Huge Oil Spill in China

From bad to worse in China:

A huge oil spill in northwest China has heavily polluted a tributary of the Yellow River, and threatens to reach one of the country’s longest and most important sources of water.

China’s state-run news media said late Saturday that a “large amount” of diesel oil had leaked out of a pipeline last Thursday in Shaanxi Province.

The government has not explained why the report of the spill was not released until late Saturday. But Xinhua, the official state news agency, said the leak was caused by construction work and that a crew of 700 people was struggling to contain the damage from about 150,000 liters, or about 40,000 gallons, of diesel oil.

The natural environment in China has seen little but torture over the last 30 years.

This is just a particularly immediate example of the damage occurring in a country which is rapidly losing farmland to the desert and it population’s health to choking smog.

Industrialisation always brings huge dislocations and the “green and pleasant” land of England was famously wrecked by dark satanic mills and choking smog.

Unfortunately the 30 years preceding China’s epic transformation were little better.

A mixture of “political repression, utopian urgency, dogmatic formalism, and state sponsored relocations affected and distorted Chinese relationships with nature.” [1]

Most bizarre was the Four Pests campaign which was designed to eradicate sparrows, rats, mosquitoes and flies from the Chinese countryside.

The campaign was initiated by and sparrows were included on the list because they ate grain seeds, causing disruption to agriculture. Peasants were ordered to bang pots and pans and run around to make the sparrows fly away in fear. Sparrow nests were also torn down, eggs were broken, and nestlings were killed.

However, with no sparrows to eat them, locust populations ballooned, swarming the country and compounding the problems already caused by the Great Leap Forward and adverse weather conditions, leading to the Great Chinese Famine in which around 30 million people died of starvation.

As our Oil Spill so aptly illustrates, the passing of Mao does not mean all is well in China. It now faces indirect but more potent dangers to its environment.

The commodification of China’s landscape, farmland and natural resources has led to all sorts of trouble.

The problem with this dividing up of nature is that all too often the costs are socialised down to the workers or the peasantry while the benefits are captured by an entrepreneur, state or landlord.

When the IMF discuss climate change, the message is deceptively simple: “It’s an externality, stupid — so price it.” But this is not what is happening in China.

To say environmental regulations are lax is an understatement. Moreover peasants have been cleared from their land without compensation at an alarming rate in the last few decades.

There are some limited programmes in operation. For example, the was the “Western Development Programme” this was designed to integrate the Chinese western hinterland more fully into China’s fluctuating political economy.

One component of this scheme was the “Grain for Green” programme, this paid farmers to refrain from using land for profit, and instead return it natural forest and grassland.

All this is not enough. It has been estimated that up to one seventh of China’s potential GDP is sucked up by environmental abuse. The introduction of a “green GDP” was shelved by the Communist Party. This would have subtracted the cost of environmental degradation from economic growth, but the numbers provided were not politically acceptable.

[1] Judith Shapiro Mao’s War against Nature (Great Britain; Cambridge University Press)


Selected Reading for 04/02/10