Don’t Drink the Water and Don’t Breathe the Air – The Economist

0408AS1.jpgThe Economist writes about the different challenges SEPA, China’s environmental protection agency, faces in its efforts to curb pollution:

THESE days China’s environmental bureaucrats know how to talk the talk. They readily admit that pollution is poisoning the country’s water resources, air and soil. They acknowledge that carbon emissions are soaring. If only, they lament, the government would give them the means to do something about it.For all its green promises in recent years, the Communist Party has done little to build a bureaucracy with the clout to enforce environmental edicts and monitor pollution effectively. As long as they deliver economic growth without too much public protest, officials can still expect promotion, however polluted their areas.

[Image: A grey Beijing day. The Economist.]

Optimists see changes afoot. The State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), the government’s largely toothless watchdog, could soon be renamed and upgraded to a ministry. Some observers expect the rubber-stamp legislature, the National People’s Congress, to endorse the change at its annual session in March.In an article last year two scholars argued that if SEPA were a ministry it might hold its own better in bureaucratic turf wars in which it is at present “marginalised”. SEPA’s weakness was evident last year during one of the country’s biggest recent environmental disasters, the choking of the country’s third-largest freshwater lake, Taihu, by toxic algae. The contaminants included emissions from small factories and crab farms along the shore. SEPA officials say they could do little: the crab farms fall under the Ministry of Agriculture, waste-water treatment plants under local governments and the lake itself under the Ministry of Water Resources.

SEPA is so weak that its officials admit it has little grasp of the impact of agriculture on water and soil pollution. The Ministry of Agriculture has discouraged it from gathering data even though, as one SEPA official sees it, Chinese agriculture pollutes as much as its industries. The country’s first national census of pollution sources is due to begin in February. The ministry is taking part in the two-month effort. But, famously secretive and protective of its bureaucratic territory, it is likely to drag its feet. Health officials would sympathise with SEPA. Their efforts to persuade the agriculture ministry to co-operate over livestock-related threats to public health, such as bird flu, have encountered stubborn resistance. And health already has a full-fledged ministry. [Full text]

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