We were very lucky this past week to have an excellent talk by one of our former ICI Fellows, Lo Sze Ping, who is a leading environmental activist and scholar in China. His talk was titled “Environmental Challenges and the Growing Citizens Discontent in China.”
India China Institute’s Senior Director Ashok Gurung talks with former ICI Fellow and Chinese environmentalist Lo Sze Ping at The New School.
He discussed some of the background to recent environmental issues in China, including recent PX factory protests in multiple cities across China. PX, or paraxylene, is a toxic industrial chemical. Various companies have been trying to build PX chemical plants in China in recent years, and all have been met with opposition from local communities, primarily due to the health risks from their operation. These type of plants have contributed in recent years to the problem of “cancer villages” in China, a problem which Lo said will only become more acute in the coming decades.
But not everything green is bad in China. Lo also highlighted some of the more positive recent developments, including formal efforts by the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China to formally incorporate the idea of an “Ecological Civilization” into state programs and policies, something that he suggested makes China unique in terms of state actions to address the environment. This is also the focus of the latest UNDP Human Development report on China, titled Sustainable and Liveable Cities: Toward Ecological Civilization. Part of this emerging ecological discourse, Lo suggested, is a reaction to the failures of the Western model of development and capitalist economic growth models, familiar to many as the “Beijing Consensus (Beijing gongshi),” which he and others have argued is simply the “Washington Consensus” with an authoritarian Chinese veneer.
Lo concluded his talk with a number of slides showing various anti-PX protests around China, as well as several examples of more formal environmental efforts, such as Beijing’s Blue Sky Visual Diary. He suggested such examples are a part of the growing landscape of Chinese environmentalism today. But exactly how these formal and informal efforts connect remains unclear, Lo suggested, due to a variety of problems. In many cases, institutional NGO’s or GONGO‘s in China cannot risk involvement with activities like the anti-PX protests, even if they are sympathetic, a problem he witnessed firsthand while he was working with Greenpeace in China.
For anyone who missed the event but wanted to come, don’t worry. You can listen to Lo’s talk below.
We’ll also be posting the video of his talk here soon. Here is the accompanying powerpoint for Lo’s talk.
My attempt to write one post dealing with my Chengdu experience and my Habitat experience has failed, so I’m breaking them up into pieces to get it all out there. And to think I haven’t even started on my current location of Xi’an yet!
These are some of my guiding project questions for Habitat for Humanity in Sichuan province. The preliminary answers have been gathered through an interview with Jane Li, Government Relations and Resources Development Manager at the Sichuan branch of Habitat for Humanity China and visits to three different project sites that serve earthquake survivors of the province. This is an initial write-up with some additional fact-checking to be done, so please use this information only as insight to what I’ve been working on so far in China, and not as gospel
1. Where does Habitat build in Sichuan province?
After the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province, Habitat for Humanity has been engaged with 10 different rebuilding projects in the earthquake zone and helped build or fix 1,700 houses in the area. While I took notes on this during the interview, the Habitat China website provides a much better write-up than my attempt:
“In May 2008, Sichuan experienced an 8.0 magnitude earthquake that killed approximately 90,000 people. Over 1.5 million people lived in the affected area with 3,476,000 houses destroyed or damaged according to government statistics. 1,263,000 houses are in need of complete reconstruction and 2,213,000 are in need of repair. Some of the families hardest hit were those living in poverty in rural areas.
Habitat for Humanity China began its operation in Sichuan province in 2008 in response to the devastating earthquake. To date, HFH China has built 1,400 houses in ten villages in the townships of Xioayudong, Bailu, Jiexing, Zhuyuan and Qionglai working in partnership with the local government.
These houses, which include single detached, row houses, townhouses and apartment buildings, were all built using the government’s quality standard for earthquake resistant housing and designs from the Architecture Design Institute in Chengdu from which the families could choose. In an effort to increase income generation for the families affected by the earthquake, many of whom lost their farm land because of the disaster, 297 of the houses were constructed with livelihood in mind. In Taizi and Yangping villages, houses were built as bed and breakfasts to accommodate the many tourists that visit the area. The houses in Luoyang and Changzhen villages were constructed so that the families would have space for a small business on the ground floor and could live comfortably above.
