The Beijing Review (http://www.bjreview.com.cn/nation/txt/2007-01/10/content_53158.htm) ran an interesting article today about Ma Jun, a leading Chinese environmental activist and recently named China’s “Green Person of the Year.” Ma’s work is primarily related to water pollution and his 1999 book “China’s Water Crisis” has been compared to Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” for the impact it has had on the Chinese environmental movement and government policy. His decision to write the book was based on a trip to the Yellow River:
“During one of Ma’s field trips to the Yellow River, the second longest river in China, in the mid-1990s, he found to his surprise that the river, which went dry seasonally in its lower reaches for the first time in 1972, ran dry for stretches of up to 700 km for a record breaking 226 days in 1997, due to increased demands on the river for irrigation use.
Even more shocking for Ma was the comments of experts on such a phenomenon. “I heard some mainstream water experts rejoicing over this tragedy, saying that not only was the river no longer overflowing its banks, but not a single drop of the river water is wasted in the sea, ” said Ma. He made the decision to write his book after finding out that the Yellow River irrigation model, regarded as a success, would be copied on other major rivers.”
Now Ma’s work focuses on mapping water pollution levels and the locations of companies who are discharging illegal levels of water pollution. Already the database contains over 3000 companies – including 33 multinational companies and 5 Fortune 500 companies. In Ma’s words, “They have repeatedly stressed their commitment to environmental protection and good corporate citizenship to Chinese consumers. It is regrettable that they even failed to meet the environmental standards of the local government even if they have the capacity, capital and techniques to do so.” Indeed, not only have these companies failed to live up to Chinese water pollution laws, but they have even tried to pressure Ma to withdraw their names from his map; thus far, he has refused to do so.
According to http://www.probeinternational.org/tgp/index.cfm?DSP=content&ContentID=16545, the Fortune 500 companies include “a subsidiary of Panasonic, Changchun Pepsico, and Nestle Sources Shanghai.”
2007 is shaping up to be an interesting year for the tens of thousands of people who will be displaced by the recent completion of the highly controversial Sardar Sarovar dam in India. The Sardar Sarovar is the largest of a series of 30 large dams proposed for the Narmada River, India’s fifth largest river. The project was started in 1987 but was delayed for many years by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (“Save the Narmada”) movement and its supporters, as well as by conflicts between various Indian states over how to divide the benefits of the dam. The NBA is a grassroots movement to defend the rights of the 320,000 people who have been or will be displaced by the project. According to the Friends of the River Narmada (http://www.narmada.org/sardarsarovar.html), the NBA managed to convince the World Bank, which was at one time funding $450 million for dam construction, to commission an independent review of the project; the review report supported the NBA’s main concerns ultimately caused the bank to withdraw its support.
The Indian government claims that the dam will irrigate 1.8 million hectares of farmland, provide drinking water for 20 million people, and generate 1,450 MW of peak power (http://www.dailyindia.com/show/99695.php/Controversial-Sardar-Sarovar-Dam-against-tribal-interests:-Medha-Patkar). Whether or not these benefits will actually be realized is also highly controversial, but there is certainly no denying that the states that would benefit from irrigation and drinking water from the dam are extremely dry and in need of additional water supplies. Even so, it does not follow that a mega-dam is the best way to meet those needs. Rainwater harvesting, including bringing back traditional rural methods of rainwater catchment, has proven to work well in these drought-prone areas, providing enough water to meet rural needs without drawing down the water table. (http://www.goodnewsindia.com/Pages/content/conservation/drought.htm).
As of the beginning of 2006, the dam had already been constructed to a height of 111 meters; Dec 31, 2006 marked the completion of the project, at a final height of 122 meters. This additional 11 meter height increase is estimated to displace 35,000 families, according to the United Nations (http://www.narmada.org/misc/unhcr.html). In 2000, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that further height increases would not be allowed until the government had proved that previously displaced people had been compensated. However, according to the UN, this has not occurred; many of the people who were previously displaced, largely indigenous people and farmers, have yet to receive adequate rehabilitation and arable land.
I have never been a fan of large dam projects. In the United States, dams have decimated salmon populations, reduced the Colorado River to a trickle by the time it reaches the Pacific, and otherwise transformed the ecology of our western rivers. And in many developing countries, dam projects displace hundreds of thousands of people, often without giving them adequate compensation. Large popular movements have arisen against major dam projects like the 3 Gorges Dam in China or the Narmada River dams in India.
But dam proponents have argued that dams don’t emit carbon dioxide, so they must still be better than coal, right? Well, perhaps not, at least in tropical regions. A recent article in the journal Nature (“Methane quashes green credentials of hydropower”, Nature 444(30): 524-525, 2006) highlights recent research suggesting that “the global-warming impact of hydropower plants can often outweigh that of comparable fossil-fuel power stations.” How? When land is flooded to create the reservoir, a large amount of organic matter is trapped underwater, and more organic matter flows in over time. In warm tropical waters, this organic matter decays into methane and carbon dioxide. Since methane is a 20 times more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, these reservoir emissions can be quite significant. Indeed, the article cites an example of Brazil’s Balbina Dam, whose construction caused the flooding of 2500 square kilometers of rainforest; it is now accepted that a coal plant would have been better for the climate!
The article notes that the debate over the magnitude of reservoir emissions is not yet settled, largely due to a lack of data on dam methane emissions. However, by some estimates, counting the methane emitted by dams (95-120 million tons per year) would represent a 20% increase in global methane emissions! This is a large enough number, and enough is known about dam methane emissions, to make many scientists want to start acting now on this problem.
