The Huai River Pollution in China

SATURDAY: Current Affairs

From the role of the Central Government to Grassroots NGOs: Responses to the Huai River Pollution in China.

Written by Roberta Cucchiaro on June 25, 2011 at Peking University

Abstract: The aim of this research is to elucidate how the Chinese government could tackle environmental issues in face of rapid industrialization and economic growth. By using the case study of the Huai River Pollution Control Plan initiated by the Chinese central government in response to alarming levels of water pollution in the Huai River basin, this research strives to understand the main causes for the Pollution Control Plan’s failures and the role grassroots Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) could have in assisting the government there where it is failing. In face of the still rampant pollution in China’s waterways, the case of the Huai River could be an example to improve China’s overall environment, hence making the need for this research timely. While being based on a thorough review of the literature, this research provides the academia with its own findings and conclusions. The findings of this research divide the reasons for the failure of the Huai River Pollution Control Plan and the river’s increasing pollution into four main reasons: the institutional and administrative framework; the lack of accountability and coordination; the hindered law enforcement; the unrealistic planning and obsolete measures taken. Drawing from these findings highlighting the incapability of the central government to effectively address the Huai River pollution, the main conclusions shed light on the important role public participation and grassroots environmental NGOs can play in assisting affected people, raising awareness and promoting policies for change. This research recommends the Chinese central government to play a tougher role in response to environmental degradation while at the same time softening its hand on public participation and leaving more space for grassroots NGOs to give advices on how to better tackle the issue of pollution.


The Huai River basin has the potential to be one of the many beautiful scenic spots around China, unfortunately however, it is for the most part associated with the rampant pollution which has not only been affecting the basin, its flora and fauna, but has also been affecting people’s health and their livelihoods. The pollution caused by the industrial development of the region has not been forgivable towards the Huai River waterway and its tributaries which for the most part are classified as Class IV or worse and towards the people living along the Huai River, who have been witnessing increasing tumor cases and other water-caused diseased.

In response to serious pollution disasters, already in 1974 the Chinese government established the Huai River Valley Bureau of Water Resources Protection and the Huai River Conservancy Commission of the Ministry of Water Resources to address the Huai River pollution. However, it was not only until May 1994 that the State Council declared the initiation of the Huai River Pollution Control Plan, the first major river pollution control plan in China. Since 1994 to today, there has been a number of succeeding regulations and plans addressing the pollution of the Huai River. The Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh Five-Year Plans have also focused their attention to addressing the increasing pollution of China’s waterways with particular attention paid to the Huai River. However, the results of those initiatives have been highly unsatisfactory and the July 2004 disaster is self explanatory.

In July 2004, exactly 10 years after the State Council initiated the Pollution Control Plan, a heavy rainfall forced the opening of water gates in the upper stream of the Huai River. A 500 million-ton torrent of polluted water flowed over several hundred kilometers, contaminating water and land, killing fish and all the animals who fed on the poisoned fish. Needless to explain the impact it had on those living along the river, be them fishers or farmers. The magnitude of the disaster was unprecedented and it highlighted the inefficiency of the government response to fighting water pollution. While disasters of that magnitude have not repeated themselves, the situation on the ground has not changed much.

This research tries to understand the reasons why the Chinese leadership has not been able to prevent the July 2004 disaster and why it is still failing to bring back the environment of the Huai River basin to its pre-industrialization status. While rapid industrialization and economic growth have been the primary cause for the increased pollution, four main reasons can explain the Chinese government’s inability to respond effectively to the pollution disaster: the institutional and administrative framework; the lack of accountability and coordination between the central government and local provinces; the inability of enforcing the law; the unrealistic planning and obsolete measures taken to counter pollution.

Before going into detail in each of those four reasons for failure, the research will first provide in the next chapter a thorough literature review. In the chapter following the next, the research will provide a brief overview of the geographic and socioeconomic conditions of the Huai River basin as well as the impact of the River’s pollution on the health and people’s livelihood. Following, the research will explain the different measures the Chinese central government has been taking to address water pollution in the basin. The main reasons for policy failure will be explained and evaluated in the subsequent section. The chapter preceding the conclusion will take a closer look at the role public participation and grassroots NGOs could have in addressing water pollution. The conclusion will recommend an approach which could be beneficial for the future.

