Meet Waterkeeper Alliance's Asia Regional Coordinator
Imagine getting drinking water from a stream filled with chemicals from nearby factories or having to grow crops that are irrigated with polluted water—this is the kind of life that many villagers in China and beyond are dealing with and many villages have turned into ghost towns as younger generations want to avoid the cancerous fates that their grandparents and parents have been cursed with. With rivers, streams, lakes and other water bodies being turned into dumping grounds for untreated effluents, the issue of water pollution has been and continues to plague communities in China and other Asian countries. We talked to Charles Depman, Asia Regional Coordinator at Waterkeeper Alliance about the issues and solutions for waterway protection in Asian regions.
Ecozine: How did you get involved in the environmental movement?
Charles: I first decided to join the environmental movement during a year I spent living and working in Mainland China before going to university. At the time, I was teaching English in Guangzhou and went to stay in the home villages of several of my students during the Spring Festival. What I saw made me quit my job as a teacher and go to work at an environmental NGO in Beijing. I witnessed horrifying environmental degradation in these villages—streams that had once been used for swimming, fishing and drinking by local communities had literally turned black and could be smelled from dozen of meters away. The older generation in these villages lamented the fact that even though the government had given them new apartment buildings in exchange for their land, the next generations had been robbed of their right to a clean environment. Later in my life, I saw and lived with similar communities in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Bangladesh that had been adversely affected by both government and industry actions.
Ecozine: Please share more about the Waterkeeper Alliance—what are its mission and goals?
Charles: Waterkeeper Alliance is a network of clean-water advocates on six continents who are fighting on the front lines of the global water crisis. We work primarily with grassroots organizations that hold a stake in their local water body. These organizations are composed of concerned citizens who know that it is unfair for corporations and governments to abuse publicly-owned and used rivers, estuaries, bays, coasts and lakes. They know that such pollution has dire consequences for the health of humans and the world’s ecosystems. Our goal is to bring solidarity, knowledge, training and legal tools to these organizations so that they can fight more effectively for environmental justice.
With regard to China, local and provincial Environmental Protection Bureaus often have insufficient capacity to monitor and control pollution. Because of this, an emphasis remains on promotion of regulation rather than enforcement of regulation. Thus it becomes the task of concerned citizens to try to collect data and affect change. At Waterkeeper Alliance, we help empower those concerned citizens. So far, we are partnered with six Chinese NGOs and are looking to expand.
Ecozine: What are the most severe problems China and Asian countries face today when it comes to waterway protection?
Charles: The lack of enforcement of environmental laws is a huge issue in Asia concerning waterway protection. Even though there might exist relatively comprehensive environmental frameworks, such as the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Prevention and Control of Water Pollution, which was enacted in 1984 and most recently revised in 2008, you only need to cross the border into Shenzhen and Guangzhou to realize that the implementation and enforcement of such regulations is an entirely different matter.
Besides industrial pollution, China’s continuing reliance on coal as a primary energy source has dire consequences for the health of its waterways. From mining to burning to ash disposal, coal consumption releases staggering amounts of toxins such as mercury, lead, arsenic and radium into China’s air and water every year. And that consumption is growing—China became a net importer of coal in 2009 and the world’s largest importer in 2011.
And of course all these chemicals and harmful metals end up in the foods and drinking water of millions of people.
Ecozine: “Cancer villages” and “widow villages” are plaguing many industrial areas of China. Is Waterkeeper Alliance involved in any of these cases?
Charles: Yes. For example, our Upper Yellow River Waterkeeper in Gansu helped the village of Liangjiawan get access to clean drinking water after years of living with and getting sick from contaminated water from the Yellow River. A study from 2003 to 2008 showed that cancer rates in Liangjiawan had risen dramatically. Waterkeeper Alliance held countless negotiations with the local government and a nearby hydroelectric plant to resolve the issue.
Our Middle Han River Waterkeeper in Hubei has worked with local villages on tributaries of the Han River where there are high incidences of cancer by petitioning local Environmental Protection Bureaus and holding education sessions. Indeed, water is a key factor in “cancer villages”—their drinking water, bathing water and food is contaminated with toxins and cancer-causing carcinogens.