Habitat for Humanity’s approach to community development in China is holistic, accounting not only for the homes of families, but the education of children as well. In Zhuyan township, Qingchuan county, Habitat is building ten apartment buildings, which will house 236 families, as well as a nursery school to help replace the more than 7,000 classrooms that were lost during the earthquake.”
2. How do volunteers participate in the Habitat builds?
The volunteers come from many sources, from high school students and professionals across China looking to do service to help their country, to Global Village builds that are organized by Habitat to bring disparate volunteers from around the world to work together on local construction sites. In Sichuan, the volunteers are primarily doing a lot of the heavy lifting for seasoned construction workers. This means that they carry bricks from one worksite to the next, clear areas of debris, and assist with farming and landscaping tasks in a particular village. They don’t do the primary bricklaying of the houses, as the houses must be built to a strict standard in order to withstand future high magnitude earthquakes. For the most part the volunteers take it in stride, knowing that they save the construction workers valuable time as they prepare worksites for bricklaying and other construction.
3. Which families receive houses from Habitat for Humanity?
In the case of the Sichuan Habitat office, families who are selected for the program had their homes destroyed or severely damaged by the 2008 earthquake and have applied for a new Habitat home. Additionally, even if their home is intact, they may be chosen to participate as part of a land swap with the government, to encourage them to move closer to a centralized village where electricity, gas and sewer services can be provided.
To participate, they must have some savings to contribute to the construction of the house, but they also receive subsidies of 15,000 yuan from the government and also an additional 15,000 yuan per family member from the Habitat office. These subsidies are not paid in a lump sum, but are sort of like matching grants to the family once they achieve certain milestones for home construction, such as the foundation being laid on the house. Once a milestone is achieved, the family receives the next portion of the subsidy.
For families that need additional funds beyond the Habitat and government subsidies, they would apply for a mortgage from a local bank that provides a 3-5 year mortgage for the gap financing. I was quite shocked to learn how short the loan repayment terms were! In the United States most mortgages have small down payments and 15-30 year terms. This likely has a lot to do with the sky-high savings rate in China and the terrible savings rate in the United States.
4. How much do the new homes cost?
On average, the building cost for each house is 900 yuan per cubic meter. China has regulations for new buildings that require each family have 30 cubic meters of space for each occupant, so the cost runs around 27,000 yuan per occupant in a family. Given that most families have 3-5 members, the average cost of a new Habitat one family house is about 120,000 yuan. This is about $20,000 US dollars and is considered quite expensive for the region due to the materials used in construction and the tight earthquake building standards.
5. What style are the houses built in? What materials are used?
The new houses are very simple structures and are standalone brick one-family homes. While brick is the primary building material, the important sections are reinforced with concrete and rebar to provide earthquake protection, and wood is used for interior and exterior finishes. The roof is primarily made of concrete. While the Chinese government does use more expensive and sustainable materials in some houses for earthquake survivors, it is not common because the scale of destruction was so vast that it needs commonly available materials to rebuild houses rapidly. Additionally, these materials are a significant upgrade from the previous homes which were made of dried bamboo, clay and bricks made of sunbaked mud. These materials were not very insulative and often exposed homeowners to the elements. They were also incredibly fragile when subjected to a major earthquake, which accounts for 80% of the structures in the area being decimated in 2008.
New Construction (This is a multi-family unit built at a different site. All the houses at Mayan Village where the old house is pictured were still under construction at the time of my visit):
The Chinese government provides the design for the houses and also arranges the contractors to do the actual construction. In this way, the government takes a primary role in the home building process that is distinct from how Habitat operates in the United States. Habitat serves as the primary builder and lender for houses built in the states and also solicits designs from architects across the country.