Literature Review

Due to the weight of the Huai River pollution issue, most of the research looking at water pollution in China will also address the Huai River basin. Several researches have focused on the Chinese government response to the Huai River pollution and the consequent reasons for its inability to tackle the issue in an efficient manner. However, many have simply stopped at addressing the government’s role and have not looked at the importance grassroots NGOs could have in guiding the government towards more effective policies. The following literature review shall address various arguments from different researches in regards to the possible explanations for the government’s failure to prevent the July 2004 disaster and failure to increase the water quality in the basin to the present day.

One of the most distinctive arguments in the discourse regarding the Huai River Pollution lies within the 2008 joint research by Mark Wang, Michael Webber, Brian Finlayson and Jon Barnett. Their research explains that while the implementation of China’s environmental protection laws has not been effective, this has not only to be blamed on the poor regulations and enforcement mechanisms in per se, but rather on the economic/developmental model which underpins rural development in China. Mark Want et al explain that ‘the factors that have underpinned the economic success of the rural industry are precisely the same factors that cause water pollution from rural industry to remain such a serious problem in China’. As their arguments link the factors which have promoted industrialization with the factors that are causing pollution and are preventing the government’s measures to be effective, in order to solve the issue of water pollution within the Huai River basin and within China overall, there would be need for a complete transformation in the Chinese model of development. Indeed, arguing in favor of a so-called “China Model” neglects the devastating impact the economic development portrayed in the “Model” has done to the Chinese environment. In one sentence the China water expert Elizabeth Economy explains the dire situation by reporting that ‘water pollution and water scarcity are burdening the economy, rising levels of air pollution are endangering the health of millions of Chinese, and much of the country’s land is rapidly turning into desert’.

Interesting argument is brought forward by Xi Wang and Xu Zhengxiang in their 2002 research. They suggest that the Huai River pollution management is an example showing that the political will of the government at the national level is critical to the success of water pollution control. Any other issue which might stand in the way of policy effectiveness, such as financial or technological issues, will be overcome if the government is ‘politically determined to eliminate pollution’. It is relevant to note however that since their research was published in 2002, before the 2004 disaster, their views on the pollution control measures tend to be in some aspects overly positive. Xi Wang and Xu Zhengxiang are perhaps representing the sole view among those covered in this review claiming that the Huai River pollution control campaign has enhanced the position and influence of various environmental protection departments as well as having strengthened the authority of environmental law and policies. While it is true that to some extent government measures have been increasing raising environmental issues, evidence shows that what has been done is still not enough.

Edwin D. Ongley and Wang Xueju have been providing the academia with two thorough researches on China’s water pollution management both published in the same issue of Water International. Their arguments highlight institutional arrangements and the role of the local governments as the major reasons for failures in enforcing efficient environmental laws. As each province is responsible for its own water quality management, heightened competition due to China’s rapid economic growth causes local governments to neglect the environment and disregard the potential benefits that could be brought by inter-provincial coordination on environmental issues. Admittedly, lack of coordination among the local governments is one of the main reasons this research also finds to be blamable for the increasing pollution in the Huai River basin. There are no mechanisms forcing provinces to take measures in face of the circumstances of their downstream neighbors and there has been instances for example, of companies moving to neighboring provinces because there were less strict environmental laws to abide to.

Similarly, Tyler Zachary argues that with local protectionism, corruption and lack of coordination, power in the hands of the local governments sheds doubts on the likelihood for achieving successful policies. However, the poor organizational system at the national level also impedes effective policy implementation. Zachary also raises the issue relating to the tensions built between the Ministry of Water Resources (MWR) and the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) whose roles often overlap and hinder the potential for constructive policy making and enforcement capacity. Abigail Jahiel and George C. S. Lin also see poor regulations and lack of enforcement as the primary cause for the failing environmental policies in China’s water pollution history. This lacking policy enforcement allows many small rural and larger government-linked enterprises to operate without waste treatment facilities as well as not taking the issue of environmental protection seriously enough. Moreover, fees for non compliance do not respect the economic trends of the region and hence are ridiculed. There has been instances in which the operating costs for wastewater treatment were more than eight times the fee imposed for not operating the equipment.

