The air hasn’t quite cleared

Tarjei Kidd Olsen

While China’s dramatic last-minute measures to cut pollution during the Beijing Olympics grabbed headlines, a little publicised Norwegian project in Guizhou province shows just how difficult it will be to make lasting changes. The project appears to have made some real headway in Zunyi — one of China’s most polluted cities about 1,600 km south-west of Beijing in Guizhou, one of China’s poorest provinces — but a new report shows that donor incompetence, local corruption, and China’s economic rise pose serious challenges.

Spearheaded by the Norwegian Pollution Control Authority in cooperation with the Environmental Protection Bureau (EPB) in Zunyi, the project focuses on training pollution monitors and improving information management at the EPB, as well as raising awareness among large industrial polluters. “Zunyi has high levels of industrial activity and serious problems with pollution that need to be dealt with. It was decided to embark on this project as the local environmental authorities had very little capacity or skills to handle the problems themselves,” Hans Olav Ibrekk at Norway’s development agency Norad said.

Ibrekk and two of his colleagues have written a report on the project in Zunyi, which is due to finish at the end of September following a three-year run. “The main focus has been on training the inspectors to do a better job when examining local factories. This has involved everything from equipping them with simple measuring instruments to refocusing their attention on the production process as a whole instead of just the pollution that comes out of the pipes,” Ibrekk said.

The hope is that by pushing factories to focus on the production process, they will be able to reduce pollution more effectively than if they simply try to filter the pollutants as they are released into the sea and air. “It’s about making better use of chemicals, saving electricity, reducing emissions, and generally making the process more effective,” he said.

Despite the progress that has been achieved, the Norad report shows that the project has also been hampered by a series of weaknesses. One of the most serious issues relates to the lack of a proper exit strategy. Such a strategy should ensure that everything that has been learned by the environmental authorities will not simply be confined to the 20 inspectors that have been trained by Norway.

The long-term goal is that the lessons of the project will be spread further afield than Zunyi, but the inspectors in the other EPBs in Guizhou — around 50 according to the report — have only received very basic training. This is particularly problematic as the 20 inspectors that have been schooled have not been taught as per the ‘train-the-trainer’ approach.

The problems are not confined to the project itself, however. Chinese corruption is also a challenge. While improved reporting mechanisms have made it easier for the inspectors in Zunyi to catch and fine those that do not comply with environmental regulations, it is unclear to what extent this is enough to make well-connected polluters clean up their act. “There is a real danger here. As some of these factories are state-owned, with cosy relationships with local administrators and inspectors, it is not clear that they will be fined, or will care about it,” Ibrekk warned.