6. How much money do homeowners spend on energy in the new houses?
For most of the homes, electricity costs about .57 yuan per KW and natural gas costs 1.89 yuan per cubic meter. If a house is primarily occupied by elderly residents, they could spend as little as 5 yuan a month on electricity, as they use few appliances or electronics in their households. For younger households, the monthly electric bill could approach 80 yuan as they use air conditioning, computers and appliances such as refrigerators.
As an aside, I have to remark on how energy efficient the Chinese people are in almost all the cities I’ve been. Even as I write this in Xi’an on the top floor of a modern high-rise condo building that I’m staying at with a family member, almost all appliances are unplugged from the wall, the windows are used instead of air conditioner, and the lights remain off. My host even unplugs things such as the cable modem and router at night to save electricity! As I blogged earlier, this is likely to change with younger generations of Chinese citizens who become acclimated to Western taste in electronic usage, but for now it still impresses me greatly.
7. Does Habitat for Humanity refurbish houses in Sichuan province?
As soon as I learned a little more about the earthquake, I realized how foolish of a question this was! Given that 80% of the houses were rendered uninhabitable in the earthquake area, there was very little to rebuild after 2008. And even the structures that remained were often abandoned due to susceptibility to future earthquakes (and the aftershocks from the 2008 earthquake that continued at up to magnitude 6.0 for months after the initial quake).
However, Jane did tell me that the Habitat branch in Shanghai has a project to refurbish “old-age” buildings in the central city. I will investigate this further during my trip.
I’ve waited far too long to update here on my academic project and experiences in Sichuan, so while I continue to work on that several page long entry, here is a fun aside from my visit to the Chengdu Panda Research Base today. These photos are from early this morning around 8:30am when they are eating and still have energy to do something. Otherwise they lie around all day.
Morning feeding time for pandas.
Red panda that snuck through fence and ran by me.
Pandas up in the trees. Interesting videos of how they clumsily scale the trees to follow on Facebook.
The visit today confirmed my belief that pandas should be allowed to die out as a species. Watched an informative video about panda reproduction at the center and essentially the folks in Chengdu have to combine both artificial insemination with a special massage to even have a shot at starting the reproductive process. Then if the near miracle occurs and a baby panda is born, it is only 100g (1/1000 the size of its mother) and faces the indignity of its mother smacking it around on cold concrete like a doll. Without human intervention there is simply no chance these animals can survive, even if we gave them the entire country of China to wander as a human uninhabited playground. I suppose I could be convinced that having a cute animal as the figurehead of a global environmental movement is good for fundraising and provides a net beneficial impact for conservation, but in the long run we probably need to learn to value ugly life intrinsically, like the ugly toads that are dying everywhere from global warming.
We finally got internet at the AVANI center here in Berinag Uttarakhand, India! The center here is great, I quickly got acquainted. After an hour of physical labor at 7am, I go to work in the solar room. Over the last few days I have been putting together solar chargers for solar lamps. Villagers come to the center and buy the lamps and chargers for $36. They come to the solar room if there are any problems and the solar workers fix them. A bunch of solar lamps have just been made and now they need to be promoted. I am looking into possibly doing fieldwork, I was not aware before coming here that there are other AVANI centers in neighboring villages and research students have the opportunity to work in the community promoting the technologies such as solar and pine needle gasifers that create energy and clean burning charcoal.
Yesterday for World Environment Day I had the kids from the small school here pick up trash around the campus, it was great fun. Playing with kids is universal, no need to speak the same language. I am learning Hindi, slowly, but learning. More to come…
Join us for an interdisciplinary seminar that engages the key issues and debates on the state of Himalayan ecologies and the human-nature interactions that influence resource management strategies. The aim of the course is to encourage the exploration of environmental challenges while addressing the complex social and cultural practices that inform, and/or deter, efforts to promote sustainability and human resilience in the face of rapid ecological change. Students will have the opportunity to pursue their own areas of interest in this course and to identify or expand upon areas for future research and writing. The course is cross listed in environmental studies and global studies and is open to students of diverse disciplinary backgrounds.