According to the different literatures covered, there seems to be a recurring theme blaming the institutional arrangements, the accountability mechanisms and law enforcement trends for the Chinese government’s failure in dealing efficiently with the pollution of the Huai River basin and causing hundreds of deaths among its citizens due to the poor quality of the water they live near to. However it is important to note as Bai Xuemei and Shi Peijun do, that in order to have successful environmental protection policies, also the economic and human development’s aspects must be taken into consideration. It is not only true that environmental protection is necessary for the sustainability of the economic and human development, but after analyzing the Huai River pollution case, the reverse seems to also be case.

Overview on the Huai River’s pollution sources and impacts thereafter

The Huai River is the third largest river in China. Originating from Tongbo Mountain in Henan Province, it runs eastward parallel with the Yellow River in the north and the Yangtze River in the south. Running for about 1000 kilometers, it crosses Anhui Province, enters Jiangsu Province and discharges into the Yangtze River at Sanjiangying. It has more than 120 primary and more than 460 secondary tributes. The Huai River basin instead extends through five provinces and encompasses 36 cities and 182 towns and with a population of more than 170 million, it exceeds all other basins in population density in China. Thanks greatly to the abundant water resource, flat landscape and mild weather, the basin is ideal for human inhabitance and has hence long been a cradle of the Chinese civilization. Because of the above-mentioned characteristics, the Huai River basin has historically been one of China’s major agricultural production bases, producing nearly one forth of China’s marketed grain, cotton and oil seeds while occupying only one eight of China’s farmland. It must also not be forgotten that before the devastating effects pollution has brought with it, fisheries were also a major market on which many families relied on for their annual incomes.

Despite the Huai River basin being a major agricultural base within China, it has a low income relative to the rest of eastern China. This disparity has evoked a desire among the local people and the local governments to raise the incomes by pressurizing industrial development. Since the 1980s, the basin has been experiencing a transformation characterized by rapid economic and population growth. Economic development in the area has however ‘occurred blindly’ and at the expense of the environment. It is this rapid industrialization that is often seen as the main cause for the rise in pollution in the basin. During the years where industrial reforms were the local governments’ priorities, the percentage of polluted water in the Huai River increased from 45 percent in 1980 to 88.1 percent in 1996 and remained above 65 percent throughout the 2000s.

The main pollutants in the Huai River are compounds that produce biochemical oxygen demand (BOD), chemical oxygen demand (COD), and ammonia nitrogen. All of those pollutants’ levels far exceed the national standard and are hence seen as the main cause for water pollution deriving from industrial production. The main industries producing wastewater in the basin are paper mills, brewing industries, food industries and chemical industries. Throughout the 1990s it was in fact the paper industry that contributed to 44.4 percent of the total industrial COD load and the chemical industry ti the 70.3 percent of total ammonia nitrogen load in the Huai River basin. Moreover, the rural industries have been greatly criticized for consuming massive quantities of water and polluting as much. Studies show that rural enterprises are characterized by small, outmoded technology, obsolete equipment, poor management and hazardous waste treatment facilities. According to China’s Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research (IWHR) from 1980 to 1995 the total wastewater discharge in the Huai River basin increased 40 percent from 2,550 to 3,600 million cubic meters per year and since 1996 there also been noted an increase in pollution from agriculture and livestock, contributing to the increase in non-point source pollution.

The mushrooming of paper mills throughout the Huai River basin has not only been a result of natural conditions but also of a government induced policy. Due to the abundance of wheat straw in the basin, paper production from wheat straw became the preferred choice for enterprises in the region from the 1980s throughout the present day. In 1992 in Anhui Province the local government even launched a campaign in promotion of paper making and the number of enterprises focusing solely on paper raised to 120 in a shot time in Xiao Prefecture alone. The promotion of paper making has had grave environmental consequences and just in few months all rivers and tributaries were severally polluted.

