Essay: Political Ecology Approach on Water Contamination in China

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China Water

Political Ecology in the Developing World: The Problem of Clean Drinking Water in China

Environmental issues remain highly controversial and receive a lot of attention by today's media and today's politicians, with topics like global warming and the latest corporate environmental disaster -- whether it is oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico or some toxic cloud spewing into the atmosphere -- grabbing headlines and focusing political debates. Often, as a matter of fact, it seems that the political fallout is more important to the public and certainly to the media than the actual environmental effects of these events and ongoing circumstances. When this is the case, it can become difficult to truly ascertain the extent of environmental problems or to discern the possibilities for addressing these issues.

It is no wonder, then, that this is the age where the term "political ecology" has come into vogue to describe the overriding research and practical philosophy that engages with environmental issues (Walker 2005). In China, it seems that the politics of ecology have been having a wide array of non-egalitarian effects on different parts of the country. This paper will try to examine the ecological issue of the availability of clean drinking water and the manner in which the political ecology not only views but actually affects this problem by framing the issue in a specific way that does not allow for the development of a true ecological context for developing solutions to the problem. Other environmental problems and events in the country will also be used to investigate this issue, ultimately leading to an answer of the question of whether or not political ecology is an effective framework for assessing and analyzing ecological issues, and even more importantly whether the political ecology actually causes direct negative harm to the environmental issues that world is facing by limiting other perspectives.

Even a cursory examination of current literature on this topic makes the answer to these questions fairly clear. Though there have definitely been some positive effects resulting from environmental activism by the Chinese population and by state-sponsored and/or mandated regulatory efforts, there are also many environmental problems in the country that inordinately affect the country's poorer people (Yeh 2009; Tilt 2007; Ma 2010). The literature makes this clear, and it also states it as such -- and this is a political framework for the discussion of incidentally ecological matters, rather than a perspective that truly supports any ecological mindset. This can also be seen in the fact that the primary feature of state programs that are supposed to ensure the proper maintenance of the environment is that they are unevenly applied, and the people that suffer are those that have the least to begin with (Ma 2010). While this is almost certainly true, it again addresses a political issue that happens to have an ecological cause; it is discussed similarly to any political unfairness or imbalance, however. Even efforts to address problems often lead to a worsening of both the environmental and the economic situations facing poor people in rural China, essentially indicating that the perspective of political ecology -- that is, an ecology that is based on the political, economic, and technological "needs" of a society -- has failed miserably (Qin et al. 2009).

Description of the Problem

The ecological problems facing China necessarily have political implications, and it is not the attempt of this paper to assert that the political and ecological spheres are separate or even separable. China's problems as addressed in the research of "political ecology," however, are not simply the result of industrial practices that lead to heavy pollution, but are brought about by situations in which those with power and money -- not necessarily individuals, but regions and specific locales that are generally wealthier and more politically potent -- contribute to environmental problems in rural China that leave citizens in these parts of the country in jeopardy (Ma 2010; Yeh 2009). This is the framework used even when people that are not especially disadvantaged but that are somehow politically different or separate are the victims of pollution (Ho et al. 2003). When this framework is applied, it supplies only political solutions, and this almost inevitably leads to ecological and political failures.

The Failure of "Political Ecology" in China

According to Walker (2005), political ecology is a research school or perspective that attempts to view ecological issues in tandem with environmental issues, and in fact argues that these issues are inherently inseparable. While this is undoubtedly true, the research perspective of political ecology has also helped in some ways to justify the degree to which political considerations are included in the making of environmental decisions. That is, by providing explanations for the failure or success of environmental efforts in political terms, the analytical framework that is political ecology almost automatically excuses continued environmental degradation or imbalances in its effects by demonstrating the inseparability of the political from the environmental (Tilt 2007). While ecological issues are inarguably inherently political in addition, politics do not actually have to be a conscious part of the decision-making process when developing ecological solutions or halting ecological problems, and political considerations certainly should not form the primary focus in this process, yet this is exactly what occurs through an application of the political ecology perspective.

Hong Kong has long had a somewhat contentious relationship with mainland China; still technically under British rule until relatively recently, a different culture has developed here that has put it at odds with the tightly controlled society of most of China. It is impossible to avoid seeing the political ramifications and implications of the fact that the mainland river that supplies the vast majority of Hong Kong's drinking water has been heavily polluted for decades, and the Hong Kong must put a great deal of effort into purifying this water without any upstream assistance from the Chinese government or populous (Ho et al. 2003). While the framework of political ecology does not automatically excuse this situation, it does suggest that the political concerns in the issue are on a level with the environmental concerns, when in reality framing the issue in this manner is purely political.

An ecological perspective insists that the source of the pollution of this river needs to be stopped. Even the issue of drinking water complicates the ecological demands that exist here; it is still a political end attached to an ecological means. Simply by pointing out the political unfairness of the situation, the importance of the ecological issue is diminished and subverted -- there should not need to be a political reason to stop ecological harm, or to reverse harm that has been done. In the framework of political ecology, however, only political action can lead to environmental change, and this perspective becomes its own truth as soon as it is accepted by individuals that could otherwise be the source of ecological progress, which would lead to political progress a wholly secondary and unpurposed byproduct (Tilt 2007).

The fact that rural (and thus economically disadvantaged) regions ad populations in China experience disproportionately large negative effects from industrial pollution of course has a political context, and is a highly political issue (Ma 2010). It is imperative to note, however, that framing the issue in this way makes it a purely political problem, and solutions to the problem in this framework are themselves automatically framed as means of reducing political tension -- of creating greater fairness. Instead of simply focusing on the fact that China's industrial activities are highly ecologically damaging and finding ways to end this and to reverse the damages, the focus becomes making sure those that create the pollution are the ones that have to deal with the pollution. Though a secondary hope is almost certainly that pollution will be diminished once its effects are felt by those that created it, this hope is wholly secondary and subjugated by the primary focus on the political fairness of the circumstance (Ma 2010).

This is why even naturally occurring ecological problems are not effectively solved -- they are approached from a view that is supposedly informed by a "politically ecological" perspective when in reality it is only a political perspective. The increased appearance of toxin-producing bacteria in a lake used for drinking water is framed as a "drinking water crisis" rather than an ecological issue, and the efforts to correct it developed from the same perceived need to solve the political problem of leaving a large portion of the Chinese population without clean water (Qin et al. 2009). These efforts actually exacerbated the problem, while an approach that actually sought to solve the ecological problem of the over-abundance of bacteria might have also provided people with more abundant drinking water as a side benefit (and there were other ways to provide drinking water with purely political/economic solutions in the meantime that would not have had adverse ecological effects to the same degree) (Qin et al. 2009).

At times, of course, sound… [END OF PREVIEW]

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APA Format

Political Ecology Approach on Water Contamination in China.  (2010, November 10).  Retrieved May 25, 2019, from

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"Political Ecology Approach on Water Contamination in China."  10 November 2010.  Web.  25 May 2019. <>.

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"Political Ecology Approach on Water Contamination in China."  November 10, 2010.  Accessed May 25, 2019.