Ensuring environmental justice in China

22 Jun 2012

imageA public interest lawyer is collecting waste water from Lake Poyang in China.

Lake Poyang, the largest freshwater lake in China, is known for its ecological diversity.  It is the largest wintering area for migrating water birds in East Asia and home to the endangered freshwater porpoise.  Connected to the Yangtse River, the lake serves as a natural overflow reservoir and provides an abundance of natural resources which millions of Chinese depend on for daily life.

Yet toxic waste from neighboring textile plants has threatened this important water source – which already suffers from severely reduced water levels – raising public health concerns and widespread alarm over the long-term development impact.

To mitigate the situation and reverse this worrying trend, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) partnered with the All-China Environment Federation (ACEF), the largest government-sponsored non-profit organization in China, to raise awareness of the situation and improve the livelihoods of those in the affected communities.

UNDP and ACEF raised public awareness through surveys on the protection of environmental rights, exhibitions, consulting services and the distribution of 11,000 books and pamphlets to lawyers, judges, individuals affected by pollution, and environmental NGOs in China.

“Environmental lawyers are able to exercise greater influence when backed by a well-informed public,” said Hu Yulai, a public interest attorney at ACEF.

With UNDP’s support, ACEF also conducted investigative field visits to the alleged pollution site and found that the level of toxins from waste water far exceeded environmentally safe standards. These findings were substantiated in a report which struck a chord with the provincial government and lead to the suspension of production at nearby textile plants, pending full investigation.  ACEF also filed an environmental lawsuit and is following up on the case to ensure its full resolution.

Rapid economic growth is one cause of the contamination of China’s waterways.  Although the country has a number of environment protection statutes and the Government has taken significant strides towards improving environmental protection, ensuring enforcement remains a major challenge. Furthermore, China's public interest litigation system is relatively new and with few clear laws on liability and compensation for environmental damage, it remains difficult to file public interest lawsuits.

Therefore, a key part of the solution has been identified as the need to enhance China's system of environmental governance while strengthening the capacities of local communities to understand and protect their environmental rights through legal means.

The case of Lake Poyang is just one example of how UNDP and ACEF work together under the project “Protect Environmental Rights and Justice of the Public.”  Funded by the United Nations Democracy Fund, the project aims to leverage support for rights-based democratic approaches, such as legislation, public interest litigation and mediation.