Sunday, August 30, 2009

RM award for China's water guardians

Philippine Daily Inquirer/Feature
by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo
MANILA, Philippines—Two Chinese activists who have literally immersed themselves in turbulent waters are among this year’s six Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation awardees.

Working separately and through different means, Ma Jun and Yu Xiaogang have devoted their lives to reversing the threat to China’s water systems, for many the source of life and livelihood.

Ma, 41, a former journalist, is being honored by the RMAF for “harnessing the technology and power of information to address China’s water crisis, and mobilizing pragmatic, multisectoral and collaborative efforts to ensure sustainable benefits for China’s environment and society.”

Yu, 58, is being recognized “for fusing the knowledge and tools of social science with a deep sense of social justice, in assisting dam-affected communities in China to shape the development projects that impact their natural environment and their lives.”

As a Beijing-based journalist working with Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, Ma Jun traveled extensively around China and saw how the country’s vaunted economic boom was threatening to destroy its water systems. He witnessed the torrential floods caused by the overflowing of the Yangtze River and other catastrophes.

Ma used his pen to raise the alarm and in 1999 published his book, “China’s Water Crisis.”

The book, with a chapter each devoted to the seven main water basins of China, opened people’s eyes to the problem and provided a way for many to get involved.

The main message of Ma’s book, hailed as China’s “first great environmental call to arms,” was: If we don’t change the way we use and manage our water sources, we will be facing a water crisis.

“People used to say, let’s get rich first. No, we must make space for the environment. We must try to live within our means and use water more efficiently,” he says in an interview.

Water pollution map
It was no surprise that Ma the journalist became a full-time environmentalist. In 2006, he founded the nongovernmental Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPEA) and launched the “China Water Pollution Map,” the first public database of its kind in China which monitors the current state of bodies of water.

In 2006, Ma was voted one of “Time’s 100, the People Who Shape Our World,” (which included the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s founder Eugenia Duran-Apostol).

On Saturday, the Magsaysay laureate went on a tour of the Pasig River and saw for himself how Metro Manila’s main water system is close to death because of pollution.

Factory of the world
According to Ma, the four challenges relating to water are pollution, dwindling supply, flooding and threats to the ecosystem.

“Modern farming is one source of pollution,” says Ma, and also blames rapid industrialization and globalization.

“China is indeed becoming the true factory of the world. And we dump pollution in our own backyard,” he says.

But he notes that the Chinese government is now “making concessions to nature.”

The IPEA, the group that Ma founded, conscientiously makes a list of corporate violators, which is taken seriously by everyone concerned.

Ma says transnationals like General Electric, Wal-Mart and Nike are using IPEA database to track the performance of their China suppliers.

Continuous research and data-gathering are part of IPEA’s work. The group has formed the Green Choice Alliance which makes companies commit to non-polluting methods and products.

85,000 dams
If Ma is focused mainly on threatened life-giving bodies of water, Yu Xiaogang has zeroed in on the water-harnessing projects that threaten to destroy lives, livelihood and habitats.

Yu grew up in Yunnan province, a place of tremendous beauty because of its mountains, rivers and lakes. The province has nine lakes and is drained by three of the world’s largest rivers—the Nu, the Yangtze and the Mekong.

But mystic landscapes of lakes and rivers threaten to become just a memory because of China’s staggering dam-building program to feed its mammoth energy needs.

Where there used to be mighty raging or smooth flowing rivers, there are now monstrous structures that control the waters.

Dams, supposedly the harbingers of progress have, in fact, brought doom and gloom to many natural habitats and cultural heritage sites.

China had, at last count, 85,000 dams, or 46 percent of the world's total.

The Three Gorges Dam, spanning the Yangtze and touted as the largest electricity-generating plant in the world, will be opening this year.

Dams, the threat they pose and the havoc they cause, are the primary concern of Yu, founder and director of Green Watershed. Begun in 2002, this non-profit NGO developed an integrated watershed management program in the Lashi Lake area in Yunnan.

Dams for whom?
While doing post-graduate research on the impact of the Manwan hydroelectric project, Yu discovered and documented its adverse impact on the area’s inhabitants.

Yu stirred a hornet’s nest, causing the government to investigate and act to remedy the dam’s destructive effects.

In the Lashi Lake area of Yunnan, a dam project diverted 40 percent of the lake’s waters, flooded farmlands and destroyed the people’s livelihood.

Green Watershed organized the Watershed Management Committee and mobilized people to engage in irrigation, fishery, microcredit and training in watershed protection and biodiversity conservation.

The Lashi project was so successful it became a model for participatory management. It even received a citation from the government.

Encouraged, Yu has expanded his campaign into other dam sites and other advocacies. Green Watershed has conducted research, organized forums and enlisted the help of the mass media.

In 2008, Yu initiated Green Banking, a coalition of environmental NGOs that confers the “Green Banking Innovation Award” to banks and financial institutions that include the environment in their corporate agenda.

Dam project stopped
When the government announced a project to build 13 dams on the Nu River, Green Watershed organized public debates. It argued that the dam would displace 50,000 people and affect a Unesco World Heritage nature site. The project has been put on hold by Premier Wen Jiabao.

Yu insists that communities and ecosystems need not be sacrificed on the altar of development.

“Thirty years ago, dams were for agriculture. Now it is for electricity, for profit. There are now so many dams in China and, for some, the market has not even been identified,” he says in an interview.

In campaigning against this proclivity for building dams for dams’ sake, Yu and his fellows have taken the first steps in the “Long March” toward a truly sustainable future.