Russian Natural Resources Minister Yuri Trutnev traveled to China August 31-September 4, but apparently failed to convince Chinese officials to conclude a treaty on the protection of trans-border rivers, which would regulate how compensation for damages should be paid. Instead, both sides signed yet another protocol and agreed on planned joint work in 2007-2008.
Russia expects the draft agreement to be prepared for signing by the end of 2007, Trutnev told journalists in Beijing on September 3. However, he conceded that the Chinese have yet to confirm their readiness to conclude the agreement. Trutnev said the agreement should include a clause regarding payments for damages, adding that both sides were yet to reach a consensus on this.
Trutnev also said the Chinese seemed not to have concrete answers to specific questions, and he urged Chinese officials to implement a pledge to conclude the agreement made by President Hu Jintao in March. Trutnev also said that Russia’s insistence did not amount to interference in China’s internal affairs, but said Russia wanted to have a say about the quality of water flowing into its territory (Interfax, Itar-Tass, RIA-Novosti, September 3-4).
In the past two years, there were chemical spills from Chinese plants into the Songhua River, the tributary of the Amur River, known as Sungari in Russia. The Amur River is the main source of water supply to Khabarovsk, a city of 600,000 residents.
In November 2005, a blast at the Jilin Petrochemical Plant caused heavy chemical contamination of the Songhua (Sungari) River and the Amur River, also known as Heilongjiang in China. The Khabarovsk region was preparing to deal with a major environmental disaster, and the authorities amassed sizable stocks of absorbent carbon to use in water supply networks. However, chemical pollution levels in the Amur River eventually turned out lower then expected.
During Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Russia on March 26-28, Chinese officials indicated plans to increase investments in solving environmental problems of the trans-border rivers and spend $3.3 billion to protect the Songhua River in the next five years.
In September 2006, Russian and Chinese environment protection officials signed an agreement in Moscow on how to monitor chemical pollution in trans-border rivers. In September 2006, Zhou Shenxian, head of China’s environment protection administration, announced, after talks in Moscow with Trutnev, that China planned to spend $1.7 billion until 2010 to monitor and protect the Songhua River from chemical pollution.
The program for joint monitoring of trans-border rivers was approved on April 13, during a meeting in Khabarovsk. In 2006 and earlier this year, Khabarovsk regional authorities repeatedly complained that the pollution of the Amur River by phenol-related chemicals exceeded permitted levels. But without a bilateral environmental agreement, Russia cannot claim any compensation for the Chinese pollution. Both sides also agreed to set up a working group to jointly monitor the Amur River and its tributaries. The group held its first meeting last March, while a second session was held in June.
Both sides also proceeded with joint monitoring of the Amur. On August 20, Russian specialists from Amur region and Chinese experts from Heilongjiang province jointly took samples from the Amur River near Blagoveschensk. Both sides pledged to continue joint monitoring in March 2008.
In the meantime, China’s environmental policies have been attracting Russian criticism. On May 17, 2007, the Russian State Duma, the lower house of parliament, held hearings on the environmental problems of Amur. Former Russian ambassador to China Igor Rogachev told the meeting that China was estimated to discharge 14 million tons of waste into Sungari and Amur every year, while Russia was discharging only one million tons per annum.
On the eve of Trutnev’s trip to Beijing, Chinese officials appeared keen to deal with Russian environmental concerns. On August 31, China’s environmental agency announced that in January-June 2007 the government had shut down 42 industrial facilities for polluting Sungari River. The agency said in a statement that 84 out of 222 projects to protect the Sungari had been completed so far (Itar-Tass, August 31).
Chinese official media outlets also came up with optimistic assessments of bilateral environmental cooperation. On August 31, China’s leading newspaper, People’s Daily, commented that both sides had achieved progress in protecting Songhua.
Meanwhile, Russian government officials seem to show some signs of impatience, as it remains far from certain whether China would deliver on its pledges to tackle pollution of rivers flowing into Russia.