Old Summer Palace: Example of Chinese Public Involvement in Environmental Issues

May 24th, 2011 by

The Old Summer Palace is one of the “must sees” for both Chinese and international visitors to Beijing. Historically, the 860 acres, comprised of the Garden of Perfect Brightness, the Garden of Eternal Spring, and the Elegant Spring Garden has been known as the “Garden of Gardens” in Chinese for its once exquisite collections of stone palaces, landscaping, waterscaping and artwork. After the looting and burning of the site by British and French troops in 1860 during the Opium War however, the ruins of the Old Summer Palace still represent the shame of many Chinese feel from foreign imperialist forces in China’s modern history. The importance of the site is unquestionable, both for international visitors and for Chinese.

Ruins of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing, China

Thus, when Chinese environmental activist and visiting professor at Lanzhou University, Zhengchun Zhang posted an open letter was on the Internet in 2005, exposing park officials’ plans to line the gardens’ lake beds with plastic to prevent lakes’ water from being lost through infiltration into the underlying groundwater, a storm of public outrage erupted. Although the plan to seal the lakebed was made in the good interest of the preservation of the Old Summer Palace’s waterfront aesthetics, it was exposed that the plan, which had an estimated cost of 3.6 million US dollars, did not undergo any environmental impact assessment, an approval required by law before any construction begins.

The decision to line the beds of the lakes within the Old Summer Palace with plastic came from the park administration. Beijing is one of the thirstiest cities in the world, with a per capita water resource amount of only one-thirtieth the international average. Falling groundwater levels have also caused surface water to infiltrate more quickly into the ground so that for the lakes such as those in the Old Summer Palace, surface water levels also fall. Because rainwater is also scarce, replenishment of the lake took place artificially, putting extra burden on the city’s already-strained municipal water supply. With no action, the water has to be added into the lakes three times per year; with the planned liners, they only have to be artificially replenished once per year. Preventing loss of water from infiltration to the underlying groundwater would be able to maintain water levels for the flora and fauna dependent on the lakes.

A worker covers an impermeable plastic membrane with soil in the bed of a lake in the Old Summer Palace. Source: Xinhua News Agency

However, opponents of the plan debated fiercely through both online and traditional media outlets. The plan was reminiscent of many other projects to line canals and riverbeds with cement, which began in the 1990’s in Beijing and contributed new ecological challenges. Hard-facing water bodies eliminates interaction between water and the underlying sediment, a crucial part of the ecosystem balance. It also changes the overall hydrology. In summer months, concrete –surfaced lakes heats faster than sediment and accelerates evaporation. The flows between water bodies could also be disrupted, and could change some areas into “dead water”, or even accelerate flow out of the site. Although the plan for the Old Summer Palace called for plastic liners, possible toxic effects of such liners on the ecosystem were not evaluated in any way. Others said that the surface water bodies within the park also constitute historical marsh areas which recharge the areas groundwater levels. Without evaluation, the effects of cutting off such a such of groundwater replenishment were unknown.

Because of the amount of attention the project garnered through online discussion forums and traditional media, the first-ever national level environmental public hearing was called by the National State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA, now the Ministry of Environmental Protection). This was the first time that environmental governance was spurred through pressure from the general public rather than from regulatory officials, and thus, was a milestone in China’s environmental democratization.

As a result, Tsinghua University’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Office was called upon to carry out a public report on the site, which at the time of the public hearing, already neared completion. This report was assembled by a team of university experts and made the following recommendations:

1.       The eastern portion of the site should not carry out further sealing using the plastic membrane, and that natural clay material should be used to reduce infiltration.

2.       The plastic membrane installed at the mouth of Elegant Spring Garden should be removed and replaced with clay filling and the original sediment of the lake. The banks of the lake should not utilize any sealing membrane.

3.       The areas of Eternal Spring Garden lake higher than 40.7 meters should immediately remove the sealant membrane and fill with clay. No sealant membrane should be used on the banks.

4.       The installed sealant membrane in Fuhai Lake should be modified. Where gravel has been used as fill, the surface sand should be replaced with natural clay and all the original sediment should be replaced. Other than the area within 10 meters of the dock, the sealant membrane on the revetments of other areas should be removed to ensure adequate infiltration. Additionally, in order to satisfy the ecological needs of the Old Summer Palace park grounds, water usage plans must be made systematically, and the efforts must be made to ensure the quality of the water and prevent contamination

Map of the lakes within the Old Summer Palace and location in China. Source: On sealing a lakebed: mass media and environmental democratisation in China. Ji Ma, 2009

The assessment by Tsinghua University was accepted by SEPA. The report also acknowledged that while these recommendations would likely improve the water shortage situation in the lakes, the impact of the regional hydrology was likely to suffer, and because construction of the sealed lakebeds already neared completion at the time of the report, the true ecological costs of the project could not be assessed.

The expert team from Tsinghua University and general public participants in the hearing mentioned the use of reclaimed wastewater to replenish the lakes. However, like many other water-intensive industries that have been instructed to make use of the city’s reclaimed wastewater resources, it is possible that the limited distribution network and the quality of the reclaimed wastewater may make this difficult presently. In addition, other experts suggested that the sizing and depths of the lakes be adjusted to reflect Beijing’s current water scarcity situation.

Although there may not be one comprehensive answer to the challenges of preserving this historical site, the public hearing held by SEPA at the time fostered the government’s support of public debate on environmental issues. One source reports that in a random sampling of 100 articles returned from a Google search “The Old Summer Palace EIA”, 60 were classified as news articles from major media sources, and 15% were articles from personal blogs or webpages. BBS threads were also an important means of communication, with about half expressing “outrage”, one-sixth supporting the idea of water-tight membranes for conserving water in the lakes, and about 35% expressing neutrality. The second-most supported BBS message on one forum (after one expressing outrage at the membrane itself) was one that expressed dissatisfaction with the fact that the construction of the project was begun without any environmental impact assessment.

A report done by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, found that EIAs in China currently do not sufficiently incorporate ecological issues. A personal conversation with a developer based in Beijing, also confirmed that of all the permits required for a new development, the environmental permits are the easiest to secure. The major problems were listed as follows:

Lack of baseline information about ecological subjects;

Inadequate skill sets among environmental assessment practitioners related to impact prediction, mitigation and restoration, and monitoring.

Post-impact monitoring is not strongly emphasized in training programs

Little value of the importance of public participation in assessments and methods to involve communities

Insufficient sharing of best practice models and international experiences among assessment practitioners.

The above are opportunities for improvement, but, the direction is positive. The same report states that a survey of practitioners of EIAs in China revealed that all showed genuine interest in learning how to better predict environmental impacts. In 2002, the Central Government also released a new version of the China Environmental Impact Assessment Law, which, in addition to requiring all renovation and construction projects carry out EIAs, also encourages greater public participation in the “social duty” of environmental protection. The case of the lakebed sealing at the Old Summer Palace Site, is an excellent and positive example of the future of public participation and EIA.

One Response to “Old Summer Palace: Example of Chinese Public Involvement in Environmental Issues”

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