Saturday, August 30, 2008

The hidden cost of China's green Olympics

Interview with China watcher, journalist Isabel Hilton
As Beijing makes its final preparations for the Olympics, residents in other parts of China are left counting the cost of what the Games mean for them.

On the eve of the Games, Beijing is positively blooming: the city is decorated with tens of millions of flowers, there are lush green lawns and new recreational facilities including golf courses. It all takes a lot of water, and it's water that Beijing simply doesn't have.

Much of the water being used to beautify Beijing is pumped from nearby Hebei province, where farmers and factory owners are paying a heavy price for a green Games. And though the Games will go for just two weeks, the country's water problems look set to continue indefinitely.

Jim Middleton speaks about China's water crisis with Isabel Hilton, a London based journalist who writes for The Guardian newspaper and is the editor of the website China Dialogue.

Jim Middleton: Isabel Hilton, welcome to the program.

Isabel Hilton, Editor, Thank you, Jim. Nice to be with you.

Jim Middleton: Why does Beijing require so much extra water just for the Games?

Isabel Hilton: Well, Beijing requires more water than it's got even for, you know, normal life. Beijing is essentially built on a desert and in the last few years, for many reasons, the water supply in Beijing has become an acute problem. So they've been pumping ground water and the water table under Beijing has dropped 80 metres in the last 20 years. So they're using up the bank account in terms of water.

And Beijing being, you know, it's got a very dry climate. It has less than 20 inches a year of rain. Most of it falls between June and August. And for the rest of the time when you look around Beijing you don't see green grass, you don't see lawns, you don't see golf courses because the climate doesn't really support it.

The problem is that, for the Olympics they wanted everything to look absolutely perfect, so they've tried to flush out canals, they've tried to restore water to rivers, they've got the world's largest fountain which perhaps wasn't entirely necessary. They've built golf courses.

They've built all these very water heavy resources and there simply isn't enough water for as I say, for normal, everyday, urban life let alone for this showpiece Beijing that's being presented to the outside world for the Olympics. So they've had to take water from pretty much everywhere.

Jim Middleton: So what sort of pressure has this put on water supplies in districts surrounding Beijing?

Isabel Hilton: This is a pretty sensitive topic but in Hebei for instance, the whole agriculture cycle this year has been disrupted because farmers can't get water.

Beijing is imposing Beijing's needs on the surrounding provinces and it goes quite a long way.

They've built major canals, there is a big long term hydrology project called the South North Water Transfer because in China there is quite a lot of water in the south and there is a really, really serious long term water problem in the north. The Chinese Government's answer to this has been in terms of big engineering works. So they plan to divert water all the way from the south of China, from the Yangtze River, up to the north to address this the issue.

"They've built all these very water heavy resources and there simply isn't enough water for normal, everyday, urban life."

But the fact is that the water problem isn't just one of supply. Forty per cent of China's water is grade four and that is unfit for any purpose - that's agriculture, drinking, washing. You just shouldn't go near it. And that's a result of pollution and that in turn is a result of poor regulation, bad governance and all these things. So there is a kind of perfect storm in terms of water in China and it's a multiple cause, multiple effect problem.

Jim Middleton: So it's a problem not just of supply but actually of water quality. On the question of water quality, what are the Chinese authorities doing if anything to rectify that situation?

Isabel Hilton: Well they have been working on it. For instance, in Beijing itself because of the Olympics, the waste water treatment has gone from 40 per cent to 90 per cent in the last few years and that's definitely an improvement.

But you have a problem in China that you can pass a law in Beijing and down in Guizhou they just ignore you. So a couple of years ago the environmental protection agency did a little survey of waste water treatment in China and it found that half of the waste water treatment plants that were installed weren't being run because the local officials, the local governments just found them too expensive so they would rather discharge the water into the river, or into whatever it's being discharged into, untreated.

And you get the same with factories. You know you've got factories built, something like 20,000 factories along the Yangtze and the Yellow Rivers, none of which have controls on discharge. And if they do have controls on discharge, they just discharge at night when they think nobody's looking.

