Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Guangzhou Officials: Lettuce show you how "clean" our river is!

You can't eat it, but can you swim through it?
Just how clean is the Pearl River? Clean enough that you can swim in it, of course! Correction: Clean enough so that Guangzhou’s officials can swim through it under the gaze of their subjects and superiors.

For city and provincial leaders, the annual “Swim Across the Pearl River” has become a symbol of a successful river clean-up effort attributable, of course, to their efforts. The event was relaunched in 2006 following a 30-year hiatus attributed to excessive water pollution – a side-effect of rapid industrialization. At the relaunching, no less than Guangdong Governor Huang Huahua was in the leading group of a larger crowd of 3,500 swimmers. The next year, Guangzhou Mayor Zhang Guangning fired a starting gun before leading another big crowd for a purportedly healthy dip.

If symbolism alone could sustain citizens, they would certainly consume their fill of the message that Guangzhou - and Guangdong more broadly - is leaving behind the teething pains of its headlong burst into modernization. Higher-ups meanwhile might eye a promising local cadre that just might go far someday with their help.

Fast forward to 2011. You’re a Guangzhou official. This year’s big swim is set to start in one day. Suddenly, your underlings rush to tell you that you’ve got lettuce problems – water lettuce to be precise.

Yes, masses of this pesky, floating, fast-growing plant, known for clogging up waterways worldwide with its thick, leafy, lettuce-shaped tops and extensive submersed roots, are gushing downstream on a deluge of fresh runoff caused by recent heavy rains upriver. It’s a big political 麻煩 (trouble) with your name written all over it. What will the higher-ups and lower-downs think if swimmers have to navigate huge masses of unsightly lettuce blooms? What will this do for your reputation for successful water management? Such was the dilemma that city leaders had to confront on July 15.

Of course, water lettuce is not pollution in itself. Actually, used in moderation, it serves as a popular ornamental lake plant in many parts of the world, just as the water hyacinth does. However, like the water hyacinth, water lettuce can be a major pain in the 屁股 (butt) if it is allowed to grow unrestricted (see this water hyacinth example). It has a tendency to take over watercourses and clog boat propellers. Additionally, like algal blooms, water lettuce can absorb oxygen from the water, thereby killing off river creatures. It is majorly bad news for water ecosystems.

Yet, while water lettuce does not need pollution to grow, it may indeed be a sign of nutrient imbalances. Like algae, the plant thrives in waters that are nitrate and phosphate rich - just the sort of waters you might expect to find running off of excessively fertilized farms in upper Guangdong following torrential rains. Indeed, a Caijing commentary on the incident does mention pollution and garbage. The commentary also cites an assertion by the Guangzhou Urban Management Bureau that this crop of water lettuce was the worst that the area had seen in years. What dreadful news for local officials looking to bask in a moment of glory!

The Urban Management Bureau's Water Affairs Department rushed to clean up the lettuce before it reached the swim site, but the difficulty in cleaning up a lettuce outbreak of that size eventually forced the city to close off that section of the river and hold the flow of lettuce upstream until the swim (and the photo-ops) had concluded. The restriction of the lettuce flow was then relaxed while the wider cleanup continued.

The question is this: Were city officials justified in keeping up the appearance of water cleanliness in order to avoid jeopardizing the symbolism of the event (and potentially their careers)?

According to Hu Tao (quoted in the Caijing piece), Researcher at the Environmental Protection Agency Environmental and Economic Policy Research Center, such action on the part of the city is disturbing. He notes:

为了横渡珠江 而采取非常手段清理水污染,显示出政府环境治理缺乏长效机制。这种用临时措施耗费公共资源的做法,凸显的是特权思维,很难避免公众的质疑。

The choice of extraordinary methods to clean the water pollution for the Swim Across the Pearl River shows that the government’s environmental management lacks a mechanism for long-term effectiveness. What stands out from this type of temporary procedure that consumed public resources is the [officials’] special privilege mentality. It’s really difficult to avoid public suspicion.

In other words, when faced with a problem, the officials were more concerned with their photo-ops than with the situation at hand and were willing to spend the public’s money to ensure that nothing rained on their parade.

Of course, the Guangzhou officials were not the first Chinese leaders to do this. Need we forget the closure of factories around Beijing to ensure clear skies for the 2008 Olympics? 

Beijing officials were adamant that "Blue Sky" days would remain after the games had concluded. Three years later, the success is debatable. On the one hand, local officials continue to claim that air quality is steadily improving. On the other, air monitoring equipment at the US embassy frequently continues to show troubling pollution, as well as the presence of dangerous fine particles (smaller than 2.5 micrometers) - overlooked by Beijing's Blue Sky index.

Regardless, Hu Tao’s statement does seem to apply to both situations, and he says as much in the Caijing piece. For local officials, the delivery of a healthy environment should be an end in itself rather than a means to an end, as it is when it serves as the backdrop to a special event.

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