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Photo: Andreas Habich

When you think of regions big on environmental protection, China doesn’t usually come to mind. Over one million premature deaths have been linked to air pollution in China since 2013. Water sources are spoiled and schoolchildren face exponential risks from industrial emissions. In the long run, China is even having difficulty supplying food to its billion-plus citizens; approximately one-fifth of the country’s farmland is too polluted to grow crops.

But now it seems that China is getting the message. In what is being called a landmark decision, Chinese prosecutors have won a lawsuit against a county environmental agency for dishing out what they feel was “inadequate punishment” to the Qinshun Chemical Technology Company for allegedly producing dye without following appropriate environmental safety standards. It is the first case of its kind in a legal system that has often put ecological conservation at the bottom of its to-do list.

Heavy steel industry, Benxi, located east of Liaoning province in the People's Republic of China. (Photo Credit: Andreas Habich CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Heavy steel industry, Benxi, located east of Liaoning province in the People’s Republic of China. (Photo Credit: Andreas Habich CC BY-SA 3.0)

Pollution has overtaken land and labor disputes as the number one cause of protests in the eastern nation. Rice is often found to be contaminated with heavy metals, and untreated chemicals in ground and water sources have caused problems ranging from underweight infants to lung cancer to sterility in men. In response to the public’s outcry, China has declared an official “war on pollution,” and is implementing a new system that allows prosecutors to file suits against companies that refuse to comply with present environmental regulations.

“I think it’s time to change and balance the environment,” says Ma Jun, founder of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. “If we don’t do that, we’re going to suffer a hard landing one day very soon.”

One tactic the government has been using to pinpoint water pollution is its recent “Hei Chou He” initiative, which translates to “black and smelly river.” China’s environment ministry is asking members of the public to seek out as many polluted waterways as they can find. Once reported, these waterways can be catalogued, and potentially cleaned up. Thus far, nearly 2,000 individual water sources have been identified, but some feel this is only the tip of the iceberg.

“We think many black and smelly rivers have yet to be discovered,” says activist Shi Dianshou. “We want to get those ones on the list so they can deal with those rivers too.”

While China’s endeavors are indeed positive, it will likely be some time before a major turnaround is witnessed. The country has long implemented a model of “growth at all costs,” and while this may have worked to some degree, the high levels of pollutants found in China’s water, soil and air have caused many officials to rethink this method of progression. As with all cooperative efforts, Ma is asking the country’s residents to step up and do their part.

“We need to mobilize the people to support them [environmental officials] because the real beneficiaries of what they do are the people,” explains Ma. “If the people aren’t going to back them then who else will? Everyone else has some interest in economic growth and development, which often happens at the expense of the environment and community.”

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