Saturday, October 22, 2011

Postcard from China 4

From a water culture perspective one of the most interesting aspects of our trip was a visit to Dujiangyan, in Sichuan Province.  Established in 256 BC during the Qin Dynasty this is now a World Heritage site.  It is regarded as one of the three outstanding hydraulic engineering feats of the Qin dynasty (along with with the Zhengguo Canal in Shaanxi Province and the Lingqu Canal in Guangxi Province). It is particularly interesting because 'unlike contemporary dams where the water is blocked with a huge wall, Dujiangyan still lets water go through naturally. Modern dams do not let fish go through very well, since each dam is a wall and the water levels are different' (see wikipedia).
I found what was said and observed by the majority of our group, as well as our local hosts and staff of  CTGPC, to be fascinating.  Almost all, including the content of the talk given by the guide in the associated museum, focused on the technology. For them it was the fact that the technology and its different elements had been conserved for over 2000 years that was the main achievement.  Certainly the elegance of the technology is impressive.  But in contrast what interested me was how, as a sociotechnical system, the governance arrangements had been conserved as operationally effective through wars, earthquakes, many dynasties etc.  It took some perserverance to have satisfactory answers and I suspect there is more to be said on the matter.  One reason it has been conserved , it would seem, is to do with the strategic importance of the irrigation system in that part of central China. The emperor (or would-be ruler) who commanded this irrigation system with security of food supply had one of the keys to ruling China.  Food availability is central to political power in China.  For this reason all rulers invested in the management and upkeep of the irrigation system.  I imagine there have been other institutions invented over the 2260 years that have helped.
The rebuilding of nearby Dujiangjan City, following the effects of the 2008 earthquake were impressive.  I hope also that new technologies have been incorporated into the rebuilding that make them more secure in future.

Visiting Dujiangan City invies a reflection on how sustainability can be understood as a structurally coupled social-biophysical system.  Dujiangan survives and functions effectively because the coupling between the social and the biophysical has remained viable for over 2000 years.  From a long-term perspective it is hard to imagine that major dams will achieve the same longevity. In my previous email I adressed the complexities of upstream management that have to be addressed in the Yangtze.  And despite the short and medium term social benefits through flood mitigation we know that in the long-term the fertility of the whole lower Yangtze flood plain will be diminished by preventing regular flooding and associated silt deposition.

In some ways it could be claimed that Dujiangan survives because it is in systemic harmony with its context.  China, along with the rest of the world  faces a great challenge to innovate in ways that produce systemic harmony.  According to the Global Times (October 13) China will invest 4 trillion Yuan (US$628 billion) in water conservation in the next decade.  But as the article notes, how the money is spent will determine how effective it will be.   I will go further and claim that how effective it will be will entirely depend on the type of thinking that informs the decision making. Unfortunately I doubt if systems thinking and practice (see the OU STiP program) will be the driving force.  According to the article 20 percent of future expenditure will be on farmland irrigation projects, 38 percent on flood control and disaster prevention, 35 percent on water supply projects and the rest for water and soil conservation as well as 'ecological construction'.

The underpinning discourse in the Global Times article is  one of business as usual, in an attempt to gain ever more control. It says 'China aims to harness more than 5000 rivers...reinforce 5,400 reservoirs...'   On our visit we even heard of a proposal (perhaps entirely fanciful, perhaps not) to reduce the height of the Himalayas so that China could get more rain from the 'Indian' monsoon.  In this commitment to technical and scientific modernism China, along with many other countries, demonstrates a commitment to a way of thinking and acting that whilst necessary,  is certainly not sufficient for today's circumstances.

In the Global Times of October 14 news that 'China will make grass-roots work  experience [of 2 years] a requirement for civil service hopefuls eyeing central and provincial-level posts..' seems to be the out-of-the-box thinking that is required.  It is certainly something that could be emulated in Australia, and extended to Parliamentary advisors!  Impetus for the change comes from the Chinese Academy of Governance.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Postcard from China 3

