Stephanie von Stein interviewed by Gavin Browning and Kate Meagher
Originally published in Volume 20: Storytelling, 2009

Spanning 185 countries, Waterkeeper Alliance was born in New York State in 1966, when local fisherman banded together to patrol the health of the Hudson River. Other communities soon took note of this effective and transferable model of advocacy: one person, in a boat, on a waterway, watching over the waters. As the Asia Program Coordinator of Waterkeeper Alliance, Stephanie von Stein explains how this type of non-governmental intervention on Chinese rivers reinforces private companies’ adherence to environmental laws, while helping to create transparency and accountability between the local and central governments in burgeoning State conservation efforts.

Gavin Browning: You started the first two Waterkeeper programs in China. Can you tell us about them?

Stephanie von Stein: Yes, and, careful with the wording, because one of Waterkeeper’s requirements is that activists come to us, and that they find us, because it’s a grassroots movement. But we did have a dialogue with some environmental activists in China. In January of 2006 we met with Ma Jun. He’s one of the most prominent environmentalists in China. He gave us an overview of water pollution laws in China and which NGOs are working on water issues, and among those NGO’s, who would be the best fit to be Waterkeepers, and we reached out to them. We said, "This is our model, and it seems like you’re doing similar work, and maybe you’d benefit from a membership in the Alliance." So this was an unusual situation, in that we reached out. But there was an enthusiastic response when we did.

GB: What are particular water concerns in China, and how does the program address them?

SvS: One Waterkeeper program is on the Han River, which is a tributary of the Yangtze, and it’s a pretty big river in its own right. It runs through Hubei and Hunan Provinces, and the woman on that river is an amazing powerhouse named Yun Jianli. She is doing true Waterkeeper work in that she has a boat — we helped her find funding for a boat — called the Middle Han Waterkeeper Boat. She goes patrolling on it once a week or more, and she takes school kids, officials, you know, people from private companies on the boat, to have a first hand look at the waterway. She has five set monitoring sites along the middle stretch of the Han and she keeps a water quality log for all of those checkpoints so her group can have an ongoing idea of the water quality along that section of the river.

Let’s say they see a discharge pipe putting out black or red water. They will call the local Environmental Protection Bureau [EPB], who will then send somebody out to do a check. And if necessary, they’ll have to go and talk to the private company that is doing the polluting, and tell them that they need to comply with the law. If a company has been called by the EPB and they’re still not complying, she will call them again, then she will call the EPB again [pause] she’ll just make sure that the problem gets resolved. She’s been responsible for getting waste-water treatment facilities improved on a number of facilities or factories along her stretch of the Han River.

What are the issues? [Pause.] It’s huge. China has enormous pollution as well as water availability problems. The north is extremely dry, and the south is relatively wet, so China has initiated a huge infrastructure project called the called the South-North Water Diversion Project that is going to consist of three channels: a western, central and eastern route. A reservoir [Dan Jiang Kou] at the top of our Middle Han Waterkeeper’s river is going to be the starting point for the central section of the South-North Water Diversion Project. They’re going to take about a third of her water from the Han River via the reservoir and send it to the northern cities to alleviate their water-availability problems.

GB Who are "they"?

SvS: The central government. It’s an enormous, central government endeavor, which China is known for. There’s really nothing that the local provinces or towns along the way have to say about the issue, even though these diversion projects are going to have massive deleterious effects on the rivers. When its flows are diminished by a third, the pollutants in the Han River will be a lot more concentrated. So, even though Ms. Yun can’t really fight a diversion project, she’s trying to clean up her river to the point where even after the water-flow is diminished, it will be cleaner simply because of the prevention efforts along her stretch of the river.

Kate Meagher: Are there any other solutions that you or Waterkeeper would advocate for restoring the water, besides prevention?

SvS: Waterkeeper deals mostly with water quality [rather than quantity] issues. In terms of pollution, the question is really enforcement, because the water laws are there, and because the State Environmental Protection Agency was recently strengthened and elevated to a cabinet-level ministry. That’s a signal that China is taking its environmental issues seriously, and that they want the new Ministry of Environmental Protection [MEP] to have more power than SEPA had in the past — even if it’s still somewhat limited in terms of personnel on the ground, as well as in terms of having direct control over provincial EPBs. They really don’t have clear authority over these provincial EPBs as of yet, and really, the people who know what’s going on are the people on the ground, in the towns and villages. So, it’s tough.

A lot of the time, corruption is involved. EPB officials have an incentive to look the other way because a factory owner will pay them. And even now, an official at the local level will be promoted to the degree by which their province has developed economically. So if they’re being promoted to the degree by which they’ve been able to attract business and bring in revenue, then the incentives are not really there to enforce. But new incentives have been created. For instance, last spring an amendment to China’s Water Pollution Prevention and Control Act was enacted calling for disciplinary actions including dismissals for EPB officials who fail to investigate and penalize any violators after detecting or receiving reports on violations.

Also, the Open Government Environmental Information Law [enacted in May 2008] makes the local EPB staff responsible for publicizing local pollution information and data, and for enforcing disclosure of data by industry. Because they [the local EPBs] have to publicize the data in a certain number of local forums including local newspapers and magazines and on their website, the public does have more access to data, and this is going to help NGOs with enforcement. I think it will give NGOs a little bit more power, because the EPBs are going to be wanting to know what they know — and have access to their data — before the government sees that they neglected to report something. Now, I think it’s just going to reinforce and build upon cooperation that already exists.

GB: This law really goes against Western notions of China as nontransparent.

SvS: Right, I think it’s a signal that China is really serious about environmental enforcement, and that this is one attempt by the central government to get more power over what happens in the provinces, because it’s a really tangible way for them to check that the EPBs are on top of the situation. If an EPB did not did not report something that a NGO then later reported, they could be held accountable. It’s powerful, because it puts information in the hands of individuals.