A View from the Media: Who’s Responsible for Watching our Water?

One of the latest controversies in Chinese society has been the issue of groundwater pollution in Shandong and other provinces. Disillusioned by the ineffectuality of the government agencies responsible for monitoring pollution, a number of civil society advocates have emphasized the role of NGOs and the public in efforts to eradicate pollution.

The first public discussions about groundwater pollution began on the Weibo microblog in mid-February, when microblogging stars such as journalist Deng Fei circulated allegations that businesses in Weifang, Shandong were using high-pressure pumps to dispose of wastewater, leading to high levels of underground pollution that affect the quality of the region’s drinking water. The Shandong Environmental Protection Bureau responded that it had examined the waste disposal methods of over 700 companies and failed to find any evidence of inappropriate methods, a claim widely pilloried by the public. This controversy quickly became part of a larger current of public critiques of Environmental Protection Bureaus throughout the country, including an offer of RMB 200,000 which a Zhejiang businessman extended to any Environmental Protection Bureau official willing to swim in a polluted local river.

In response, a number of local Environmental Protection Bureaus sought to defend their work. The Shandong Environmental Protection Bureau put out an open call to the public, offering a hefty reward for evidence of groundwater pollution. The Wenzhou Environmental Protection Bureau took out a full-page ad in a local newspaper, arousing further opprobrium for misuse of funds. China Daily released a number of articles lauding the services offered by the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau, including an environmental protection hotline.  These efforts, however, were not enough to quell the growing tide of criticism directed at Environmental Protection institutions’ failure to address the serious damage that industries are inflicting on the environment.

The fact remains that the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) is one of the country’s weakest ministries, with little ability and, if rumors concerning corporate bribes aimed at MEP officials are true, little incentive to strong-arm wealthy, well-connected businessmen into following regulations. In a lawsuit recently submitted by a man whose son suffered from a lung disorder caused by proximity to a trash burning plant, he accused the Ministry of Environmental Protection of delaying a response to his queries until after major companies in the area had been consulted, violating an internal regulation that inquiries must receive a response within 15 days.

Disappointed with the government institutions intended to fight pollution, and conscious that local officials also frequently ignore environmental protection regulations in order to meet the economic development quotas which can determine their promotion, many civil society voices have turned to the role of the public and civil society institutions in fighting pollution. As laid out in a recent meeting of environmental NGOs, these include calling for transparency in government, utilizing public interest lawsuits, and encouraging public participation. If pollution data is openly reported, environmental NGO Nature University founder Feng Yongfeng emphasized that it will be easier for the public to call for a response from the relevant authorities, and more difficult for businesses to obfuscate the nature of the situation.

Unfortunately, another MEP scandal at the end of February, regarding its refusal to release data from a national soil contamination investigation in 2006, highlights the significant shortcomings in transparency and accountability in the environmental protection system. And while the newly revised environmental public interest lawsuit may well be a useful tool in addressing pollution damage, others have argued that China’s weak legal system, and the lack of clarity in the civil procedure legislation, leave the mechanism ill-suited to taking on the large entities responsible for pollution.

While all levels of government, businesses, and the public will have to participate in constructing a coherent response to pollution, the MEP stands as the conduit through which environmental protection action should take place. Time will tell whether the institution, only recently upgraded to ministerial level, will develop the ability to effectively monitor pollution, openly release its data, and work with the public, NGOs, and other parties to keep pollution damage in check.

For Chinese media coverage of this issue:

– 治污需“三公”:信息公开、公益诉讼、公民参与

– 治地下水污染应鼓励公民监督

– 让公益诉讼遏止猖狂“地下排污”

– 全国“开打”地下水保卫战

– 中国环境危机的解决之道:环境民主

Associate Director, China Development Brief (English)

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