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Judith Shapiro-Podcast Highlights

Professor Shapiro is the director of the Masters in natural resources and sustainable development for the School of International Service at American University, and a founding member of the geopolitics and ecology of Himalayan water. She is also the author, co author or editor of nine books, including China's environmental challenges, and China goes green. 

Listen to the full podcast here

Links between human rights and environmental degradation in China:

During the great leap forward in China under Mao, Professor Shapiro describes a parallel war against nature that was taking place. Youth were sent to the borders to fight the enemy, but also to wage war against nature, and to cut down trees to fuel backyard furnaces. Professor Shapiro draws the link between environmental impacts, and a lack of freedom of expression that occurred during this time in China. 

Water’s role in shaping Chinese national identity:

Water plays a special role in Chinese national identity. According to the legend, the first emperor of China became emperor because of his ability to harness the waters. Throughout its history, China has experienced great floods, and one hypothesis by a German Psychologist says that Chinese centralized bureaucracy came to be as a way to organize massive numbers of people working to control these floods. China has two great rivers, both originating from the Himalayas: The Yangtze in the south and the Yellow river in the north. For millennia, these two rivers have shaped Chinese life and identity. In the north, people struggle with too little water in the yellow river, the cradle of Chinese civilization. In the south, the struggle is the opposite with too much water in the Yangtze river causing flooding, and putting massive dams at risk of bursting.

Climate Change and water in China:

Climate change poses a huge threat to water in China, from sea-level rise, to flooding, to water scarcity.  One of the main concerns is the rivers that flow through the country, as all of China’s major rivers originate from Himalayan glaciers. As these glaciers melt, initially there will be an increase in water flow through the rivers, but in the long term, melting glaciers means massive water shortages for the country. Water shortages would cause chaos for agriculture and industry, which are already in competition for limited resources in the north, and would endanger the wellbeing of highly populated areas like Beijing, forcing millions of climate refugees southward. 

Hydropower and Dams:

Hydropower is seen as a green alternative to fossil fuel energy, but what’s less often talked about is the environmental threats posed by dams. Building a dam in and of itself is a massive undertaking that is extremely carbon intensive, from the machinery used to redirect the river and construct the dam, to the concrete that goes into the project. Dams are also very destructive to the communities and ecosystems that were living upstream. Entire villages are flooded, livelihoods are gone, and cultures are destroyed. Relocations of upstream communities are often poorly managed, and in highly populated areas like China and India, there is no good land left for the communities to settle. What’s particularly problematic that Professor Shapiro points out, is that dams can be used as a way of land grabbing and money making in the name of environmentalism. Dam builders justify taking land from uneducated or disenfranchised communities who don’t have the ability to fight back, saying that the dam is good for the country’s effort to mitigate climate change, when it’s really just a way to make money. Even environmental impact assessments of these infrastructure projects are often carried out by the same people who are going to benefit monetarily from the project. The renewable energy excuse also plays into transboundary issues, when upstream countries like China restrict the water supply of downstream countries like Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam and justify their dam building as a form of climate mitigation. 

Civil Society in China:

Unlike in other places in the world, civil society in China does not work independently from the government. The effectiveness of civil society and environmental groups is dependent on finding state allies to support their work. For example, environmental civil society groups often have the support of the Ministry of Environmental protection, and without this alliance, it’s impossible to operate in China. 


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