Monday, July 25, 2011

Water for elephants of the Beijing Zoo.

Lauren and I traveled to Beijing in 2010. I hadn’t been back in ten years and I felt it was time to visit and get reacquainted. I do miss China often; I miss the food, the people, the landscape. I have grown accustomed to my American life style, but as you can see form the way I blog, I reminisce often.

I really wanted Lauren to see the pandas, so I took her to the Beijing Zoo. Her distinct impression was the poor brown bear had nothing but a concrete hole in the ground, no water, no shade, no toys, not even grass; he had nothing but despair. She also remembers the elephants hiding in what little shade they had and the drinking bucket emptied. “Poor little elephants, there are no water for the elephants.”

We had both just read that book a few weeks before, the symbolism and irony is consuming. We’ve moved on from feeling sympathy for the elephants since then. We have family troubles and other worries more distinctively personal, the elephants at the Beijing Zoo soon became a distant memory.

But the water problem in China looms over my brain every day. I’ve always been told water has inherent qualities benefiting my health. I recently translated a short blog post from a Chinese site about the health benefits of water. I understand and appreciate the significance of water in our lives. I was also born in the Gobi desert, so I know water is scarce.

According to a recent Reuters report, more than “half of China's cities are affected by acid rain and one-sixth of major rivers are so polluted the water is unfit even for farmland.”

The impending water problem and environmental degradation accompanied by China's double-digit growth created one of the most threatening risk in the Chinese society. More and more protests rise against State's perceived inability to tackle the problem. The government has promised to clean up its environmental problems, but local protectionism and the single focus on profit at the regional level hinders any national policies set from the distant capitol Beijing.

China’s deputy environment minister stated at a news conference recently that "the overall environmental situation is still very grave and is facing many difficulties and challenges." According to Reuters, waters near Shanghai, Tianjin and Guangzhou were rated as severely polluted, 16.4 percent of China's major rivers do not meet the standard for agricultural irrigation.

China is the world's leading consumer and producer of lead, and it has struggled to control the industry. Lead poisoning from water sources, especially in children, roused even more violent protests. State has begin to crackdown on the coal industry and promised the public the protests are under control, but for how long?

Some have argued that the Chinese environmental and water problem is a problem of enforcing the law. But the deeper issue is the central State’s control over regional bureaucrats and getting accurate reporting and compliance. From speaking with farmers and local residents when I visited in 2010, I get the feeling the business investment climate is like the wild-west, local officials are taking what they can and leaving the problems for someone else to clean up. The Chinese has a rather robust environmental law, but it is the regional enforcement pressured by economic development that has pushed back against meaningful progress in shaping up China’s rapid environmental and social deterioration.

The State is faced with a rather tough challenge. The local communities risk the wrath of the centralized police power if the protests get out of control. The scale is stacked against the poor and rural Chinese population increasingly displaced by the growth of the urban middle class. The poor farmers are like the elephants without water and locked in a cage with only token amenities. All the while the pandas . . .

At the Beiijng Zoo, the once almost extinct pandas now thrive in air-conditioned mini-ecosystems with plenty of water, ice-cream, and public attention. Just like the peasant class that once almost extinct under the feudal China, they now weld the power and luxury of a mighty communist nation.

The poor brown bear is sitting in a concrete pit with no water, no shades, nothing to protect them from their conditions. But it’s the elephant I’m worried about. There is no water for these elephants.

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