As I walked through the gates of the primary school in Xiangyang City in Hubei Province with Middle Han Waterkeeper, Yun Jianli, I was greeted by six and seven-year-old voices raised in song. They clapped their hands in time to the rhythm of the songs, waved tinsel-studded pom poms and crayon-colored artwork. The songs and the pictures contained messages about the need for humans to do a much better job of taking care of the Earth by preventing pollution of our air and water.
As I watched these beautiful and talented children sing songs imploring the grown-up stewards of their future to bequeath them a livable planet, I was haunted by the devastating reality of the world they will inherit from us.
In the last four months, pollution levels in China have climbed to levels never before recorded in the history of our planet. More than 1.2 million Chinese per year are dying early due to pollution while birth defects soar. Education officials in the most polluted regions of China have moved beyond educational programs to try to change adult behavior that robs children of the possibility of a healthy life in their own country.
Affluent parents are buying expensive air filters to try to give their children some semblance of a normal life. Schools in the wealthier districts are also installing sophisticated air filtration equipment even as some parents recognize that it won’t be enough to protect their children, so they dream of leaving the country altogether. For the vast majority of Chinese, who have no means of escaping the pollution, athletic fields covered with giant domes might at least allow kids to play soccer or just run and play tag without their lungs burning and filling with high concentrations of particulate matter that cause cancer.
As I journeyed across six provinces of China with Waterkeeper Alliance’s Asia Regional Coordinator Charles Depman earlier this year and met with our Waterkeepers in Hangzhou, Lanzhou, Hefei, Beijing, Dalian and Xiangyang City, we went to cancer villages, investigated pollution and interviewed people about increasing levels of death and disease. The people we talked to moved us deeply.
The basic human right to clean air and water is universal. In order to achieve it in China, a grassroots movement is emerging. It may surprise people outside of China to learn that a people-powered revolution is possible there. And while it isn’t as raucous and rowdy as some civil society shifts in other countries, there are inspiring Chinese success stories to use as a road map.
For example, the people of Qiugang village worked with Green Anhui, the parent organization of the Middle Huai Waterkeeper, to end the pollution from a nearby chemical factory. Documentary filmmaker Ruby Yang captured the story in the academy-award-nominated documentary Warriors of Qiugang. The film poignantly illustrates the courage it took for Chinese villagers to stand in defiance against the status quo. They had a deep desire to see the next generation given the chance of a bright future, and when it was threatened by the deadly effects of pollution it motivated them to risk speaking out and seek the changes they needed.
The Middle Huai Waterkeeper and lawyers at Green Anhui work with citizens and government to solve pollution problems throughout the watershed. So while China’s pollution problems have never been worse, the good news is that a growing number of people are rolling up their sleeves and working together to fight the sources of sickness and disease.
Hundreds of miles away, in Zhejiang Province, the Qiantang Waterkeeper has established an award-winning web-based pollution reporting system that allows mobile phone users to take a picture of water pollution and report its exact location to the Waterkeeper. While I was in China, I got to see how effective that system is at triggering a response.
The polluted water in the photo above comes from coal-fired power plants, cement factories, chemical manufacturers and textile mills, all concentrated in a five kilometer area near Hangzhou, China. By the time the Xian Feng canal empties into the Qiantang River, it is pure black. Villagers report cancer and other diseases are common in almost every family. After we concluded our investigation, the Qiantang River Waterkeeper began creating a long-term plan to clean up the pollution that involves citizens engaging the government to make changes.
Across the country to the west, in arid, water-starved Gansu Province, we accompanied our Upper Yellow River Waterkeeper team to coal-fired power plants and coal mines across the region. We tested air for particulate matter greater than 2.5 micrometers and water for several pollutants.
Air pollutants from coal-fired power plants contain a toxic collection of heavy metals that cause brain and respiratory damage. They include arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, selenium, manganese and particulate matter 2.5. They are one of the largest contributors to China’s staggering pollution problems.
In the U.S. there are currently about 600 coal-fired power plants. Many of them have been required to install air-pollution-control technology or shut down in an effort to clean up the vast amounts of air and water pollution they produce. In contrast, China has 3,000 coal-fired power plants either built or planned. Most of them do not have technology that eliminates air and water pollutants.