While rapid industrialization has empowered many citizens of the region, the dire consequences on the environment have also resulted in negative impacts on the people’s health conditions. According to a report issued by the State of the Environment in 2006, it was recommended that humans avoided direct contact with the Huai River along 75 percent of the River sections. The most visible health impacts have been the short term impacts causing inflammation, swelling, ulceration of skin after direct contact with the water. Long term impacts such as pulmonary, liver and intestinal cancers are the ones instead for which the most awareness should be raised. The grim reality unfortunately is that there have been whole villages along the Huai River which have been defined as “cancer villages” where 80 percent of the deaths are attributed to liver cancers resulting from contact with the polluter water. Other diseases such as malaria have also been found increasing in the basin in the recent years. Moreover, it is harder and harder for the villagers to get access to drinkable water as the ten-meter-deep pumping wells which have so far been used, are located at the same level of the rivers and hence receive the pollution from the industrial waste. In mid-July of 1994 during a serious water pollution crisis, samples of water were tested and it resulted that among the 129 major pollutants listed by an US environmental protection agency, 95 pollutants, of which 67 cause cancer, were identified in the water. In face of such harsh consequences, there is however no existing compensation for those who are negatively affected by irresponsible policies and the losses of those who lived off the Huai River are uncountable for  in both health and economic terms.

The Huai River Pollution Control

Even though the Chinese government has been aware of the Huai River pollution throughout several decades already, it was only in the 1990s that it started implementing regulations and policies to try to protect the environment. In 1994, after the National People’s Congress organized a news media report on water pollution raising the issue among the State leaders and following an inspection in the Huai River basin and receiving a petition signed by over 10,000 people in the basin, the State Council initiated the Huai River Pollution Control Plan. The Control Plan was the first basin-wide pollution control project in China and it has become the benchmark for evaluating the effectiveness of environmental protection efforts in China.

Soon after the 1994 Pollution Control Plan, in August 1995 the State Council promulgated the Provisional Regulations on Water Pollution Prevention ad Control of the Huai River Basin. Just one year afterwards, in June 1996, the Water Pollution Control Plan (WPCP) for the Ninth Five-Year Plan (1996-2000) was approved. The Provisional Regulations required the strengthening of the Leading Group of Water Resources Protection in the Huai River basin and enlarging of its membership to also include the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Chemical Industry among others. Since one of the main responsibilities of the Leading Group is to coordinate water pollution prevention and control in the basin, its strengthening came at a pivotal time. Moreover, the Regulations also called for constant water quality monitoring and mandated the timely exchange of monitoring information. A ban was also raised on the construction of new small scale factories dealing with paper making, chemical products, printing and dyeing and brewage as well as restricting the construction of large and medium factories.

The WPCP instead had set two main targets: 1) by 1997 all wastewater discharge from industries was to have met the standards for effluence and total COD was to have been reduced from the 1993 level of 1.5 million tons to 0.89 million tons; 2) by 2000 the total COD was to have been further reduced to 0.368 million tons, and the Huai River mainstream and main tributaries were to have achieved Class III. In order to achieve these two goals, the WPCP set forth three main tasks: 1) shut down small scale polluting industries, mainly paper mills and chemical plants; 2) through the Zero Hour Operation (零点行动), promote industrial wastewater treatment and ensure that all industrial discharge met the designated standards; 3) build 52 municipal wastewater treatment plants in cities to ensure that all municipal wastewater was treated before being discharged into the Huai River.

Those Plans should be given some credit for as the Zero Hour Operation did reach its target by the end of 1997 when all industrial wastewater discharge from 1,562 enterprises met the target standards. Moreover around 5,000 small scale firms were shut down during the period. However, the 2004 accident and the current environmental trends show that not enough has been done to address water pollution in the Huai River. Already at that time however several researches did cast their doubts about the Plans efficacy and arguments were voiced asking how the State would be able to collect pollution discharge fees from small and scattered industries which for the most part do not hold proper accounts and their finances are not transparent.

