The story appears on

Page B2

November 2, 2009

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Feature

Fighter for clean water and air

WHEN Ma Jun stood on the banks of the mighty but polluted Yangtze River in 1994, he had a vague idea that one day he would devote himself to a mission impossible: saving China's dying rivers.

Named as one of 100 Most Influential Persons of 2006 by Time magazine, Ma has spared no efforts to raise public participation in environmental protection. Backing him up is a brand-new information platform linking government, businesses and ordinary people.

Born in 1968, Ma often recalls the "good old days" of his childhood by the Jin'gouhe River, or Golden Hook River, a major source of water for Beijing residents. "The water glistened with swarms of fish," he remembers. There it was where Ma learned to swim with his friends.

On summer nights, Ma liked to go out to observe insects in the dim lamp light along the street. "Beijing was much smaller then, and surrounded by undeveloped farmland," he recalls.

But the Jin'gouhe River smelled foul by the late of 1970s when the country's economic reform and opening-up started.

"The water quality of the river was rated Category V, meaning not drinkable, by China's national standards," says Ma.

"Many rivers in Beijing have lost their functions, except as outlets for waste water discharged by factories or households. Some of them simply dry up, for good."

By the time Ma graduated from university in 1993 and went to work in media, his concerns were increased by visits to the Yangtze River, the most important lifeline for people living in the south of China. The river environment was deteriorating.

"The rushing waters reminded me of the poem by Du Fu of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) describing a bountiful natural scene, but what I saw was rampant deforestation, soil erosion and damage to the environment. The locals said what they owned were just messy patches."

Nationwide, nearly all China's rivers and lakes were increasingly polluted.

Take Dongting Lake for example. Once the country's largest freshwater lake, Dongting Lake had dwindled substantially in volume and area. The Fenhe River in north China's Shanxi Province was threatening local people's health due to heavy industrial pollution.

In the face of water shortages, China's governments investigated different options, but engineering took the upper hand, culminating in the construction of reservoirs and large dams in southwest China and projects to divert river from south to north.

Ma, however, questioned their feasibility, as these measures failed to take into account ecological questions.

"The water issue concerns the formulation and implementation of public policy, and influences the public interest to a great extent. But it was restricted to professional circles and very few people had an idea of what it means."

In 1999 Ma turned his observations into a book titled "China's Water Crisis," which has been compared to Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring." It was China's first major book putting the environmental crisis under the microscope. It has been translated into English.

Ma analyzed problems with the seven basins in China and warned: "If the policy makers do not approach water treatment from the basics of environmental protection and sustainable development, many regions in China will be stricken by water crises in the near future."

Water crisis

He was right: More than 60 percent of China's fresh water is contaminated and the air in more than half of its major cities falls below the nation's modest air-quality standards.

Not content to point out problems as a journalist, Ma pursued his concerns about the water crisis. He had a stay at an international environmental consulting company and was a visiting scholar for a year at Yale University in Connecticut in the United States.

"I came to realize the power of the market in its disciplining role over company performance, which might be applied to environmental protection," he says.

"At the same time we need widespread participation of citizens, without which the process can hardly be meaningful or effective."

Ma transformed his thoughts into actions.

Soon after returning to China in 2006, he set up a nongovernmental organiztion, the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs.

He launched the China Water Pollution Map followed by the China Air Pollution Map, providing searchable databases where the public could access thousands of environmental quality data and factory-based infraction records released by government agencies, including the Ministry of Environmental Protection and its subordinate agencies across the country.

"We aim to promote dialogue engaging enterprises, governments and the general public through our information platform," Ma says.

The Chinese government's Measures for the Disclosure of Environmental Information, released in May 2008, bolstered Ma's confidence.

Starting from 2,500 records, the two databases have proliferated to include 49,000 records by the end of August, involving about 30,000 domestic and foreign companies, which have been warned or penalized for their violations of environmental rules.

"In the past, it was hard for the public to access these documents, but they now do thanks to our platform, and can exert pressure on companies to comply with the rules," says Ma.

A recent case involved the footwear manufacturing giant Timberland.

Since 2004 residents in Shanghai's Baoshan District repeatedly complained to the city government about the "foul odor" emitted by the Shanghai Richina Factory, which had been cited by pollution watchdogs for exceeding emissions limits. The factory, however, seemed blind and deaf to the locals' petitions.

Ma discovered that the Shanghai factory was the only one to have breached regulations for six consecutive years. Research showed that it was one of Timberland's suppliers.

In collaboration with Friends of Nature, an influential NGO, Ma wrote to Timberland's chief executive Jeffrey Swartz in mid-July, after the two groups had failed to get a response from the factory.

Then South China Morning Post published a story based on Ma's database records and made Richina's performance public.

Ultimately, the report drew the attention of Timberland, which ordered Richina to desist from substandard behavior.

In a letter to the Friends of Nature and IPE, the CEO of Richina said his company planned to conduct third-party audits. "We are reaching out to the community and neighborhood groups. Part of this process will be an open house event for the community, local residences and other interested parties."

Ma believes the handling of the Richina case showed a shift from "management" to "governance" in the arena of environmental protection. In the old days, environmental management was strictly the work of the government and many companies would rather pay limited penalties year after year rather than resolve their pollution problems.

"The advent of information like the Water Pollution Map and Air Pollution Map is changing the pattern as it touches upon different stakeholders because of its accessibility," Ma says.

The Shanghai case also illustrates what Ma defines as a Green Choice Alliance for Responsible Supply in China Management Program, with the ultimate target of better environmental management by companies.

It aims to curb environmental pollution in China's manufacturing hubs by integrating transparency and stakeholder participation in the existing supply chain management system.

Tapping into IPE's database of specific citations of companies violating emissions standards and other environmental rules in China, corporations can search the database to compare their suppliers with IPE's list of violators, Ma says.

Some multi-national companies, including General Electric and Wal-Mart, are already using the databases to monitor sourcing in China, involving thousands of suppliers.

To date, more than 130 companies have approached Ma's institute, explaining what went wrong and how they planned to fix the problems. Many sought to be removed from after third-party audits of their improved performance.

Ma and his colleagues are also reaching out to governments. Earlier this year, they developed a Pollution Information Transparency Index evaluating 113 environmental protection bureaus' performances across China.

Leading the list was Ningbo in Zhejiang Province. Beijing ranked 16th.

Ma says China's NGOs should build their credibility on reasoning and hard evidence.

"When NGOs were born in the early 1990s, they made great contributions by letting their environmental voice be heard, regardless of being emotional or not. But when we have the right to speak, with the advancement of China's civil society, we must get down to solid science."

"I'm here for the long run," Ma says, looking into a sky enveloped by haze.


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend