Day 1 Report from Taihu Lake, Nanjing, China Water Pollution Conference


This week, I attended a conference in Nanjing, China on Taihu Lake water pollution. The event was organized by the Woodrow Wilson Center, Japanese Institute of Developing Economics (IDE-JETRO) and Nanjing University.

Several of my colleagues from partner organizations based in China were there as well as several from U.S. based organizations, including one from Great Lakes Office of National Wildlife Federation. On the Japanese side, there were five to six institutions, including professors, researchers and one NGO, Japan for Sustainability.

There were many students from the College of Environment Sciences of Nanjing University who were there and who helped out at the conference. I talked with some of them during breaks. Some are confused about their future since it is hard to find a job for their major. And they are also very unfamiliar with NGOs and how they work. They often ask how such groups exist and be able to operate.

The first day of the conference was opened by a presentation given by a Jiangsu Provincial EPA official on the management of Lake Tai.  Immediately following, a local Wuxi-based city level environmental official made an in-depth presentation on how they try to solve water pollution in the Wuxi part of Lake Tai and in particular, a lagoon type of smaller Lake Li in Wuxi city.

While these two presentations in particular were the only two given from the governmental side of Lake Tai, I found the speakers and their presentations to be oddly at odds.  The first speaker who is based in Nanjing and in charge of Lake Tai pollution work appeared not to be passionate at all about Lake Tai. On top of this, the technical issues during his presentation didn’t make the delivery any better.  While the second speaker was a lot more passionate and knew Lake Tai water issues very well, he seemed to be in no position of power.

I asked a few questions during the first Q & A. The first question was whether or not there is any coordination among other cities around Lake Tai on water pollution. Because the first presenter, with little passion for the issue already had left the conference, the second local official, with passion for the issue but no power, responded. He answered that there was cooperation, but not under the direction of his department because it’s not his department’s responsibility.

The second question I raised was whether the government has taken a more ecosystem approach, and whether or not they have taken into consideration of biodiversity loss due to water pollution and overfishing.  Unfortunately, the answer was no, and that they have not done much on fishery conservation and species protection.

The third question I asked, knowing that that Lake Tai region is one of the richest and more economically developed regions in China, was whether the government or institution conducted research or evaluated costs in economic terms of the damage to the ecological system and the price of water pollution around Lake Tai.  Not too much of a surprise, the official responded that he would welcome anyone who could conduct such a study, indicating that this was an effort never done before.

The afternoon session of the first day was led by speakers from the Great Lakes region of the U.S. The afternoon sessions were centered more on business approaches to water pollution. Participants included a water treatment company, a foreign venture, BioChem Technology and Matt Turner of Future 500 who introduced Coca-Cola and other U.S. firms forming partnerships to reduce water pollution. Another presenter from Nanjing University introduced a water pollution trading pilot project on Lake Tai.

Again, I raised several questions during this session, including:

1. Everyone understands we need to pay for wastewater treatment and there are investments from government and other funding available, but how about measures on preventing water pollution. Would there be any potential business approaches to reduce water pollution at earlier stages rather than spend more money on treatment after the fact?

2. Since a for profit company is promoting its water treatment technology as a new technology and wants to expands its markets to other parts of China, is the technology proven sound and mature enough to be promoted nationwide? There must exist many new types of wastewater treatment technologies, and from a company’s own interest, a water treatment company probably wants to sell its own technology for profit. And when a city invests in a certain technology, it would not have funding later if they find out a better option exists. So, it’s important to demonstrate a product’s long term effectiveness and viability.

3. The pollution quota trading plan might sound good at first, but the basis for its smooth operation is dependent only if the factories are willing to obey the law. If a polluter has already been secretly dumping pollutants in Lake Tai and are desperately violating laws and regulations, how can we expect that they do not cheat in this trading system?

4. The trading system is only designated for Jiangsu province, but Lake Tai covers Zhejiang as well. So if one part of the water body is under such a trading scheme, and the other part isn’t, and if the pollutants do not only stay in this side of Taihu Lake water body, how does the trading system then work?

The first two questions were a challenge to the company, and as a result were not answered adequately or with conviction. For the third question, the researcher from Nanjing University said they just do the design and research on this trading system, but with regards to enforcement and if the water pollution quota are accurate or not is something that his out of his jurisdiction. And for the fourth question, the researcher said the trading system was only limited to each city and trades within one city, meaning they can not actually trade between cities even if they are both in Jiangsu province.

Overall, it was a good start. People and institutions from China Japan and the U.S. gathered together to discussion important Lake Tai issues. The momentum built from the beginning of this conference will gather much needed interests in addressing water pollution of Lake Tai.

More information on Lake Taihu can be found here and here.

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