Our Australian Water Culture Delegation was sponsored by the Australia-China Council, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia, through the project Linking Australia and China - a "Bridge of Water Culture". The hosting organizations were the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences (IGSNRR), the China Three Gorges Corporation (CTGPC) and the Shaanxi Normal University in Xi'an.  We had a packed but informative schedule. Our hosts received us with great warmth and hospitality at each venue.
The Three Gorges Dam is a mammoth undertaking and a major feat of engineering. It is the largest dam of its type in the world.  The Yangtze River, which once flowed at an average depth of 10m, now stands at 135 m at the dam wall.  The water backs up 650km to the city of Chongqing, one of the four provincial level cities in China (with Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai). As is well known it is also highly controversial.  We were shown good evidence of significant flood control, at least 10 times in the period 2004-10, with significant downstream flooding averted particularly in 2010. 
The dam contains 33 turbines producing hydro-power.  The data for CO2 emission reductions  and tonnes of coal saved are impressive as are enhanced river transport efficiencies.  In other words the dam is clearly delivering certain social and economic benefits. Having met Academican Lu Youmei, one of the driving forces behind the dam, and the first CEO of CTGPC, I can appreciate that the dam was the outcome of a long political process within the Party.  When modernisation won out the dam was inevitable; it is symbolic of China's chosen pathway over the last 30 years. That said, Lu Youmei and current Vice Chairman Fan Qixiang, clearly appreciate the range of systemic difficulties that lay ahead.  I will turn to some of these in a moment.  What is not clear however, is whether having developed world's best expertise in what they do, CTGPC will follow the path of another engineering company that started by building dams, namely the Australian Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation (SMEC).  Experience suggests that such companies actively pursue opportunities to conserve and further develop their existing expertise. They move from the work of building a system in response to a problem to looking for a problem to retain the system they have built! CTGPC is currently constructing further dams on the Jinsha River, an upstream tributary of the Yangtze.  They aim to have four new dams completed in 10 years. These will have double the current power generating capacity of the Three Gorges Dam. Around 300,000 people will be affected - many fewer than the 1.2-3 million affected by the Three Gorges Project.  Over lunch I learned that CTGPC were in discussions in over 30 countries about possible hydro opportunities.  I expect these include countries along the Mekong and in Burma.
On a cruise up the river from the dam some of the issues that confront CTGPC, as managers of the dam, became apparent.  The rise in water levels has, in places, undermined the steep walls of the valley.  We saw work actively trying to avoid landslips, and thus added siltation. After impoundment of water a number of seismic events were triggered.  There is substantial investment in seismic monitoring.  Water qualty is also clearly an issue.  A colleague counted hundreds of floating shoes and thongs on our relatively short boat journey.  But it is probably what cannot be seen that is more of a worry.  It was reported that water quality was generally level 2 or 3, but I failed to find out what this really meant.

Water quality is a much wider problem than that in the Three Gorges Dam.  In fact, along with water availability, it is probably the main environmental problem in China today.  The China Daily of October 15-16 reports that:
"China has only a quarter of the world's average in terms of fresh water resources, ranking 110th in the world. Among 600 Chinese cities, more than 400 suffer from an insufficiency of water, 110 seriously, including some along the Yangtze River, the country's longest river.  Worse the decades-long rapid economic growth means the country's limited water resources are increasingly threatened by pollution. Statistics show that more than 70 percent of China's rivers and 60 percent of its underground water resources are polluted to different degrees."

The complexities of the water issues facing China can be gleaned from the issues now facing CTGPC. These include the extensive diffuse pollution coming from agriculture (nitrogen and phosphorus mainly), sewage from the many upstream cities, towns and villages and of course, industrial pollution and acid rain.  Given the size of the overall river system upstream from the dam this is a massive issue with many siloed ministries involved, meaning that concerted action amongst the many stakeholders is difficult to achieve.  Algal blooms have increased in the dams. We heard little about other organisms and invertebrates in the river system other than some substantial breeding and preservation actions.  There is a Yangtze River Commission which in theory has oversight but in our various conversations the governance of rivers consistently emerged as a major issue - not only within river basins but between river basins. Clearly more systemic and adapative water governance is needed as CTGPC are finding - they now have to deal with 5-6 other "owners" of upstream dams and power generators i.e., they are not the sole provider on the Yangtze.
Having seen on my last visit the massive south-north canal that transfers water from the wetter south to the drier north, including Beijing, I was surprised to discover that it is not linked to the Three Gorges Dam, but another relatively minor tributary of the Yangtze which enters downstream of the dam (if there is any water left, that is!). China's second most important river, the Yellow River, only has one twentieth of the the water resources of the Yangtze.  Alarmingly much of the water in the Yellow and Hai River (further north) is used before they get to the sea i.e., current levels of demand are not sustainable.  Part of  China's predicament was explained by Lu Youmei.  The high rainfall period in the Yangtze is in the summer, and this is also the time of maximum flood risk - currently 950 million cubic m of run-off enters the sea from the Yangtze.  Unfortunatly, some view this as lost water!   At the moment, and for the forseeable future, there is unlikely to be enough storage capacity to save more water in the period of excess whilst at the same time fulfill flood mitigation responsibilities.  The corollary to this is that in winter, flows are low and power generation is generally well below peak capacity.  It is also dangerous for the Yangtze river itself, and associated river traffic, to transfer too much water in winter.  For example, the Yangtze currently has a very low flow so only 13 turbines were operating during our visit. 
Another major problem in China is groundwater depletion as well as contamination.  I was well aware of this from our prevous research visit spent on the North China Plain in Hebei Province around Lake Baiyangdian. In fact the long term scenario for water in this vital breadbasket of China is very worrying. A telling example of the issue became apparent in our visit to Xi'an.  One of the cultural and thus tourist landmarks is the Big Wild Goose Pagoda.  During our visit the guide advised us against climbing it as it had begun to lean, much as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, because of the falling water table under the city of Xi'an.  I hope the spectacular 'dancing water fountains', newly installed nearby, were not exacerbating the problem as they were clearly a great civic amenity. 