When the Eleventh Five-Year Plan (2006-2010) chapter on water aimed at tackling water pollution were released, it was honest in admitting that there has not been a ‘breakthrough in some in-depth environmental issues that should have been addressed during the Tenth Five-Year Plan period’. Moreover it notes that: ‘There is no fundamental change in the inappropriate industrial structure and extensive economic growth mode. There are also problems such as environmental protection lagging behind economic growth, poor or inflexible mechanisms, insufficient input and capacity. The phenomena of no strict observation of laws, little punishment to lawbreakers, poor law enforcement and supervision are still very common’. However, while addressing the failure of the previous Five-Year Plan, the Eleventh Five-Year Plan was again criticized for setting too broad and abstract targets and lacking specific guidelines about how to achieve and implement them, such as when the Plan simply stated for the need to “strengthen the rule of law”.

Several alarming figures show the inefficacy of the government’s plans. For example, during the Tenth Five-Year Plan (2000-2005), the government had approved the construction of 161 urban waste water treatment projects, but according to figures released in 2004, 78 of them were not yet started, 55 were still under construction and 28 completed but were activated only during inspection visits. Moreover, during an inspection carried on by SEPA between May and June 2004, 31 percent of all industries investigated had illegal discharges of wastewater that exceeded standards, many more had “resurrected” illegally after they were closed down. Unfortunately it has been often the case that enterprises have been using tricky measures to avoid being “caught”. Huo Daishan explains that such tricks would include discharging at night instead of daytime, on rainy days or when floodgates are open to release flood water, discharging after supervisions. Moreover special devices were installed to switch at will between clean water and polluted water flowing through the tunnel. As also this cartoon below shows, such tricks have and still are characterizing most of the enterprises functioning on the Huai River basin.

As the company owner tells the government inspector ‘No, never’, he presses the button thinking ‘The signal has been sent to turn off the valve’.

In looking more closely at the three tasks that were set forth by the WPCP and learning today what has actually happened, it can be understood that rather than shutting down polluting industries, regional disparities in the law enforcement and strictness, led polluting industries to relocate to less strict Provinces. For example Anhui strictness led to many of its enterprises to relocate to Henan Province. Old equipment from closed industries were also re-sold to other factories and smaller factories conglomerated into one larger enterprise. In terms of the Zero Hour Operation, it turned out like mentioned earlier, that many enterprises stopped discharging wastewater until after the inspections, hence much of the data was falsified. Moreover, the majority of municipal wastewater treatment plants planned to be constructed was either not constructed or was not put into operation due lo lack of funding or because no sewage pipeline system existed to connect the pollution source to the treatment plant. While this evidence shows where the Plans have failed, it is worthy of discussion to understand more in depth why those failures have occurred and what could be done to improve the situation in the near future.

Reasons for the failure of the Huai River Pollution Control Plans

The research has categorized the reasons for policy failure into four: institutional and administrative framework; lack of accountability and coordination; hindered law enforcement; unrealistic planning and obsolete measures taken. This section aims at explaining and evaluating each one of them.

Institutional and administrative framework:

China has now a comprehensive legal framework for the implementation of environmental protection measures, however it is widely acknowledged that the current institutional arrangements hinder the effectiveness of policy implementation. The roles of the two main bodies, the MWR and SEPA often overlap and their space for maneuver is restricted by each other’s presence. While the MWR is the chief organ of water administration, the main body responsible for water pollution control is the SEPA. This arrangement causes SEPA to take a coordinating role but to lack both administrative power and necessary financial independence. Since SEPA does not have the institutional power to take a lead over the MRW which is at a higher administrative level, the current arrangement often results in disputes, competition and slowing the pollution control measures. It seems to be the case that SEPA’s ‘crippling weakness’ is hampering the effective mechanisms to fight the Huai River pollution. During the planned construction of the wastewater treatment plants in the basin, for instance, the financial requirements were supposed to be shared by the industries in the area and the Ministry of Construction, hover as many enterprises could not afford to pay and the Ministry of Construction did not cover the cost of the industries, the SEPA did not have the capacity nor to force the industries to pay and neither to mobilize the support of the local governments in face the Huai River’s rampant pollution.Moreover, with only three hundred staff on the SEPA, its ability to undertake more tasks than it is assigned to is greatly restricted.

