Environment and crisis of development

0 CommentsPrintE-mail China Daily, September 2, 2009
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Very soon a little known place could make headlines across the country: Asuwei, the site chosen for a waste-incineration plant in Beijing's northern suburb.

Asuwei is one of the areas where the many members of the city's upper middle class have been buying expensive houses. The incinerator project is likely to raise a controversy because local environmental activists will follow the industrial standards of the 1950s, which is very lenient toward the emission of highly toxic dioxin emission.

I hope Asuwei doesn't become famous (or infamous) as yet another place of civil clash between the development (or rather anti-development) plans unilaterally and mistakenly adopted by urban authorities and the long-term interests of the people.

If a new incinerator plant is built at Asuwei for people who have benefited the most from the country's rapid development, it would serve as a poisonous example of the emission of a chemical, which once emitted would cause a near permanent environmental damage and could compromise the health of many people. It will be a bad example, too, of the relations between economic reform and its most stalwart supporters.

So before building the plant, the Beijing municipal government that claims to be committed to social harmony should solicit opinion from a wider section of the people and, if necessary, review the project.

On the other hand, if the green activists are talking nonsense and the incinerator's plan is technologically advanced enough (which I really hope) to allay fears, the officials should seize this opportunity to demonstrate its magical features - because by doing so, they could win public confidence for their competence.

But a report prepared by some people after private investigation, which a friend with whom I worked in the investment service a decade ago sent me, says the incinerator would use a technology that developed countries are rapidly phasing out.

Another friend, who has retired from a government job and is now a full-time volunteer for an environmental organization, told me that a technology with extra high temperature and pressure to eliminate all dioxin does exist.

If that's the case, officials should buy the safer and better technology, irrespective of the cost, to safeguard people's health and the environment, as well as to maintain the politically invaluable social harmony. The Ministry of Environmental Protection can play a vital role here by commissioning the production of incineration equipment by using the new and friendlier technology.

Incinerators are seen as effective substitutes for landfills that require huge tracts of land. But there is a trap here. And large cities with no more spare land easily fall into that trap because they are ignorant about the dangers of dioxin.

One just has to look to the US and Japan to see the danger posed by dioxin's side effects. The two countries, along with other developed nations, are busy knocking down their incinerators.

Since many among China's urban middle class can read English and can easily access such information on the Internet, they could raise a storm online against the Asuwei project, which in turn would pose a threat to social harmony. Shanghai and Nanjing have already seen mass petitions against such projects.

Beijing's officials should realize that development is not a one way traffic, and land acquisitions have already caused great harm to relations between the government and farmers and residents of old neighborhoods.

Now if the Asuwei incinerator project proceeds without convincing people of its green credentials it could cause further social damage. And that is a damage China cannot afford.

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