China on course for a ‘Minamata moment’
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.