I had a chance to catch up with Chris Groves, director of the Hoffman Environmental Research Institute at Western Kentucky University, about his fieldwork in China and the concept of 'environmental justice'. He's been doing some interesting work with Guo Fang, a research hydrogeologist with the International Research Center on Karst in Guilin, Guangxi, and colleagues Jason Polk and Leslie North into the water supply in the region and I wanted to share the interview with readers. I hope you find it interesting.
What exactly is 'environmental justice'?
The US Environmental Protection Agency defines 'environmental justice' as the 'fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.'
But conditions fall way short throughout the world, disproportionally for both rural and urban poor. While local and regional government agencies in a country can allow certain communities to suffer more from environmental degradation, it's typical that complex physical and cultural conditions and interactions also govern the associated impacts on health and social/economic conditions.
How does this relate to China, in your experience?
In a China/US partnership last month, the International Research Center on Karst (IRCK) in Guilin and the US-based China Environmental Health Project (CEHP), implemented an environmental workshop for local people and government officials to gain a basic scientific understanding of the Lingshui Spring water supply of Guangxi’s Wuming County. The goal of the workshop was to engage local citizens and government leaders to develop better water protection strategies for protecting public health, particularly in poor rural communities —many of whom are ethnic minorities. The concept of environmental justice isn't well understood in China, and there are especially significant technical, social, and political challenges in the mostly rural southwest.
Why is the water supply issue so important in this part of the country?
Water supply is subject to the peculiarities of the region’s karst geology, formed in especially soluble rock types such as limestone. In these settings, dissolving ground waters give the bedrock underground a highly permeable, Swiss Cheese-like nature. Typically, rainwater falling on the ground in such areas infiltrates the ground rapidly and makes its way downward to flow as underground rivers through caves, rather than at the surface. An estimated 80 million mostly rural people are estimated to live in the impacted karst regions of southwest China. The spots where the waters of these underground rivers reappear at the surface flowing up from the ground form the great springs of southwest China, including Lingshui Spring–the sole water source for some 100,000 people. The spring is also a local recreation spot, and has served as a training base for China’s national swimming team.
But not only can the high underground permeability of these groundwater systems limit availability of surface water supplies during the dry winter months, but in contrast to groundwater in other geological settings that can be of very high quality, karst underground flow systems that supply southwest China’s many large and important springs are very easily contaminated. As rainwater easily infiltrates the ground, so can pollution from agricultural, urban, and industrial sources.
So what's the solution to this?
Protection of these water sources must be first based on a technical approach that employs scientific methods to study groundwater flow in order to identify specific areas that are the main sources of pollution impacting a particular water supply spring. Good scientific research can help inform participatory engagement of local private and governmental stakeholders to develop best practices for land use that balance economic and social needs of those on the landscape with protection of underground water quality and thus public health.
What are some of the non-technical challenges?
The economic and cultural dimensions of environmental protection in southwest China’s extensive karst regions are widely influenced by and intertwined with the region’s widespread poverty and high proportion of ethnic minority nationalities, including Zhuang communities in Wuming County of the Guangxi Autonomous Region.
This was the setting of the August workshop in Wuming, which was organized by IRCK’s Guo Fang, along with her IRCK colleague Jiang Guanghui and CEHP’s Jason Polk and Leslie North, who had travelled from the US for the event. So this was really a collaborative effort. Ms. Guo, herself of the Zhuang Minority, organized the activities in her role as aUS-China Young Environmental Justice Fellow under the auspices of Vermont Law School’s U.S.-China Partnership in Environmental Law.
The fellowship programme also involved the Woodrow Wilson Center’s China Environment Forum, Sun Yat-Sen University, and the Beijing-based environmental NGO Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims and was supported by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the US Department of State.
Was the workshop a success?
More than 200 people attended the workshop, including Wuming county government leaders, members from the Wuming county political consultative conference, representatives of the County-level Bureaus of Water Resources, Environmental Protection, Forestry, Land and Resources, Housing and Urban-Rural Development, and Tourism, and the Wuming Water Company, along with interested local citizens and graduate students from Southwest University, China University of Geosciences, Guilin University of Technology and Guangxi Normal University.
Following the workshop and subsequent communication IRCK will continue a technical research focus on sustainable use of water resources in Wuming County, with Lingshui Spring as a research and education demonstration site in the twelth Five-Year Plan. Locally, a draft proposal for protection of Lingshui Spring’s water resources was recommended by the Wuming county political consultative conference, including delineation of water resource protection areas.
Any final thoughts?
These events represent the county political consultative conference’s most extensive efforts to date to understand and protect local groundwater, and to empower local communities through direct engagement in education. With so many partners it's natural that such a successful event would generate elements of positive diplomacy and understanding between US and Chinese partners, scholars and policymakers, and indeed the events provided important, common goals for subsequent interaction by county-level Zhuang and Han leadership.
As an interesting historical note, local government leaders tasked relevant staff to go back through historical records of Wuming County while preparing for the workshop, and it was determined that the event represented the most attention that the spring had generated for at least 1,000 years!