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Environmental Health Crises in Southwest China

Millions of rural and urban citizens in China suffer from health problems and limits to economic development due to contamination or shortages of water and air pollution from coal. In southwest China, water challenges are particularly acute due to that region's karst geology, where much of the water flows underground through caves rather than on the surface

Date & Time

Nov. 8, 2006
8:00am – 10:00am

Environmental Health Crises in Southwest China

Millions of rural and urban citizens in China suffer from health problems and limits to economic development due to contamination or shortages of water and air pollution from coal. In southwest China, water challenges are particularly acute due to that region's karst geology, where much of the water flows underground through caves rather than on the surface. These health problems are yet another burden on tens of millions of subsistence farmers. Urban China is not immune to growing environmental health threats—on the highly urbanized east coast, emissions from coal-fired electric power plants and industries have been a leading cause of respiratory illnesses and early deaths (300,000-400,000 annually), as well as damage to crops, forests, and watersheds from acid rain and black carbon.

The China Environmental Health Project

At a CHINA ENVIRONMENT FORUM meeting on November 2006, scientists from Western Kentucky University (WKU) and the Southwest University of China (Chongqing) discussed the applied research and training projects they have been undertaking in China over the past 15 years, which have focused on enhancing Chinese infrastructure and technical capacity in two areas: (1) solving safe drinking water challenges in southwest China's limestone karst regions and (2) monitoring emissions from coal burning on the urbanized east coast. These years of collaborative work have coalesced into the China Environmental Health Project (CEHP).

Beginning in October 2006 with major support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), WKU's Hoffman Environmental Research Institute and Institute for Combustion Science and Environmental Technology will carry out CEHP in partnership with the China Environment Forum (CEF) at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the International Institute for Rural Reconstruction (IIRR), as well as with Chinese scientists from the School of Geography at Southwest University of China and the Anhui University of Science and Technology in Huainan. The main focus of this collaborative environmental health project is to promote partnerships with universities to enhance technical infrastructure in air quality analysis, hydrogeology, and geographic information systems (GIS) computer mapping technology. Besides the scientific components of the karst water and coal activities, there is also a strong community outreach and NGO education components to CEHP.

Karst Water Challenges in China

Dr. Chris Groves (WKU) and Professor Yuan Daoxian (Southwest University of China) began the November 8th meeting by explaining the geological characteristics of karst regions and the economic and health problems that have emerged in these regions in China. Karst landscapes cover over 15 percent of the earth's surface and nearly a quarter of the world's population relies on karst aquifers for drinking water. Karst areas are most predominant in northeastern Africa, Southeast Asia, parts of the eastern United States, and southwest China (Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou, Hunan, and Guangxi). Rural communities in the karst areas of southwest China are some of the poorest in China where 80 to 100 million rural residents earn around $85 a year. This poverty is tied in large part to pollution and difficulties in accessing water in these karst areas.

Quick Karst Geology Lesson
Rivers flowing through underground caves rather than on the surface characterize karst water systems. Because there is little filtration through soil or rock above most karst aquifers and rivers, these water bodies are particularly vulnerable to pollution and other contaminants on the land. Dr. Groves illustrated this vulnerability in showing slides (see speaker PowerPoint presentations in the See Also box) of an exploration in Florida, during which divers in were tracked by researchers following them on land above. The trackers were able to record the various pollution sources above the divers in the karst river. Strikingly, the divers finally emerged from the karst underground river in a sinkhole full of black water and garbage. Such contamination underscores one of the two major human health challenges faced by communities in karst areas; the other major challenge is accessing the water.

In most karst regions of the world, rain is fairly evenly distributed throughout the year. However, in southwest China, the monsoon climate exacerbates water shortage problems in the karst areas. For example, in Guangxi and Guizhou provinces, during the dry season karst areas become almost desert-like, since most of the available water is flowing deep underground (from 100 to 1,000 feet). Because many of these rural areas are poor and lack electricity, accessing water during dry seasons is nearly impossible.

To exemplify the difficulty of accessing water in karst regions, Professor Yuan noted that when Chongqing suffered from a severe drought in the summer of 2006, huge tracts of trees died and 10 million people suffered from extreme water shortages. In response, the government provided emergency water supplies and drilled over 100,000 deep wells.

