Thanks to a new political initiative, things are looking up for China’s rivers, lakes and coastlines.
Chinese government officials recently announced the appointment of approximately 200,000 “river chiefs” throughout provinces, cities, counties and towns across the country. The system has been gradually implemented over the past several months, and it is set to be fully incorporated nationwide by the end of 2018.
The new river chiefs – usually local government officials, such as mayors – are given responsibility for protecting a specific local water source. They are tasked with reducing pollution and supporting ecological restoration efforts. In coastal provinces such as Zhejiang, the system is also manifesting itself in the form of coastal chiefs, who patrol coastlines to prevent illegal fishing practices and waste dumping.
The initiative has its beginnings back in 2007, when a river chief was first assigned to Jiangsu Province in response to a water pollution crisis: a massive algae bloom on Taihu Lake had suddenly left millions of people without access to clean drinking water.
China has struggled with extensive water pollution issues. According to an article by Reuters, China uses a graded scale to assess water quality, with grade one being best quality and anything below grade five being black, smelly, and “unusable even for industrial or irrigation purposes”. In 2017, approximately 2,100 water sites across the country had been marked as being below grade five quality, suffering serious degradation from pesticides, mining waste, and industrial pollution.
Clearly, something needs to change. The river chief system is part of China’s latest efforts to reverse problems with water pollution. But will it work?
The new river chiefs will have plenty of reasons to take their new responsibilities seriously. Those who reach annual environmental improvement goals will be rewarded, but any environmental damage that occurs under their watch will result in heavy fines and damaged job prospects, with external reviews and investigations conducted in response to any rise in public complaints. The names and responsibilities of all water chiefs are made freely available to advance public accountability.
Despite challenges around freedom of speech in China, public pressure may be a significant force when it comes to ensuring that these new river chiefs do their job properly.
According to a recent article by Gulf News, the Chinese public is becoming increasingly active in confronting environmental issues and demanding action. Twenty years ago, only nine Chinese NGOs were focused on environmental issues. Today, in comparison, there are 8000. People are becoming more vocal: over the past four years, official records state that there have been at least 712 anti-pollution demonstrations on the local level across China, and unofficial numbers suggest that the total may actually surpass 30,000.
People want change… and while the river chief system is still new, it is already producing tangible results.
Last year, the Asian Environmental Compliance and Enforcement Network reported on a river chief pilot project in the southern Chinese province of Guizgou. The province’s Sancha River received its first river chief in 2009. Since then, funding to protect the Sancha River has increased by 20 per cent every year. New sewage processing facilities have been built, trees have been planted to reduce erosion, and river water quality has improved from third-grade to second-grade – now suitable for drinking.
At long last – and with some concentrated effort – the waters in China are finally beginning to clear again.
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