While I was in China last month I joined Kristen McDonald and Zhao Zhong of Pacific Environment for meetings with Nautral Resources Defense Council-China, Greenpeace East Asia and Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. In each of those meetings we discussed strategies to strengthen and build the burgeoning grassroots environmental movement to confront coal pollution in China. In one of those meetings I met Sun Qingwei. A former assistant professor in the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Dr. Sun grew up in a coal miner’s family. He left academia, where he could have enjoyed the security of a university career, to have the freedom to tell the truth about the devastating human toll of coal pollution in China. He has been the lead coal campaigner with Greenpeace East Asia since 2011.
Over the last two years, he has worked to expose the environmental and human health risks of coal mining and use. Growing up in a coal-mining region himself, he has first-hand knowledge of the toll it is taking on communities in his country. His stories provide a stunning and sad portrait of the enormity of the challenge of shifting away from coal consumption in the country that mines and consumes more coal than any other. Waterkeeper Alliance, Pacific Environment, San Francisco Baykeeper, Sierra Club and Wilson Center will host an educational forum with Sun Qingwei in San Francisco on May 7. Join us to hear his powerful stories, see his pictures and learn about these issues facing the people of China.
Pacific Environment, Waterkeeper Alliance and our partners across China are committed to building a successful grassroots movement that will shift China away from coal use towards a more sustainable energy mix. Together we can save China’s beautiful children from a poisoned future.
Typhoon Molave is expected to make landfall in Vietnam on Wednesday with 90 mph winds and heavy rainfall that could lead to flooding and landslides, according to the U.S. Embassy and U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City. To prepare for the powerful storm that already tore through the Philippines, Vietnam is making plans to evacuate nearly 1.3 million people along the central coast, as Reuters reported.
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A stretch of coastline in the Philippine capital, Manila has received backlash from environmentalists. The heavily polluted Manila Bay area, which had been slated for cleanup, has become the site of a controversial 500-meter (1,600-foot) stretch of white sand beach.
Sand Makeup Crucial for Ecosystems<p>While UNEP/GRID-Geneva generally supports finding <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/not-enough-sand-for-construction-industry-despite-abundance/a-49342942" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">alternative sources of sand</a> so as not to disrupt ecosystems in rivers and oceans when extracting them, Vander Velpen stressed it was vital to use sand which closely matches the makeup of the native sand to protect beach fauna.</p><p>"If you change the core characteristics of the native sand, the original sand, you need to do an environmental impact assessment (EIA) to find out how it's going to impact the ecosystem and nearby ecosystems," he told DW.</p><p>But according to Torres, such an assessment was not done in Manila.</p>
Beautification Stunt Instead of Proper Cleanup?<p>Manila Bay's waters are heavily polluted by oil and trash from nearby residential areas and ports. A huge "No swimming" sign warns visitors to stay away from the ocean.</p><p>Philippines' <a href="https://denr.gov.ph/index.php/priority-programs/manila-bay-clean-up/25-priority-programs/1825-frequently-ask-questions-faqs-on-the-dolomite-and-the-beach-nourishment-project" target="_blank">Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR)</a> has denied dolomite sand poses any risk to human health and the ecosystem.</p><p>However, scientists of the University of the Philippines have come forward disputing the DENR's claims. A <a href="https://biology.science.upd.edu.ph/index.php/ib-statement-regarding-dolomite-in-manila-bay/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">statement by the Institute of Biology</a> said that using crushed dolomite did not address any of the rehabilitation phases and instead was "even more detrimental to the existing biodiversity as well as the communities in the area," pointing to the case of water birds. "The dumping of dolomite in Manila Bay has effectively covered part of the intertidal area used by the birds thereby reducing their habitat."</p><p>At peak migration season, Manila Bay is home to 90 aquatic bird species, including species of international conservation concern that are facing a very high extinction risk in the wild. </p><p>Authorities should focus on protecting and conserving biodiversity, the Institute of Biology added. "Rehabilitating mangroves is an example of a nature-based solution that is cheaper and more cost-effective than the dolomite dumping project," the scientists said.</p><p>Moreover, <a href="http://www.msi.upd.edu.ph/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the Marine Science Institute</a> has warned that prolonged inhalation of finer dust particles of dolomite could "cause chronic health effects," leading to discomfort in the chest, shortness of breath and coughing.</p><p>They also warned dolomite sand grains would erode during storms and be carried out to sea, essentially being washed away.</p>