Jim Middleton: Now these diversions of water to Beijing for the Olympics particularly from Hebei province, do you think that they will continue once the Olympics have gone, that in an effort to make Beijing more attractive and sustainable that they'll simply keep on thieving the water from the provinces?

Isabel Hilton: Well I think there is that risk. I think in terms of the cosmetic things that have been done to Beijing in the last year really, you know, the laying of green grass, the planting of flowers everywhere, I wouldn't really bet too heavily that much of that will continue next year. I think it's simply too water heavy.

And you have real economic interests at stake in Hebei. You have those farmers, you have factories which are being shut down because they don't have water. And you're going to get a big, big fight with the provinces about the allocation of water resources. This is a problem anyway, everybody fights over a diminishing resource.

"Forty per cent of China's water is grade four and that is unfit for any purpose - that's agriculture, drinking, washing."

But if you look in the longer term at China's water supply there is an even more serious problem up ahead which is climate change. The prediction on climate change is that there will be more water in the south, less water still in the north.

And of course the glaciers of the Himalayas which supply 40 per cent of the world's population with river water are melting and may well be gone by 2035, so that the rivers from which the diverted water is being drawn are themselves going to come under stress.

Even now the Yellow River, which is the northern, big river of China, doesn't reach the sea for nearly two thirds of the year. The Yangtze still has plenty of water but that depends on the glaciers of the Himalayas. So that if you think it's bad now, really profound long term issues are just down the road.

Jim Middleton: How seriously are the implications of what you're saying recognised at official levels within China?

Isabel Hilton: Well I think that they are recognised. They certainly know what the climate change impacts are going to be and they have in recent years put a lot more effort into studying the glaciers and worrying about that.

It's pretty difficult. I mean, as I say there is a whole combination of factors coming into play here. One of them is that there have been centuries of ecological damage to the head waters of these rivers so desertification and tree felling at the head waters has effectively ruined the rivers.

"The prediction on climate change is that there will be more water in China's south, less water still in the north."

The Chinese response tends to be fairly short term. I know we think of China as a place where, because of the nature of the politics you can do long term planning, but actually politicians in China are concerned about their short term reputation and short term negotiation as much as anybody else. It's very difficult to plan for the long term and it's very difficult to enforce what you plan.

But they're certainly aware of it. Who wouldn't be?

Jim Middleton: Finally, it does appear that the Chinese are driven or have been driven to create this perfect Olympics with clear skies, plenty of water, why can't they see that this is an illusion that the rest of the world can see through as well?

Isabel Hilton: Well, I think that probably, I don't want to use the old cliche about face but I do think that China, after 20, 30 years of rapid growth, did want to make a big statement. It did want to feel that it mattered in the world, that this last century of being pushed around was over. And I think that that's been very important for the Chinese Government and it's partly a message they wanted to deliver to the people.

The people are very heavily invested in it. There is a great deal of hunger for national pride in China. So I guess that was the political calculation and we'll just have to hope that the hangover isn't too bad at the end of the year.

Jim Middleton: Isabel Hilton, thank you very, very much.

Isabel Hilton: It's a pleasure, Jim. Thanks for having me.

10 Sep 2008
The Olympics party is over. Now China has to clean up

Isabel Hilton

The games showed off the country's power and apparent wealth, but its pollution and hidden poverty must be faced

Lavish parties tend to leave a hangover as the problems of daily life, put aside for the celebrations, come crowding back. China's Olympic party is not likely to prove an exception. The full legacy of the extraordinary events of 2008 in the People's Republic of China will take many years to emerge, but in the short term, a number of pressing problems are clear.

The Olympics, with its political project of displaying China's power as much to its own population as to the rest of the world, has been the prime focus of domestic propaganda for several years, rallying people behind the nationalist theme with the promise to situate China as a restored power. It worked: recent opinion polls have reported a strong feelgood effect, with high levels of satisfaction with the government and the direction of the country.