This course is linked with an initiative on Everyday Religion and Sustainable Environments in the Himalayas (ERSEH) that is coordinated by the The New School’s India China Institute. The initiative, chaired by Ashok Gurung, is in collaboration with the departments of Environmental Studies, Religious Studies, Global Studies, and the Parsons School of Design. Inquiries that ERSEH asks include: What does “sustainability” mean in, and for, the Himalayas? How do ecological interconnections, social systems, and politics constitute and transform the “Himalayas”? What role does everyday religion have on human interactions with the environment?
Dr. Georgina Drew is a postdoctoral scholar for the India China Institute’s initiative on Everyday Religion and Sustainable Environments in the Himalayas. Her work at the institute builds upon her doctoral studies and her extensive research activities in the Indian and Nepali Himalayas.
This summer I am researching sustainable development and renewable energy in rural communities as a means of creating resilience against climate change. I will be working at Avani, a chapter of Barefoot College located in Kumaon, Uttarakhand India. Recently I have been connecting my involvement this semester with the Solar Decathlon project and the research and work I will be doing over the summer. I recently joined the Solar Decathlon project and become part of the Empowerhouse Collective working with a solar cooperative in Ward 7 Deanwood DC, where the Parsons designed/built home was moved after the competition on the DC mall.
Something struck me yesterday when I went down to DC and met with a solar contractor, president of the Ward 7 Solar Cooperative and homeowner of PVC’s, and Georgetown student and member of Georgetown Energy, a non-profit formed by students to assist homeowners in the contracting and installation of solar panels. Discussing the benefits and financial savings of rooftop solar panel installation and the practicality in being trained as a solar engineer and installer, I realized this might be something I will be fortunate enough to learn and be trained on this summer as a volunteer at Avani.
This is incredibly exciting to think I could potentially learn how to be a solar engineer this summer. To learn something so practical, tangible and applicable to the life I want to lead sounds pretty great.
The official launch of ERSEH took place at at 5-day workshop in Kathmandu, Nepal (October 24-28, 2010). Thirty scholars and experts from India, China, Nepal, Bhutan, and United States, representing the disciplines of religious studies, environmental studies, international affairs, and Himalayan studies, collaboratively developed the foundational research questions, established project goals, and, began to build a community of experts to explore new perspectives in religion, sustainability, and their policy implications.
Faculty members from The New School — Ashok Gurung, L.H.M. Ling, Cameron Tonkinwise, Mark Larrimore, and Sara Winter — make up the core members of ERSEH.
They led small group discussions on the themes of:
– Dynamics of local knowledge and practices
– Mapping continuities and changes in sacred conceptions of the environment
(See workshop agenda, full list of participants and their bios, and research questions below.)
Culminating with a range of interpretations and perspectives, the workshop was a strong starting point to grapple with the complexities of international environmental policy and the role of religion within it. It laid the groundwork for the next few years as ICI continues to spearhead further inquires on the Himalayas’ pressing issue of environmental policy and climate change.
The third round of India China Fellowship Program focuses on Social Innovation for Sustainable Environments.
India and China face unprecedented environmental challenges and opportunities in their intertwined futures. Both countries are increasingly conscious of the negative consequences of their current rapid development, such as ecological degradation and global warming. In practice, however, ecological concerns, including water contamination, greenhouse gases, poor urban air quality, and industrial waste dumping, have been sidelined due to urbanization pressures, industrialization, and the current economic downturn. Although the past few years have brought positive experimentation in environmental governance in both countries, much remains to be done to bring attention and action to these pressing issues.
Join the India China Institute for an exciting talk looking at conservation and development issues in the Himalaya. “Challenges in Balancing Conservation and Development in Eastern Himalaya, a Biodiversity Hotspot” Ganesan Balachander is Director of read on →
China and India: New Urban Forms, New Fields of Inquiry will explore new ways of looking at the interplay of the conceptual and the material in studies of urban India and China. A collaborative and exploratory read on →