Solving Problems in China Requires a Third Way (Out)

Monday, August 27, 2012 7:32
Posted in category Uncategorized

A few weeks ago, news of a NIMBY movement outside of Shanghai began making their way into the international press. Thousands of farmers and fisherman near Nantong had caught wind of the fact that a nearby paper and pulp manufacturer was going to release up to 65,000 tons a day of waste water in their area, and they made their dissatisfaction known.  Residents, particularly those with economic interests in the sea (i.e. fisherman) went nuts. Cars were flipped, government taken over, and the ultimately the pipeline project was “scuttled”.

Another win for the environment.  Or so it seemed.

A few days later, officials made the decision to take the pipe and point it in another direction. As covered by the article Pollution Risk Passed on to Yangtze River After Qidong Protest:

Japan-based Oji Paper Group decided to set up a plant at the Economic and Technological Development Zone in Nantong back in 2003. The new factory, named Jiangsu Oji Paper Co. Ltd. (Jiangsu Oji Paper), is expected to become the biggest integrated pulp project in China. It is estimated that once the project is up and running, it will bring in over 700 million yuan in tax revenue every year.

Nantong City proposed the construction of a drainage pipeline through which Jiangsu Oji Paper could discharge its industrial wastewater into the sea. The planned 104-kilometer-long pipeline would have six kilometers in marine area, with approximately 2.2 kilometers going through mud flats and the remaining 3.8 kilometers extending to the Yellow Sea. The outlet of the pipeline would be located in the waters within Qidong City.

The practice of releasing waste into the sea has been around for over a century. When the waste flows into the sea through a drainage pipeline, it will immediately be diluted and diffused under the combined force of pipeline spewing waste, buoyancy, and currents. The density of pollutants is then reduced drastically, after which most contaminants are degraded by chemical and biological effects in the waters.

which is

The Yangtze River already has an obvious pollution belt in the coastal waters along the lower reaches of the river, where numerous chemical factories rest along both banks. Research shows that 50 to 80 percent of the water sources in cities along the Yangtze River are at risk of being polluted.

In the discussions that I have had in the week since this article has come out, what has me scratching my head is why on earth this problem exists at all.  Why the ONLY two options for this problem are to point the pipe towards the sea or towards the Yangtze.

Did it not occur to anyone that the solution should be to make an investment in water treatment equipment and treat the water before it leaves the property line?

This is where I personally feel things need to change, at their core, and that while there are certainly enough people focused on putting lipstick on the pig, more work needs to be done focusing on solving the root issues of sustainability in China.

There was once a “commitment” for balance, with a number of guidelines that were meant to restrict investments in highly polluting industries (particularly near China’s mega cities), and with a yearly tax revenue of 700m RMB from this single project there is more than enough margin to afford the equipment/ maintenance.

Which leads me to ask a basic question “why?”. Why isn’t the third way accepted logic at this point? A few theories

  1.  Authority – While everyone speaks about the “vision” of the party, and their ability to act, few understand how officials are rewarded. Which is a huge part of this issue. the EPA is paid by local bugdets, and therefore would likely be penalized for acting too strongly. Provincially, and locally, rewards are still based on GDP, which places them on the side
  2. Reward systems – the project is (per reports) going to make the city 700m RMB in tax revenue, and going to employ thousands of people. In short, it is a project that will help local officials hit their targets, and nothing will get in the way of them banking this project.  Clearly asking officials (firm or local government) to spend money on treatment is like Apple to pay more for labor. In their eyes, profit maximization is paramount, and unless there is a clear law (or massive stakeholder push back) there is no reason to act “responsible” .
  3.  Transparency & Accountability – While farmers near the project were able to access the information they needed to come together, in Shanghai that is not the case.  This is likely also true for what Beijing’s understanding of the case is.. which is ultimately the issue when speaking of accountability.  Without transparency, those with a higher level of authority are unable to effectively engage.  Which only serves to provide a false sense that reward systems have not change.  When in fact they have simply been short circuited

Beyond this project, and there are countless like it, local officials need to be held accountable through a number of avenues.  Most directly though, there needs to be a realignment of their reward systems from those with authority so that the right decision can actually be made. At present, the system is set up to “hope” for the right decisions while (until they are caught) encouraging the continued use of pump and dump economic growth.