The public dispute between the SEPA and the MWR is also worthy of mention as a representation of how the two bodies’ lack of coordination negatively affects development in the Huai River basin. Based on data provided by SEPA claiming that water quality in the Huai River basin had reached Class III, in 2000 SEPA announced publicly the triumph of the Huai River Pollution Control Program. Later however, the MWR denied the veridicality of those claims, reporting instead that in 2003, 84.4 percent of monitoring sites of the Huai River Commission were Class V or worse. The two bodies repeatedly reported diverging results on the status of the Huai River pollution and both credibility and accountability was hindered by their dispute. It is in this context that the lack of accountability and coordination comes into play as a consequence of the mismanaged institutional arrangements.

Lack of accountability and coordination:

As a consequence of the present institutional framework, there seems to be a growing “implementation gap” between what is discussed in Beijing and what actually gets implemented in the different Provinces at the local level. Hon S. Chan et al explain this gap as deriving from legislative shortcomings, poorly designed policy instruments, an unsupportive work environment for environmental regulators, and a pro-growth political and social environment. However the disconnection between the central and local governments seems also to be caused by the MRW and SEPA’s inability to enforce regulations. There is in fact no article in the promulgated regulations stating who would be held accountable if targets are not met and since many local governments prioritize economic growth over environmental protection out of personal interests, the neglection of the environment is not considered a grave offense, so do industries not give the necessary importance to environmental standards.

Since there are no legal obligations on upstream jurisdiction, each province is responsible for its own water and does not cooperative with the other provinces in order to respect their rights as equal users of the same water flowing downstream. The lack of mechanisms to force provinces to incorporate the needs of the downstream provinces greatly hinders the potential for more responsible and reasonable policies. Without an effective mechanism to supervise transboundary pollution and without a national body strong enough to enforce policies implementation, pollution is likely to continue remaining a major issue in the Huai River basin.

Hindered Law enforcement:

Due to this rife lack of accountability, local protectionism plays a greater role in environmental politics by not only hindering the implementation of environmental laws, but also encouraging polluting industries to operate illegally. Perhaps due to the recent poverty from which Chinese people have emerged, their ignorance in therms of environmental protection and due to China’s economic-driven mindset, it is inevitable that local government if are given a choice, prefer to enhance their economic developments rather than slowing growth to promote sustainable environments. It is often the case that the major polluting industries are also the ones which are the major source of revenue for the local governments. Hence, local governments are keen in maintaining those industries running. The case of Lianhua Weijing Co. is rampant. Henan Province’s Lianhua Weijing Co., the largest producer of synthetic seasoning in Asia, had to pay in 2003 a fine of 12 million CNY for illegal discharge into the Huai River basin. However, the fine cost less than it would actually cost for the company to upgrade its technology to meet environmental standards. In this case, rather than forcing Lianhua Weijing Co. to pay a fine, it would have been more sound if the company was forced to upgrade its technology, otherwise after the fine is paid, the company keeps on polluting the surrounding environment with no light for improvement. The example just shown, is exemplary in portraying an ineffective mechanisms of law enforcement.

Related to the reluctance of local governments to enforce environmental laws, is China’s system of public finance. The system is highly centralized and allows the local government to only retain a small amount of tax income to balance out other expenditures. However, the so-called “extra-budgetary revenues” mainly deriving from larger enterprises, provide the local governments with extra revenues. Because of this tight link between larger enterprises, often the main polluters in the Huai River basin, and the local governments, the latter is often light in implementing tight environmental regulations against the operation of those industries. Moreover, it is also often the case that local governments are also related to the management of those industries through guanxi and are hence reluctant to penalize what are they own enterprises. Because of this trend, the environmental regulations credibility is highly hindered. A study in fact shows that among several enterprises investigated along the Huai River, only 3.2 percent of the rural enterprises fully complied with the environmental inspectors’ orders for waste treatment, while two fifths ignored the orders and another 15 percent partially complied.