Value of Scientific Research in the Karst Areas of China
In southwest China, 2,836 underground rivers and streams exist, almost equal in total length to the Yellow River. Despite the great number of underground rivers, they are difficult to locate and those that are found and accessible are often polluted with agricultural and industrial runoff.

The contamination of karst rivers and aquifers is complicated by the fact that polluted streams often "disappear" into underground rivers. Thus, communities downstream rarely know the types and source of the contaminants in their drinking water. In the 1950s, due to an incomplete understanding of the underground water flow in the Kentucky region, rivers that flowed through the White Horse Cave filled with sewage, contaminating the area's drinking water for decades. Professor Yuan argued that without adequate research to inform protection of these out-of-sight waters in China, they could turn into a huge sewer, creating a tragedy more extensive than the contamination of the White Horse Cave.

Professor Yuan explained that the geology of karst catchments varies considerably, thus scientists need to help communities and governments understand the geological background, hydrogeology, and the related ecohydrological problems in order to properly design effective countermeasures to water pollution and access difficulties in karst regions.

Professor Yuan highlighted how, over the past five years, the Chinese government has been proactive in addressing the broader rural water crises, spending $3 billion to help 71 million rural citizens obtain safe drinking water. Another $1 billion will be allocated in 2007, targeting safe water for 20 million rural people, one-third of whom are in the karst region of southwest China. In late 2006, the Ministry of Science and Technology awarded Professor Yuan's researchers at SWUC a 4 million Yuan five-year grant for environmental health and ecological efforts, related to poverty reduction in the karst regions of Chongqing, which strongly complements the USAID-supported CEHP work being carried out with WKU.

Improving Access to Water in Karst Areas
In a karst area in far western Hunan on the border with Guizhou, WKU researchers assisted Chinese counterparts in a project to help ethnic Miao villages gain easier access to water. The villages were on top of a plateau where a very small spring flowed underground into a huge cave system. This spring fed into a large underground river that eventually flowed out of Big Dragon Cave (Dalongdong)—a huge hole on the side of a high cliff, creating a stunning waterfall (see speaker PowerPoint presentations in the See Also box). For decades Miao villagers have had to walk miles down ladders into caves to fill up a jug of water to take back to the village. The time commitment devoted to accessing water represents a major hindrance to economic development and a growing health threat due to lack of sufficient water to meet minimum sanitation requirements.

The village and local government wanted to build a dam inside the cave to flood an area up on the plateau to provide the villages a more accessible water source. In 2004, Chris Groves and other WKU scientists traveled to the community to help their Chinese counterparts carry out some of the preparatory technical research. Parts of the cave were totally submerged and Chinese researchers were unable to map them out. Therefore, WKU brought expert cave divers to carry out the first underwater cave mapping expedition in China. One team dove down from the spring entrance and the other team explored the cave system 400 feet from the surface.

Professor Yuan related how some communities in southwest China have tried to resolve the water access problem with rainwater harvesting. Approximately one million tanks for rainwater harvesting have been built in China's karst regions, but this solution poses health problems. While plenty of rain falls in the monsoon season, many water tanks that villagers build on their roofs become easily contaminated with bacteria and algae in the hot dry season. Some wells constructed from limestone in karst areas also lead to water with a high PH, contributing to numerous health problems in rural communities.

A broader strategy to protect the quality of water in karst regions has been the creation of eleven protected areas in China's karst region, three of which (in Yunnan and Chongqing) have been submitted to UNESCO to become World Heritage Sites. In one area, the IUCN Netherlands office helped create a protected area in which sustainable agricultural practices are being implemented to protect the karst waters and promote healthier communities.

China Environmental Health Project Karst Area Activities
Under the USAID-supported China Environmental Health Project (CEHP), WKU and the School of Geography at Southwest University of China will initially be conducting research and working with local communities in Mengzi in Yunnan and a rural township in Chongqing. In the former, the community faces a severe water shortage and needs assistance in locating safe water sources. The latter township in Chongqing faces an increasingly common problem of karst water contamination caused by what Professor Yuan terms the "suicide practice" of dumping solid waste into sink holes or muddy water, where it quickly leeches toxins into the community's drinking water supply.

The CEHP Coal Emissions Monitoring Component

The United States and China are both heavily dependent on coal—China relies on coal for 70 percent of its total energy and coal supplies 56 percent of all U.S. electricity needs. Both countries also face similar environmental problems stemming from heavy coal use, which underscores how U.S.-China partnerships in studying coal emissions and clean coal technologies could benefit both countries.