In the 12th Five Year Plan period (2011-15) China has vowed to address the water issues.  The report in the China Daily cited earlier describes this as a 'determination to bring the country's fast gowing economy onto a more sustainable and greener track'.  The governament is demanding that 'water usage for every 10,000 yuan-worth [of] GDP be reduced 50 percent by 2020 from the 2008 level and an additional 40 percent after 2020.'  In this same article Beijing is held up as an example that others might follow: 'Coupled with a considerable decline in energy intensity, the water consumption for every 10,000 yuan of GDP in the capital has declined considerably [how is not specified], decreasing to 24.9 cubic meters in 2010 from 49.5 cubic meters in 2005.'  These are policy developments that should be welcomed, but are they enough?  How will they be enforced?   The same article ends by stating that: ' To ensure the 100 percent realization of the national energy and water saving targets mapped out, the country should hold accountable officials whose regions fail to attain these targets and lay down a set of strict punishment measures'!  In future provinces that use more water than they are allocated will be penalised. 

The policy response by China is ambitious, but is it too much a captive of  concepts such as eco-efficieny? Improving the environmental performance of a single car ultimately achieves little if the rate in the overall growth of cars means that all gains per car are overwhelmed by gross outputs.  The same arguments can be applied to the metric of water savings per unit of GDP.  Already China appears to be approaching CO2 outputs per capita similar to the main developing countries.  Now is not the time for reform - change that makes the wrong strategy more efficient - rather it is time for transformation - invention that creates the right thing to do in the circumstances.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Postcard from China 2

One of the most inescapable features of this visit for me was the air pollution. Not only was it in Beijing with its 21 million people but also in Chengdu (14 million), and to a lesser extent Xi'an (7 million).  However the most disturbing experience was at the Three Gorges Dam and in the Yangtze River Valley upstream.  It also had its amusing side.  We were taken to the main viewing platform for the dam wall, but like all tourists that day there was no wall to be seen. The smog was too thick.  As ever technology saved us!  We left with an excellent photo of ourselves with the dam wall clearly visible in the background all thanks to photoshop (or some such similar program)! 
In the Global Times of the 3rd October a report entitled 'gloomy outlook for pollution targets' gives some background to what we were experiencing.  According to the article the first six months of this year had seen a 6.17% rise in nitrogen oxides released into the atmosphere compared with the previous year.  The official target is for a 1.5 percent reduction in 2011!  Of course this is an average - how was it calculated?  The article does not make that clear, but the rise is likely to have been much, much higher in some places.  As the article says "nitrogen emissions, which are a major cause of acid rain and smog, are harmful to the human respiratory system and can cause cardiovascular disease." 

Before leaving for China I had been writing up some of the history of my own family in Hackney and Bethnal Green, now suburbs of London.   London was the first mega city. It had major pollution problems which began in the 1830s and 1840s as industrialisation progressed.  The effects of pollution was probably one of the reasons my ancestors emigrated to Australia.  As we travelled through China I could not help but wonder when and how the Chinese will turn the corner on air pollution in the face of ever growing cities, increasing car numbers, industrial development and frequent inversion layers over cities.