Once again, as I ponder China’s environmental and social problems, I am confronted by questions of scale. It’s fairly well-established that China’s problems – from oil imports to air pollution to water shortages – are huge, and the government’s reaction has often been to support huge solutions: the 3 Gorges Dam, the South-North Water Diversion project, etc. These are also the sorts of projects that get most often reported in the press. It seems to me that less attention is paid, in the press and probably in the government as well, to smaller scale and simpler technologies that could ultimately play a large role in solving some of China’s problems.
For example, yesterday I learned about a company that produces biomass pellets for rural energy use. Previously biomass (chiefly the crop residues left over after harvesting crops) were the primary energy source in rural areas for heating and cooking. But as rural incomes have increased, people have moved towards purchasing coal briquettes which are cleaner-burning and more convenient than collecting residues. Then the crop residues are simply burned in the field to get rid of them, creating serious air pollution problems in some provinces. Clearly it would make much more sense to find a way to make biomass a more attractive fuel, rather than distributing small amounts of coal over a large area and wasting the biomass. This pelletizing technology does exactly that – it is a village-scale machine that produces small biomass pellets which are much more convenient for home use than loose biomass and burn even more cleanly than coal. Scaling up this technology across China could help improve living conditions and reduce air pollution in rural areas.
Another example of a small-scale technology is rainwater and snow harvesting. This has been implemented in a big way in some southern Indian cities, such as Madras, but it has not really taken hold in Beijing despite the severe water crisis. There are about 50 pilot rainwater harvesting projects in the city, but nothing on the commercial scale. One problem is that Beijing gets almost all of its rain during the summer months, so that there would have to be significant investment in water storage infrastructure. However, if the alternative is to divert water from rivers in southern China, I suspect that this cost would pale in comparison. According to Forum for the Future’s “Greening the Dragon” report, rainwater harvesting in Beijing has the potential to supply about 230 million cubic meters of water each year. This is quite significant relative to the 300 million cubic meters which are currently overdrawn from Beijing’s aquifer each year. Proper pricing for water (Beijing’s water rates are absurdly low for a city so short on water) would also help alleviate the shortage. In short, just because China’s problems are on such a large-scale, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the technical solutions need to be similarly mind-boggling.
Last month, the 5th “World Water Congress” was hosted by Beijing – a fitting place to discuss the sustainable use of water resources. A city of 15 million people in a desert is a sure recipe for water shortages and severe ecological problems. Already Beijing’s per capita water supply is around 300 cubic meters; the international cut-off for declaring a region to be experiencing a water shortage is 1000 cubic meters per capita. And Beijing’s groundwater table is significantly overdrawn each year. The same groundwater table serves both Beijing and Tianjin (another huge city nearby); according to the World Watch Institute, this water table has an annual rechargeable supply of 7.1 billion cubic meters, yet it has been used to meet an annual demand of 12.1 billion cubic meters – a demand which is projected to increase in the future. (see http://www.worldwatch.org/node/4407)
But the Chinese government is dealing with this problem – in its typical larger-than-life style. A few years ago, China announced that it would build the world’s largest water diversion project to take water from the Yangtze River to northern China. This project involves the construction of 3 canals, totaling more than 3,000 km (1800 miles), and is expected to be completed around 2050 at a projected cost of more than US$60 billion. Construction has already started on part of one of the canals, in order to divert water to Beijing from reservoirs in the neighboring province of Hebei in time for the 2008 Olympics, according to a recent article in the China Daily (http://www1.china.org.cn/english/environment/171889.htm).
I am struck by the similarity to proposals several decades ago in the United States to divert water from the Yukon to the thirsty and growing desert southwest (as described in Marc Reisner’s classic book “Cadillac Desert”). When I read about this, the concept seemed so absurd, uneconomical, and environmentally disastrous that I couldn’t imagine it ever happening. But once again, China has proven to me that if you take the United States’ environmental problems and blow them up to an even greater scale, the absurd suddenly becomes reality.
Kudos to Tufts University for opening its first environmentally friendly dorm last week. Sophia Gordon Hall (SGH), which houses 126 students, will apply for Silver LEEDS certification. SGH boasts an array of positive features. It was built with a solar thermal system to heat some of its water and with photovoltaics to generate some of its own electricity (23.8Kw at peak). To offset greenhouse gas emissions from SGH’s regular grid electricity consumption, Tufts has purchased Green-e wind certificates. The building was also built with 10% recycled/renewable materials and with less harmful chemical products. Other sustainable design elements include building material to reflect summer heat and retain heat in the winter, and a storm-water management system. Tufts believes that by implementing all of these elements into the design SGH will require 30% less energy and water than it otherwise would.
On top of all that, Tufts has launched a great, informative website about SGH that details all of the dorm’s environmentally friendly features. This is part of an initiative to educate its residents and others about sustainable design. Residents are able to see real-time energy and water consumption data for the dorm as well as how much energy its solar array produces daily. For those of us not fortunate enough to live in the dorm, we can access the data online.
Sophia Gordon Hall continues what is perhaps a trend among colleges and universities to implement sustainable building practices into their new dorms and halls. In the fall of 2004 Cornell University opened two dorms that also received LEEDS certification. I was fortunate enough to live in one of these dorms last year. Besides the motion-sensor timed lights and the constant visual reminder of the green roofs that grew all kinds of grasses and plants it felt like any other dorm. Cornell is undertaking a massive West Campus Initiative to build several new upperclassmen dorms, as well as a new student union. From the Cornell University News Service, “Not all upcoming building projects will seek LEED certification, he [Steve Beyers, the services team leader for Cornell’s Environmental Compliance Office] noted, because doing so incurs extra fees to prepare the proper documentation. However, many building projects will incorporate sustainable design features.”