I recently posted about some significant victories of communities in China who have stood up against projects that they believed would damage the environment where they live and post risks to public health.

In particular are the demonstrations in Shifang, Sichuan Province which – helped by their exposure via social media – succeeded in stopping plans to build a giant chemical plant in the city.

The protests in Shifang have ended, but the unrest and mistrust of the Chinese government which came with them, has remained. Some credit the rise in environmental and political consciousness with the current generation of students in China, dubbed the “post-90” generation, signifying that they were born after 1990. Most of the demonstrators detained by the police in Shifang were students. The post-90 generation is also more likely to have grown up using the internet, mobile phones and participating in social media. They’ve also grown up witnessing the kind of environmental destruction that has helped characterize China’s speedy growth.

Read more about that dynamic in the Financial Times.

pollution in Linfen, pic: sheilaz413 (Flickr CC)

Of course, students leading protests is nothing new. Students have been involved in protest movements all over the world and throughout history. So have the ordinary working people who tend to suffer most from the destruction of their local environment and also from health risks.

According to a report by Reuters, what angers these people the most is not always necessarily the projects themselves, which may bring needed jobs to the area, but that locals are not properly informed or consulted by the government. Shifang itself was devastated by the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, which killed over 87,000 people in the region and crippled the local economy.

And how bad is China’s pollution? Is it more public perception or is the Asian giant shooting itself in the foot with its brand of rapid industrial growth?

In the latest Environmental Performance Index, China placed 128 in a out of 132 countries (India scored rock bottom). So… pretty bad. So bad that China has issued a general warning to foreign embassies to stop publishing reports about Chinese air quality. An interesting twist is that bad air quality can seriously damage GDP, according to studies by the World Bank and MIT. Poor human health due to air pollution can cost a country from 4-9% of its GDP.

Read more on that topic from CBC News.

And in China pollution is not the silent/invisible killer that it is in many places on Earth. Two years ago I posted about how the Pearl River had been turned indigo by dye used to make blue jeans. Lately another river, the Quxi in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province turned a milky white when an emulsion from a chemical plant leaked into its waters.

From the Epoch Times:

The head of the local Environmental Protection Office, Dai Dongpeng, blamed the pollution on the Daxulin Trading Company, which loads and unloads latex.

Dai Dongpeng is further quoted in a China Daily report on the incident:

The milk-white natural emulsion contained no biochemical toxicity, but it polluted the river and brought inconvenience to the daily life of local residents.

Non toxic pollution can still damage water by adding an unnatural amount of suspending solids along with destroying the water’s clarity. And while I don’t foresee a massive violent protest over a milky looking river, these kinds of incidents add up and stick in the public consciousness, fomenting dissatisfaction and unrest.