A timely paper in the journal Ecological Economics makes apparent the situation in London that my ancestors had encountered. This figure (courtesy of David Pannell and the author) shows that London did not start to turn the corner, to reduce pollution, till about 1900.  There was an almost 80 year period before things started to get better. As the graph shows incidence of deaths due to bronchitis peaked at about the same time as pollution (total suspended particles).  The challenge for China is to devise strategies to turn the corner.  Nitrogen oxides come mainly from cars and coal-fired thermal power plants.  Apparently nitrogen oxides now excede sulfur dioxide as the major pollutant of air, and thus of acid rain.  This is a classic systemic problem as nitrogen oxide and ammonia (which comes mainly from animal waste and garbage) accumulate in the water which, according to the article 'is the most serious pollution problem in China'.

I cannot help but consider what might have happened for China, and the rest of the world, had Deng Xiaoping, the reformer who led China towards a market-based economy, and his contemporaries not bought in to the failing western economic model.  The environmental externalities of car-based economic development - in terms of pollution, congestion and the transformation of identity (consumerism and mobility) - were already well known when reforms began. This is not to say that China should have remained static - but another pathway was already apparent, and if pursued may have left us all in a better position.  That said it may be that China will pull something out of the hat and follow the trajectory achieved by London over a century ago.  If so we will all benefit.  At the moment I am not optimistic.

There have of course been both substantial critiques as well as champions of China's chosen pathway. Writing in 1997 Joshua Muldavin analyzed environmental degradation in rural China as structurally embedded in China's rapid economic growth in the post-Mao era. He wrote:

"A critical assessment of the Chinese hybrid economy challenges standard views of the reforms. The overall environmental problems of state socialist agriculture in China have been aggravated following the agrarian reforms of the current regime. Rather than mitigating negative trends, marketization and privatization have brought new, qualitatively different, environmental problems. Resource decline and its attendant social problems are not limited to aspects of transitional economy but are a fundamental part of the new hybrid system."

There are still about 860 million rural inhabitants of China.  What their fate is to be is uncertain.
In a remarkably frank interview in the same issue of Global Times, Huang Nbo, a business tycoon (China's 161st richest man) who has just purchased 300 square km of Iceland (and former official in the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of  China Central Committee), comments on business ethics and the current pathway. He said:

 " I think moral ambiguity is overwhelming...   ...I have a sense of guilt accumulated over the years over the inevitable immorality in business transactions, including the damage we cause to the environment and forcing people out of their homes to give way for real estate development.  We achieved development, but it was done through brutal means."

I felt pensive as I returned to Australia  - then saddened when flying into Tullamarine to be greeted by an inversion layer and a discernable smog haze over Melbourne.  Members of the Committee for Melbourne who advocate for a city of 10 million people ought to travel to China and learn from the situation there, before it is too late.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Postcard from China 1

As I write I am homeward bound having just finished a short study tour in China as part of an “Australian Water Culture Delegation” organised by the Australia China Centre on Water Resources Research (ACCWRR).  In this series of Postcards I reflect on various experiences and thoughts during the 9-day trip.  

(i)                Back in Beijing for the second time.  It was the end of the National Holiday week and Tiananmen Square was well decorated with many local tourists on hand.  The amount of smog was my first impression – worse then in an earlier visit in May-June.  The air quality, as I outline below, was a recurring theme.  As a group of seven we became amiable fellow delegates.
(ii)              Apparently Mao’s portrait is renewed every holiday – if so we saw the fresh one!!

(iii)           The imperial Palace was as impressive as my first visit. The crowds interfered with the stronger virtual images I continue to hold of previous emperors and their courts gained from various movies. I expect it to be my last visit to the palace. 
 (iv)          As with last time a visit to the Lindang Hutung was a highlight. A short guided tour this time made it all the more interesting. It seems tragic to me that so much of the old has been lost from around central Beijing.
 (v)             An evening walk to the Birdsnest stadium and parts of the Olympic village reacquainted me with the creativity of the architecture.  The striking lighting of the key buildings created an eerie effect in the smog.  I sensed the complex was underused and undergoing further (re)development. Someone later told me it was.  The main activity was a rock band launch of the new Audi car!!  A celebration of consumerism! 
(vi)            Free hotel internet (all week) is a great boon.  Although I was unable to load this Blog all week though – no problems with the BBC or ABC.
 (vii)         A smoggy drive to the Great Wall on Sunday morning. My first visit. Now I have seen it and walked on it.  I pity the builders and soldiers who have manned it over the centuries.  I did not walk far – on the steep climb part I opted for caution, not wanting to expose my lungs to dragging in lots of smoggy air! As with most of our visit there were large numbers of local tourists – more than outsiders.