Monday, July 29, 2013

Air, water, and land. All three polluted in China. Is manufacturing worth it?

In the years before Rupert Murdoch bought out the Wall Street Journal, and changed the tone of the paper, I was a regular reader of that paper. Even a subscriber at one point.  (I am sure that will gladden the hearts of my socialist colleagues!)

The WSJ was unique in one way--it was almost as if the editorial page was a newspaper of its own and ideologically driven with Robert Bartley in the driver seat, separate from the rest of the paper that was not that far from a middle-of the-road routine journalism.  The paper even had Alexander Cockburn as a regular columnist giving his interpretations from the far left side of the political spectrum.  

Typically, every issue had an interesting rather off-beat story that began in the front page and worked its way into the inside pages.  I can even faintly recall the image of Daniel Pearl's portrait on the front in that characteristic WSJ-style.

Even now, every once in a while, the WSJ breaks free of its ideological framework (I guess it is possible now with Murdoch being distracted with many professional and personal issues!) and presents lengthy pieces, like this one on China's pollution in the rural areas, affecting the agricultural lands too.

Pollution in China is not anything new in this blog.  For instance, this past January alone, I had three entries (here, here, and here)on the topic, with the bottom-line question of all is all that cheap manufacturing for the rest of the world really worth all the pollution?

In its latest piece on China's rural pollution, the WSJ notes:
For years, public attention has focused on the choking air and contaminated water that plague China's ever-expanding cities. But a series of recent cases have highlighted the spread of pollution outside of urban areas, now encompassing vast swaths of countryside, including the agricultural heartland.
Estimates from state-affiliated researchers say that anywhere between 8% and 20% of China's arable land, some 25 to 60 million acres, may now be contaminated with heavy metals. A loss of even 5% could be disastrous, taking China below the "red line" of 296 million acres of arable land that are currently needed, according to the government, to feed the country's 1.35 billion people.
To begin with, though it is vast in land area, most of the land is not suited for agriculture.  And then to have between 8% and 20% of the arable land messed up?

Caption at the WSJ story:
In Dapu, a chemical factory sits next to a farm. 'Nothing comes from these plants,' says a local farmer.
I suppose the air pollution is visible in Shanghai or Beijing--which is why, finally, after years of dodging the issue, China is committing $277 billion to clean up the air pollution over the next five years. Water pollution is also equally visible--when dead pigs float down the river, or rivers run in some psychedelic colors.  Compared to air and water pollution, contamination of soil is pretty much out of sight, and happens far away from the big cities.
[Factories] are moving to the countryside to take advantage of cheaper land, often made available with the help of local officials who want to boost growth, environmental researchers say. In other cases, urban leaders want factories to move out of crowded cities. The ensuing problems of rural pollution are exacerbated by the fact that many small-town governments have less capacity to properly regulate complex industrial activities than their counterparts in big cities, experts say.
Even in a dysfunctional politics like the one in India, such happenings get reported by the media, and activists head to the courts--like Rahul Choudhary, about whom I had written in the Register Guard.  But, it is a different story in China, where negative reports rarely see daylight.
China's Ministry of Environmental Protection refused to release the results of a multiyear nationwide soil-pollution survey, calling the data a "state secret."
It gets complex:
Removing heavy metals from farmland is a complicated process that can take years—time lost for farming. That is a chilling prospect for a government tasked with supporting 20% of the world's population on less than 10% of the world's arable land. Any major reduction in food security would hurt the Communist Party, which has staked its reputation in part on its ability to keep the country's granaries full with minimal imports.
The government's refusal to release its soil survey, meanwhile, has only added to fears that officials know more than they are willing to say. Launched to great fanfare in the state media in 2006, the survey was originally scheduled to be completed in 2010. In June last year, an environment ministry official told the Xinhua news service that more than 20% of soil samples in a trial program for monitoring pollution, involving 364 rural villages, had failed to meet national standards and that the results of the survey would be published "at the proper time."
We consumers have a responsibility, too.  As I often remind students, "the invisible hand" watches out for whether we are willing to put our money where our mouth is.  If we are willing to pay up, then the market responds.  But, as long as we do not care about the pollution in China, or labor dying in accidents in Bangladesh, and all we care about is getting the most inexpensive product, even if it means that we toss it away after a few months, well, we will have to witness the pollution too.

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Ramesh said...

A real real problem and a effect illustration of the negative consequences of gung ho capitalism.

China is tackling pollution on a war footing , as only China can. But as you have observed, the harm that has been done will decades to set right, if at all.

The problem of cultivable land in China was an acute one (right through history), even before pollution has started to exacerbate the problem. One reason why China is buying up any land in sight in Africa. Increasingly, with global trade in food, it does not matter where the land is, but the problem is that any decrease in Chinese farm output and the massive demand will spike prices so high that the impact will be felt all over the world. So maybe, there are some unintended positives to the China one child policy you blogged about in your previous post. It was actually put in place precisely because of the worry of famine.

Sriram Khé said...

Indeed, the two posts are related in many ways!

Yes, not only China, but many other countries, including India, are buying African farmland--or entering into long-term leases--at such rates that it is displacing the locals and creating a new variation of economic colonization. Even the Economist magazine has had a couple of articles on it ...

Oh well ... will be a crazy set of decades as we take that downslopes of life ;)