Which works … until 10,000 fisherman have a fish fry at city hall using city hall;s furniture for fuel

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4 Responses to “Solving Problems in China Requires a Third Way (Out)”

  1. Kieran Golby says:

    September 17th, 2012 at 9:01 pm

    Did you realise the catalyst for the July 28th Qidong protests was that Oji Paper (the Japanese company in charge of the Nantong paper and pulp mill complex), were given approval to commence building a wastewater/sewage treatment facility in Qidong? The environmental concern of protesters was that the treatment would be inadequate, because no end of pipe treatment can completely neautralise the impact of toxic wastes caused in the manufacture of pulp and paper, particularly on the vast scale on which Jiangsu Oji Paper had planned to operate. Perhaps you know something more about this that I haven’t figured out, but the way you represent the issue appears (to me) to be an oversimplification.

  2. Rich says:

    September 17th, 2012 at 10:59 pm

    Hi Kieran.

    Thanks for your comment.

    Yes, I’ll admit that it is an oversimplification. My comments are based on reports I have read and a few conversations.

    That being said, what you have written in my view is validating my original post.

    First, from a pure technical standpoint the waste water can be treated 100% IF the investment is made. firms like NALCO and GE have massive business in this, and if OJI were to approach a service provider they would find that there is more than one level of investment that can be made.

    Which is the core of my argument..

    That China needs to begin making the investments at a higher level and be more transparent about things IF they want to remove the fear (and NIMBY protests) that are growing in size and frequency.

  3. Kieran Golby says:

    September 18th, 2012 at 9:53 am

    Thank you for getting back to me, Rich. I’m impressed by the breadth of analysis that “All Roads Lead to China” offers, and I think you are entirely right about the need to promote a culture of investment and transparency etc. Because the Jiangsu Oji Paper development in Nantong is the biggest single Japanese investment in China, and because Oji have invested a lot into improving their environmental image, its a bit hard to believe that they were just ‘putting lipstick on the pig’ and blew their disguise. I am trying to gauge to what extent they were / are genuinely doing the environmentally responsible thing that they claim to be doing, and were let down by poor communication and benefit allocation by the Nantong government (who, via NETDZ Corp., have a 10% share in the development), for the people of Qidong. Its also tempting, in light of the anti-Japanese riots of late, to see anti-Japanese sentiment as having aggravated the NIMBY protest, or even see Oji Paper as having been made a scapegoat of when the real threat was from the untreated effluent of numerous TVEs who might be expected to eventually piggyback on the pipeline. Oji Paper spared little expense when it ordered the machinery and construction of its paper and pulp lines from european firms Voith and Metso, and both these companies’ investment brochures tout the pipeline to Qidong as an ecological selling-point as well as hammering on about various other enviro-friendly features of the technology. I’m curious what ballpark an ‘investment’ in a NALCO or GE treatment facility is in, and I also wish to ascertain the budget and technological sophistication Oji had envisaged for its own planned water treatment facilty.
    It seems better to treat Oji as innocent until proven guilty in this, although I’m trying to dig up the dirt! For one thing, although the internet campaign that drove the protest was emotive and chic, it was light on evidence or arguments to show that Oji’s pre-treated wastewater would wipe out fish or cause cancer.
    One last thing, I wonder if you know, were there any key Chinese NGOs who helped to initiate or coordinate the NIMBY protest. Or is that something NGOs definitely keep clear of?

    Thanks again!

    Kieran Golby (Australian PhD student, researching environmental issues in Japan-China relations.)

  4. Rich says:

    September 18th, 2012 at 6:59 pm

    Hi Kieran.


    In nearly every aspect what you are saying is correct, and make sense, and I think the answer is in my points that China needs to invest in accountability and transparency. Simply put, regardless of whether or not the water was being treated, no one believed them. The protests were a result of a very real fear of land/ human impact from the chemicals that the factory was going to be producing.

    As for anti-Japanese issues. Had they burned the factory to the ground, then I would totally agree. But they burned local government offices instead. So, I don’t see the link, but had the Qidong incident happened this week I can only imagine the damage to Oji.

    With regard to NGO involvement. I cannot think of a large NGO who would have been participating overtly/ covertly. Greenpeace has certainly been known for sending staff out to take pictures of oil spills and highlighting impact of coal on economy, but that data is then used to develop a wider awareness vs. focus on a specific group as part of a call to arms.