But when the Paralympics closes, the leadership might feel the absence of the mobilising appeal of the whole event, with its power to galvanise the country's patriotic instincts and minimise the growing divisions in income, prospects and privilege that are the breeding ground of discontent.

A colder, greyer, post-Olympic world is coming into focus, a world in which most of China's customers are cutting back on spending, inflation at home is running at least at 10% with no relief in sight, eroding the country's competitiveness, and in which China must face the new challenges of maintaining high growth and social stability with the constraints of limited resources, energy shortages, concern over climate change and environmental exhaustion.

For the past decade, China's cheap manufactured goods have helped its customers - in particular, the developed economies - to keep inflation low. Now, with its manufacturing costs rising, China is more likely to be a contributor to increasing prices internationally. Neither energy nor raw materials are likely to get cheaper, and the cost of migrant labour - hitherto the cheap input that has fuelled everything from rebuilding China's cities to servicing its coastal factories - has risen sharply as industrial zones have spread inland and workers have found jobs closer to home. Employees have already made gains in wages and conditions, and many manufacturers, including Chinese firms, are looking at cheaper production sites.

Planners know China's development model to date, while impressive in its results, is unsustainable: it is too carbon-intensive, too polluting and too inconsistent in its effects. Like every Asian tiger before it, China, the biggest tiger on the planet, has to meet the challenge of moving up the value chain, from T-shirts to hi-tech, from low-end production to high-value innovation, from energy-intensive to climate-friendly production. In recent years the early coastal industrial zones have begun to enter that stage, with waves of factory closures the harbingers of a new phase in the country's development.

Managing the transition will be a formidable task, and a race against the clock. It will demand action on the distortions created by the expensive energy subsidies that militate against efficiency and other anomalies in China's hybrid economy, all at a time when real incomes - the source of much of the satisfaction registered with the state - are being squeezed. Meanwhile, time is running short in other ways: the future pensions and labour headache of the world's most rapidly ageing population; an acute water crisis and a gathering health bill from chronic air and water pollution - these are only the most conspicuous items on the list.

A recent report found 70% of the villages surveyed in north China facing increasing water shortages, with ground water falling rapidly and agricultural production being severely constrained. Two-thirds of the cities, too, are short of water. Air quality, according to a World Bank report censored by the Chinese government, causes more than 600,000 premature deaths a year.

The great efforts to clean up Beijing for the games allowed the city's residents to rediscover the lost pleasures of clean air. But the emergency measures that proved necessary in Beijing cannot be sustained. A longer, nationwide cleanup is urgent or the cumulative costs - in health, lost production and environmental damage - will be huge.

There is potentially another unintended consequence of the Olympics. Millions of people around the world watched a display that presented China as modern, powerful, energetic and rich. The opulence of the ceremonies, the magnificence of the venues and the sheer scale of games were designed to impress, and will have changed the perception of China for many, precisely as the government intended.

But China is also engaged in the global negotiations for the post-Kyoto regime, and its participation is essential if catastrophic climate change is to be avoided. Like other developing countries, China is pressing the developed world to finance its move to a low-carbon model, an unprecedented deviation from business as usual for a country at China's stage of development. Under the Kyoto principle of the polluter pays, developed countries - which are responsible for most past emissions - acknowledge this obligation, but it was never going to be easy to persuade sceptical taxpayers to deliver.

Before the Olympics, for most western taxpayers China was a huge and rapidly developing country of which they knew virtually nothing. After the show, the abiding impression is not of the poverty that continues to afflict much of the nation: those images of deprivation in parts of China that do not measure up to the dream were not on view.

Any nation wants to present its best face at such a time, but it may prove counterproductive. If China is rich enough to stage that show, western taxpayers may ask, why do they need our money to pursue a track of clean development? Western politicians struggling to make the case for the kind of radical resource transfers required may find themselves wishing the Olympic party had been just a little less opulent.