The lack of widespread coal washing infrastructure and scrubbers at Chinese industrial facilities and power plants highlight the potential negative domestic and global air impacts of China's plans to build 562 new coal-fired power stations by 2012. China already emits more greenhouse gases (GHG) than any country except the United States, and is expected to surpass the United States in GHG emissions by 2009. The expansion of China's power plants alone could nullify the cuts required under the Kyoto Protocol from industrialized countries. Regionally, sulfur dioxide (SO2) and mercury emissions from coal burning are some of the main pollutants spreading from China. Acid rain resulting from coal and fossil fuel combustion has damaged nearly one-third of China's limited croplands.

Notably in China, data on carbon dioxide (CO2) and mercury emissions from coal burning have not been released, (perhaps not even comprehensively gathered) since 2001. There are estimates that China releases 400 to 600 tons of mercury each year (U.S. emissions are approximately 48 tons each year), but there are no supporting data. Moreover, mercury emissions are actually quite difficult to measure. Overall, China is in great need of better equipment and training to measure coal emissions, which underscores the need for the technology capacity building and training that WKU is undertaking at the Anhui University of Science and Technology (AUST).

WKU's Institute for Combustion Science and Environmental Technology
The coal component—led by the director of WKU's Institute for Combustion Science and Environmental Technology, Dr. Wei-Ping Pan—will focus on building up the capacity to measure and collect quality data in the city of Huainan (Anhui Province) and on implementing related health impact studies. The key Chinese partner institution for the coal work is the Anhui University of Science and Technology (AUST) and its medical school.

Over the last sixteen years, Dr. Pan has established three prominent laboratories in the Department of Chemistry at Western Kentucky University—the Thermal Analysis Laboratory (one of the best-equipped of its kind in the United States); the Combustion Laboratory (which focuses on the behavior of chlorine, sulfur, and mercury during combustion); and the Mobile Mercury Emissions Control Laboratory. Over the years, 20 researchers from Huainan city have visited and received training at these laboratories.

China's "Coal-Powered Three Gorges"
Huainan city in Anhui Province is a major energy base in eastern China, dubbed the "coal-powered Three Gorges" of the country. While heralded as a major energy-producing city, the years of coal burning have created severe air pollution and human health problems. Besides ambient air pollution from coal burning in Huainan (where 11 million tons of coal was burned in 2004), there is also a major challenge in dealing with a huge fly ash stockpile (6.6 million tons of fly ash were produced in 2004). Fly ash can be a useful ingredient in producing cement, but improper disposal could cause contamination of water and soil, for according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, fly ash contains heavy metals, including nickel, arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, barium, chromium, copper, zinc, lead, and radium.

Like most Chinese cities, pollution-related illnesses are increasing in Huainan. For example, some preliminary studies show that asthma, bronchitis, and conjunctivitis are on the rise, with the more vulnerable population groups of children and the elderly more severely impacted by the high level of coal emissions in the air. While these illnesses are apparent today, the long-term impact of mercury and other toxins from coal both within China and abroad also represent growing health concerns.

WKU/AUST Partnership
Years of exchanges have enabled WKU to build up a strong relationship with the AUST and government research communities, which will enable them to undertake comprehensive training to collect data from coal-fired power and chemical plants—with the goal of improving Huainan's monitoring system for sulfur oxides (SOx), nitrogen oxides (NOx), particulate matter (PM10), and other air toxins. Central to this program will be the training and education of Chinese researchers in the latest environmental technologies for emissions measuring.

In addition, WKU, with assistance from CEF, will also work with researchers at the AUST School of Medicine to investigate how particulates from coal emissions are affecting human health in the city, to encourage energy policies to reduce coal-related health problems. One notable advantage of working with Huainan city is the fact it possesses the authority to establish its own air pollution regulations, such as requiring all companies to set up scrubbers to collect particulate matter.

Besides in-the-field research, the WKU karst and coal initiatives will be providing training for Chinese researchers and graduate students in China and the United States. Updates on CEHP research, papers, and NGO outreach will be provided on the websites of WKU's Hoffman Institute and the China Environment Forum throughout the two-year project.

Drafted by Jennifer L. Turner.


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