Environment vs Health Issues in China – When they conflict

July 22nd, 2011

Here in Canada, I grew up searching for crayfish in local streams, jumping into clear lakes and playing in leafy woods.  “Nature” has always meant peace and familiarity to me – it is intrinsically valuable, something to deeply cherish and respect. Although as Canadians, we frankly don’t have a track record to be proud of in terms of carbon consumption per capita (and I won’t even start on the tar sands), we do have a strong affinity to the value of unspoiled nature for its own sake. Nature is an abstract concept with very real value.

In China, the motivations behind environmental awareness and actions are different.

Contrary to what many westerners assume, China has begun to recognize the consequences of its economic development at all costs, with the biggest price being the impact of pollution and environmental damage.  The central government has made cleantech themes a major component of its stimulus package, and some forward-thinking regional officials have taken leaderships roles in understanding and inculcating sustainable values.

(BTW, China Environmental Forum, Harmony Foundation – providing Canadian sustainability training to China’s mayors, and China CSR are 3 terrific sources regarding environmental direction in China).

In China, concerns about environment relate directly and tangibly to individuals instead of to an abstract cause. People care about environmental issues when they perceive the impact on their health.  They connect the dots between the factory dumping waste in the local water supply and people in the community getting sick.  Sure, it may be providing jobs but those matter less when someone you love is suffering from environmentally related illness.  It’s this encouraging grass-roots realization that is motivating positive change at all levels in China.

The challenge comes when environment and health are at odds with one another.  Nothing was so immediately obvious in this regard as the issue of bottled water.

Water quality is an enormous issue topic in China. Although other issues such as air quality of product safety get more airplay in the western press, clean water is becoming a severe concern in China.  The degree of pollution in many of China’s water sources is becoming too high for industrial or agricultural use, never mind drinking or fishing.  When living in China several years ago, I began boiling my tap water, distressed at the alternative of buying bottled water for drinking and cooking.  A friend advised me that the contaminants in the water – such as lead and other industrial chemicals could not be simply boiled away.

So when faced with the choice of questionable drinking water on my recent trip to Beijing, vs buying bottles, I was faced with a dilemma.  My hotel room came stocked with a steady stream of 500 ml water bottles.  But with heat in the upper 30s C (near 100 F) I knew that I could go through 5 bottles a day, contributing to China’s landfills of plastic water bottles.  If Americans use dispose of 50 billion plastic water bottles a year, imagine what that volume would be in China?

Drinking Water Dilemma in China

My solution?  Ignore the 500 ml bottles in the hotel room, and haul back a 4 L bottle from a nearby Watson’s (despite my partially dislocated shoulder).

What would you do, when health and safety concerns conflict with your environmental beliefs?

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