Unrealistic planning and obsolete measures taken:

Another reason which is seen to be the cause of failed pollution control plans has been the unrealistic targets set and obsolete measures taken. As planning has mainly been top-down, the targets set have been criticized for being too high. Moreover, the approach has often been criticized for not taking into consideration the economic aspects of the Huai River basin. As the area is characterized by rapid development and industrialization, closing down thousands of industries would not only negatively affect the people who lived off the income earned from their jobs at the industries, but also receive negative response from the local governments whose revenue is based on those industries. The Huai River Pollution Control Plan has for instance been criticized for increasing the cost of production for local enterprises and the local enterprises have to invest more in updating their production technology to meet environment standards. Moreover the closure of thousands of enterprises had resulted in a decrease in local revenue, causing problems to the local governments and restricting the development of the local economies.

The use of “end-of-pipe” approaches have also been another instance of criticisms. The end-of-pipe approach is defined as an approach to pollution control which concentrates upon effluent treatment or filtration prior to discharge into the environment rather than making changes in the process giving rise to the waste. This approach is widely believed to be obsolete as it does not tackle the issue at its source, hence not being beneficial to the improvement of the polluted environment.

The above mentioned four main explanations for the Chinese government’s failure to succeed with its Huai River Pollution Control Program can give an overview of where the government is most at fault and which areas require improvements. Needless to say that there in face of the increasing pollution in the Huai River basin, there is an urgent need for transformation in the Chinese economic developmental system in which environmental issues should be given primary importance. Targets and methods should be more adequate at the present level of development in the Huai River basin and should neither be too unrealistic nor fee irregular enterprises with too low fines. Law enforcement must be strengthened through more accountability and coordination at both the central and local level. Finally, the institutional framework in which the environmental regulations are promulgates should be adjusted to suit the present needs of China’s environmental pollution. While addressing those issues and trying to hold a stronger stance on environmental regulations, the Chinese central government has the potential to benefit from the emerging roles of grassroots NGOs and increased public participation. Listening the those voices would give the Chinese government advice on where action should be prioritized and making it aware of what the Chinese citizens need and with what urgency they need it. Since accountability to the citizens, is the main factor keeping high the Chinese central leadership’s support, it would be a missed opportunity not to listen to the voices of the people and directing the governments’ policies there where they are most needed. Before concluding, the next chapter will look at what role grassroots NGOs and public participation can play in helping the Chinese government adopt better policies.

Paving the way for public participation and grassroots NGOs:

In face of the inability to implement successful policies eradicating the pollution in the Huai River basin and elsewhere around China, the Chinese central government has been paving the way for an increased public participation and has been permitting the growth of the environmental NGOs (ENGOs) since 1994 when a registration system for NGOs was passed and China’s first ENGOs , Friends of Nature, was formally established. While in the first stage of ENGOs development within China, ENGOs focused mainly on environmental education programmes and biodiversity protection, they more recently started to pay closer attention to energy consumption, air and water pollution as well as large-scale dams and hydropower stations such as the Three Gorges Dam. Today there are several ENGOs engaged in the protection of the Huai River basin, Huo Daishan’s Huai River Guardians (HRG) one among many.

Huo Daishan’s HRG is the first ENGO set up in the Huai River basin. The main mission of the HRG is to ‘fight pollution in the Huai River basin, expose the consequences of pollution in the area, restore the environment and aid affected communities’. Through their “Project Hope of Saving the Huai River” they aim at monitoring the pollution control and through investigations in the “cancer villages” they call for “safe drinking water and medical care” for those living along the Huai River and in the basin area. Through their efforts the HRG has for instance been able to install 350 water purifiers in two villages in the basin and through their appeal to the government they have also been able to be listened to and got special funds from the Henan Province to dig two 450 meter deep wells in other two villages.