Unfortunately, public-interest litigation against polluters is very difficult because victims in China often don’t have the resources to collect and provide proper evidence to a judge. To make things worse, polluting firms are often protected by local governments because of their significant tax contributions. Another barrier exists: it is difficult to even bring an environmental case to court—judges can only hear a limited amount of cases and are often reluctant to take on complex environmental issues. Our Chinese Waterkeepers are helping to collect water-quality data and legal knowledge that might help in such cases.
Ecozine: What are the short-term and long-term policies/intervention measures needed to target the problem of pollution into waterways?
Charles: In Asia, many of the policies are already in place, but enforcement is lacking. The same is the case in the U.S.: even with our Clean Water Act (CWA) of 1972, government organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have failed to effectively protect our waterways. That is exactly why the grassroots Waterkeeper movement became so popular in the U.S. and is now expanding around the world—because concerned citizens had to take enforcement into their own hands to protect their livelihoods and the health of their communities. Waterkeepers in the U.S., with the backing of Waterkeeper Alliance, have been key in filing lawsuits against polluters and even the EPA itself. In the short-term, we will continue to litigate and fight against polluters, but hopefully the long-term outcome is a fundamental change towards tighter laws and more robust government enforcement.
Ecozine: Please highlight any achievements you’re especially proud of at Waterkeeper Alliance in Hong Kong/China/Asia.
Charles: In China, our Waterkeepers have been great defenders and advocates for the waters they’re working to protect. Our Qiantang River Waterkeeper created an online mapping system where the public can now go to report pollution sites and upload pictures. This is a great tool for indentifying polluters, and also a great tool for spreading public awareness of water-issues. Recently, the Qiantang River Waterkeeper team was featured on Zhejiang Satellite TV in a three-part miniseries.
In greater Asia, our Buriganga Waterkeeper in Bangladesh has been pressuring government officials to better demarcate river boundaries so that factories and structures cannot be built directly on the water. This year also marked the acquisition and launch of the Buriganga Riverkeeper patrol boat.
In India, our Mid Upper Yamuna Waterkeeper has been doing wonderful work with youth activists through a program called Youth for Yamuna.
Ecozine: What are some of the key challenges you face when starting and implementing grassroots, local movements to protect waterways?
Charles: Funding is a large issue, especially in Asia. Many of our Waterkeepers find that people don’t take their work seriously—for instance, in some parts of China, people still view this type of environmentalism as work for slackers or has-beens. That is until they start getting sick or truly start seeing the degradation that has been allowed to happen to their waterways.
Another challenge is that the work is extremely difficult. It takes people who are not willing to settle for the status quo, people who aren’t afraid to fight against corrupt officials and big businesses, many of which can avoid dealing with local water issues by importing bottled spring water and foods from abroad. Armed with passion, information and the law, Waterkeepers are the last line of defence for clean water. They are the voice of their waterway, the advocate for the health of their community, and they must be loud.
Ecozine: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Charles: Yes, while there isn’t a Waterkeeper in Hong Kong yet, we are always searching for partnerships. I believe there is a need and a place for a Waterkeeper in Hong Kong—maybe a Victoria Harbour Waterkeeper or a Ma Wan Channel Waterkeeper. They could help enforce Hong Kong’s Water Pollution Control Ordinance while also informing people about the pollutants in their water, the effects of dirty water on the food they eat, and on their health.
Visit EcoWatch’s WATER page for more related news on this topic.
This interview originally ran on EcoZine.com.
By Karen L. Smith-Janssen
Colette Pichon Battle gave a December 2019 TEDWomen Talk on the stark realities of climate change displacement, and people took notice. The video racked up a million views in about two weeks. The attorney, founder, and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP) advocates for climate justice in communities of color. Confronted with evidence showing how her own South Louisiana coastal home of Bayou Liberty will be lost to flooding in coming years, the 2019 Obama Fellow dedicates herself to helping others still reeling from the impacts of Katrina face the heavy toll that climate change has taken—and will take—on their lives and homelands. Her work focuses on strengthening multiracial coalitions, advocating for federal, state, and local disaster mitigation measures, and redirecting resources toward Black communities across the Gulf South.
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"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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