs of this project are too high; each and every water user in this region must be made aware of this fact.  
 
What has been your most significant achievement so far in terms of environmental change?
 
I’m very glad to see that there is a wider consensus on the belief that environmental transparency is needed. I think the trend is moving towards more transparency and that brings hope. However, we still need to motivate more people. 
 
How can volunteers contribute effectively to IPE’s mission in monitoring?
 
They can look at all of the information and reports we have collected on our website and micro-blog. The more active people can make their voices heard by communicating with major brands like Apple, and explaining that while the products are good, their supply chain is harming the environment. They can also share data through micro-blogs and social media. We have launched a project for local people to help us in locating the biggest polluters in China, which is on our website. Smart phone users can take pictures and send it to our Weibo account, along with their location.

 

 By Matthew Baum 
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