Such as the case of the HRG, many of China’s ENGOs have been successful in pushing for environmental initiatives and more information being accessible to the pubic. A remarkable achievement has been by researcher and activist Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE). Through Ma Jun’s efforts, the IPE launched China’s first online public database of water pollution. The digital water pollution map enables internet users to survey the water quality throughout China’s basins and monitor pollution discharges. The digital map has however been demanding accountability from polluting companies, to the extent that some of the them have been convinced to adopt environmentally friendly technologies. As Ma Jun himself states ‘public disclosure of polluting enterprises is a key motivator for companies to act responsibly’. Through such efforts, Chinese consumers are also seen to be learning how to use their purchasing power in favor of the environment. If consumers are educated to consider an enterprise’s environmental performance before purchasing one of their products, polluting companies would see the incentives to upgrade their technologies.

Together with the role of ENGOs, so is public participation essential in presenting to the government what are the real needs of society. The Chinese central government seems to have understood that there are much more gains than losses in increasing public participation. In fact, in 2003 the Chinese government has promulgated the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Law which establishes the legal basis for pubic participation. Since then the government has further strengthened the role of civil society by also issue the Guidelines for Full Implementation of the Rule of Law in 2004, creating a policy basis for information disclosure. In February 2006 moreover, the SEPA promoted the Provisional Measures on Public Participation in Environmental Impact Assessment, making the disclosure of basic information regarding environment related projects a primary requirement.

As SEPA Deputy Minister Pan Yue states ‘in the face of of the complicated and arduous environmental protection work, it is impossible to rely on environmental authorities alone. The only way to break the deadlock is to enlist the power of the public’. Greater access to information facilitates public involvement in environmental decision makings and gives the government advice on what the public sees as a priority. The importance of public participation and of the civil society cannot be denied. Civil society is important as it plays the third major player in a triangle where at the two corners there is the central government and enterprises, and at the opposite corner, in between the two, there is civil society regulating the behavior of the other two, promoting cooperation and coordination of policies in order to produce sustainable growth. Even though public participation and ENGOs are at their initial stage, since they do not even have twenty years ‘ experience behind them, their role has been on the increase and their positive effects have already been felt.

Before the concluding remarks, one last example should be worth mentioning. This last case is an example of how public participation inter-winded with the role of ENGOs can promote better policies from the central government. After a private chemical company took over an old state-owned enterprise in 2004 in Qiugang, a village of Anhui River, the company’s industrial production caused devastating pollution in the nearby waters and on to the Huai River basin. As in many other examples, fish died, crops failed and villagers were alarmingly prone to cancers. A villager in Qiugang, Zhang Gongli, filed a lawsuit against the factory. While his lawsuit was at first lost, he and his villagers drew up a petition to bring to Beijing with the help of ENGO Green Anhui and local media. After long awaiting and bureaucratic hostilities, Zhang’s perseverance brought the expected results and the chemical company was shut down. Zhang’s experience should be an example to many other Chinese villagers who see their right to a healthy life endangered by polluting industries. Increased space for public participation in environmental issues cannot be anything but positive towards China’s development.

Recommendations and Conclusions:

According to the Environmental Sustainability Index, in 2005 China was ranked as 133 out 146 countries, one of the lowest in the world in sustainability in an environmental performance index. The reasons why China has been ranked so low have been explained in this research and could be summarized as being interrelating causes deriving from the institutional framework at the National level, an implementation gap, lack of coordination between the central government and the local Provinces as well as lack of accountability and law enforcement capabilities to make local governments and enterprises abide to environmental regulations. The environmental targets which have so far been brought forward have also been criticized for being inadequate and unrealistic. While there is need for reform at the institutional level, the Chinese government should also address its model of economic development as the reasons for increased pollution also derive from the economic policies China has been undertaking in the last three decades.

Moreover, while being more coercive in implementing stricter environmental regulations, the Chinese government should be increasingly open to more public participation and grassroots NGOs providing the government with advice on what the citizens believe should be addressed. As being the representation of the voice of the citizens, ENGOs can reach there where the government has failed and if enhanced cooperation among the two is reached, the central government can as a consequence implement environmental policies which are seen as favorable and positive by the citizens of of the Huai River basin and the citizens of all the other geographic areas within Chinese where environmental issues have to be addressed.

The piece has not been published and cannot be quoted. If interested in obtaining further information or quoting rights please contact the author at roberta.cucchiaro [at]

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