Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 171

China has pledged sizable investments to prevent pollution of rivers near its border with Russia. However, some Russian officials remained unconvinced.

China plans to spend $1.7 billion between now and 2010 to monitor and protect the Songhua River from chemical pollution, Zhou Shenxian, head of China’s environment protection administration, announced after talks in Moscow with Russia’s Natural Resources Minister Yuri Trutnev on September 11-12. Following recent incidents of pollution, Beijing has corrected China’s environmental policy regarding this river, Zhou told journalists in Moscow (Interfax, September 12).

In 2006, Russia and China achieved more significant progress than in the past few years, Trutnev said. However, he declined to confirm information from local authorities about pollution and the Amur River. “We are yet to have confirmed information that the pollution of the Amur River exceeded permitted levels,” Trutnev said, although he conceded that the quality of the Amur’s water remained far from perfect (RIA-Novosti, September 12).

Zhou also presented China’s official report on the results of water pollution monitoring, as well as China’s contingency plans to tackle the possible pollution of the Songhua River (known as Sungari in Russia). However, Boris Reznik, the State Duma deputy from Khabarovsk region, described the Chinese report as “yet another attempt to downplay the environmental threat to the Amur from Chinese industrial facilities.” The Chinese prefer to discuss accidental chemical leaks, while ignoring ongoing pollution by plants without water treatment facilities, he said (Kommersant-Khabarovsk, September 14).

On September 12, Khabarovsk regional authorities said the pollution of the Amur River by phenol-related chemicals exceeded permitted levels by nearly 50%. Local authorities also ordered local water supply networks in Khabarovsk city to use absorbent carbon until the end of September, according to the local “Vodokanal” water supply facility.

After the talks in Moscow, Russian and Chinese environmental officials signed a protocol on bilateral environmental cooperation to protect trans-border rivers. At the meeting, Russia and China also agreed to conclude a treaty on the protection of trans-border rivers, which would regulate how compensation for damages should be paid. Without such an agreement, Russia cannot claim any compensation for the Chinese pollution. Both sides also agreed to set up a joint working group to jointly monitor the Amur River and its tributaries.

Meanwhile, Russian Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu suggested amending bilateral agreements between Russia and China in order to introduce “serious sanctions for polluting trans-border rivers.” These rivers should be also better monitored because information about spills tends to be delayed, he said (Interfax, September 12).

Russian media outlets highlighted the potential environmental and health repercussions of pollution. The Amur’s tainted water has caused a variety of health problems in the Khabarovsk region, Trud daily commented. In 2006 more than 1,000 cases of meningitis were recorded in the region, and many of the victims were children, the daily wrote (Trud, September 15).

The Amur River is the main source of water for Khabarovsk, a city of 600,000. In August Khabarovsk regional governor Viktor Ishayev complained that the Chinese authorities had declined to allow Russian experts to take samples from the Songhua River.

Following a chemical leak into the Songhua River in Northeast China’s Jilin province last month, Khabarovsk regional authorities requested official information about the spill. The Chinese government responded that on August 20 the Changbai plant in Jiaohe town, Jilin province, discharged some 10 cubic meters of chemical waste into the Mannu River, a tributary of the Songhua. The Chinese consulate said the benzene spill was contained and that the Songhua River was not affected.

Furthermore, Russian officials voiced concern over China’s polluting industrial facilities. China’s development at the expense of Russian territory is unacceptable, Khabarovsk governor Ishayev announced in August. Low costs, the main competitive advantage of the Chinese industry, are achieved partly by savings on water treatment, he told journalists in Moscow. There are around 100 plants on the banks of the Sungari River in China that pollute the Amur River, Ishayev pointed out.

In November 2005, a blast at the Jilin petrochemical plant released benzene into the Songhua and the Amur Rivers. The Khabarovsk region geared up to deal with a major environmental disaster, and the local authorities amassed sizable stocks of absorbent carbon to use in the water supply networks. However, chemical pollution levels in the Amur River eventually turned out to be lower than expected.

Moscow has appeared reluctant to pressure China on environmental issues and does not want to antagonize Beijing, its important economic and political partner. Local media outlets in regions bordering China took notice of the Kremlin’s wariness. For example, Kommersant-Khabarovsk noted that the Russian government appears less than enthusiastic about tackling the issues of how to monitor and protect the Amur (Kommersant-Khabarovsk, September 14).

Therefore, the Kremlin appears to put its economic agenda well above other issues in relations with China. The main goal of developing bilateral relations is a significant increase in economic cooperation, Sergei Prikhodko, an aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin, told journalists in Moscow. He also hailed mutual understanding on global issues, as well as bilateral military contacts (Interfax, September 12). Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether China can deliver on its pledges to tackle the pollution of rivers flowing into Russia.