China on course for a ‘Minamata moment’

July 28, 2010

Two oil spills, very different outcomes. China just finished cleaning up the aftermath of a pipeline explosion that spewed an estimated 1,500 tons of crude oil into the sea of its north-east coast. On the same day, UK oil major BP formally announced the exit of chief Tony Hayward as a result of its catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. BP is shattered, but in China, no heads have rolled.

Of course, the BP spill was more than 200 times larger. But there is another reason China’s environmental disasters are considered less disastrous. The country has not yet reached its “Minamata moment”.

In the early 1970s, Minamata Bay became symptomatic of the unacceptable environmental costs of rapid industrialisation. Almost 3000 residents of a Japanese town were killed by mercury dumped into the water. It took decades for the dumping to hit the national consciousness, but when it did, pollution abatement became a national priority.

China’s size and growth rate could create worse disasters than Minamata. In 2007, the World Bank estimated the country’s annual pollution-related death toll at 460,000. There was the recent spill of toxic chemicals from the Zijin copper mine in Fujian and the 2005 tide of benzene that flooded the Songhua River. Chinese and foreign media have regularly identified “cancer villages” along polluted waterways.

There are clean-ups and the state environmental agency sends out warnings, most recently that almost a quarter of China’s surface water is too dirty for industry to use, let alone for people to drink. Zijin has agreed to curb its output. But the predominant official responses are denial and procrastination. Urgent problems are addressed and clean technology is sometimes used, but the environment is not a priority. China’s GDP growth targets are clear and measured, but emission reductions are not.

The theory may be that clean-up can wait until China is truly rich. But the Middle Kingdom’s Minamata moment could come sooner. All it takes is the right mix of industrial horror, political inaction and social discontent. Dalian’s spill may have been short-lived, but it is another worrisome drop in the bucket.


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Uhm, you are forgetting one thing: China is a totalitarian dictatorship and the rights and wishes of people generally go unanswered. China is going full tilt on ‘progress at any price’ because they want to oust America as the top economy in the world, and literally millions have been killed or displaced along the way in the last 15-20 years to achieve it. I don’t think a ‘Minamata’ moment is possible there anytime soon – govt troops would crush that kind of rebellion first.

Posted by CDNrebel | Report as abusive

Alas, nowhere else on the planet or in history has the same ethically ignorant & morally inept mix of excessive government and capitalist excesses — just too much of a bad thing — poor Zhong Guo — they will never be rich enough to undo the morass they have made for themselves, and indeed the world will turn on them before they get much richer — if there is an alternative, I always avoid buying anything made in China, and would usually rather do without something if there is no alternative — they have a great deal of misery and pain coming towards them, and most of the country is too backwards and weak to even sense its approach.

Posted by tangogo68 | Report as abusive

Population control takes many forms, does it not? Every government is guilty and bloody handed. Do they care? Unlikely.

Posted by Saschamaroon | Report as abusive

The mother earth nurtures us and in return we destroy her!!

Posted by raymondlam001 | Report as abusive

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When the leaders are affected by the pollution, they will take action.

Posted by m11213 | Report as abusive

What the west learnt last 200 years on environment, China will learn in 20 years.

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