Rehabilitation vs. Reclamation<p>Environmentalists say covering up the beach doesn't address the real issues of the bay. Torres and others believe the best way to clean up Manila Bay is not to add anything, but rather remove trash and pollution.</p><p>"There have been studies saying much of the waste comes from already collected waste — so these are open dump sites along the coast that get washed up because of the rain," Torres said.</p><p>She criticized the authorities for continuing to push reclamation projects she says are at odds with each other. These projects will affect large areas of mangrove forests, she said, and experts warn that this, in turn, exacerbates coastal erosion.</p><p>"If you've removed the areas that helped trap the sand, like mangrove forests, then the likelihood increases that you will have to nourish a beach. Same as building right up to the waterfront," said Vander Velpen of UNEP/GRID-Geneva.</p>
Plenty of Sand in the Sea?<p>The question of Manila's contentious white beach echoes larger questions about sand mining worldwide. <a href="https://unepgrid.ch/storage/app/media/documents/Sand_and_sustainability_UNEP_2019.pdf" target="_blank">Global sand consumption has tripled</a> over the past two decades, UNEP/GRID-Geneva has found. A huge chunk of it is now taken up by construction.</p><p>"Many operate on the assumption that natural sand is endless in its supply," said Vander Velpen.</p><p>Sand scarcity is a concern shared by Stefan Schimmels of <a href="https://www.fzk.uni-hannover.de/fzk_start.html?&L=1" target="_blank">Forschungszentrum Küste</a> who's done extensive research on shore nourishment to stop coastal erosion. And as climate change and rising sea levels are threatening coasts, demand for sand will grow even more.</p><p>A large study, the <a href="http://www.stencil-project.de/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/STENCIL_SWOT_Analyse_191026.pdf" target="_blank">Strategies and Tools for Environment-Friendly Shore Nourishments as Climate Change Impact Low-Regret Measures (STENCIL project)</a>, focused on the German island of Sylt, a popular vacation spot.</p><p>About 1 million cubic meter of sand per year is used to maintain the coastal area of Sylt, STENCIL project head Schimmels said. That's about 100 million 10-liter buckets of sand.</p><p>When sand was extracted off the coast of Sylt, underwater craters were formed. "You can still detect these craters even decades later," Schimmels told DW.</p><p>"Also when you add a couple of meters sand onto the beach — you essentially bury all things that do creep and fly," he said. "How quickly will they recover?" Schimmels said more research was needed as there was still too little known about long-term effects on the environment. </p>
Criticism Piling Up<p>As for Manila's artificial white sand, it looks like some might have already been blown away by a recent storm. DENR claims it wasn't washed away, but said that grayish sand, stones and other material had simply piled up over the dolomite sand. People in Manila have tweeted photos showing how the storm has ravaged the beach. </p>
<div id="adc0b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="98f9390db6bb81cb421aaf0bb9d9a6fb"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1318816633280851969" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Exactly one month after giving excited netizen a glimpse of Manila Bay white sands, look what happened now after ju… https://t.co/X0Z9i0bPB0</div> — M*A*S*H (@M*A*S*H)<a href="https://twitter.com/Magtira_Matibay/statuses/1318816633280851969">1603265362.0</a></blockquote></div><p>Authorities have been called tone-deaf for spending around 389 million pesos ($8 million) on a beach nourishment project in the middle of a raging pandemic.</p><p>An image of cake iced with the words "It really hurts - that's [worth] 389 million pesos?" has since gone viral.</p>
<div class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4387aad52ea316e4db7330052318ca2f"><div class="fb-post" data-href="https://www.facebook.com/theweekendpatisserie/posts/144564207350008"></div></div><p>"It's just a waste of precious resources," Torres said. </p><p>The environmental activist now also worries that she might be labeled a terrorist for speaking out under the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/philippine-anti-terrorism-law-triggers-fear-of-massive-rights-abuses/a-53732140" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Philippines' controversial new anti-terrorism law</a>. She says she could be arrested for inciting fear when talking about environmental dangers.</p>
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