Harbin

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Oct 272013
 

I remember forming my first impression of Harbin, China. We were watching an engaging documentary about this part of Northern China. It is up near the border with Russia and actually north of Vladivostok where the Trans Siberian railway ends. Harbin is known for its cold temperatures and its wintertime ice sculptures. The ice sculptures draw tourists from all over the world. They are all over the city and lit up at night.

209575-china-gears-up-for-harbin-ice-and-snow-world-festivalWe formed an image of a beautiful, remote, and pristine environment. We spoke of trying to visit there sometime. I remember looking up the airfares.

Then I met my young Chinese co-worker. “Where are you from?” I asked, expecting Beijing or Hong Kong. But instead, she was from Harbin. Harbin. I remembered the documentary. “That’s in the north of China and it’s cold there, right?” “Yes, very cold,” she said. “And that’s where they have the wonderful ice sculptures in the wintertime?” “Yes, we have them every winter and lots of people come to see them.”

I still thought of Harbin in a pristine kind of way. It was much later that I was talking with my friend and mentioned the recent news about air pollution in Beijing. And to my surprise, she told me that the air is also bad in Harbin. There is a lot of coal-burning heavy industry, she said. She said that now when she goes home to visit, she is usually sick for several days because of the bad air.

So I began to notice any news about Harbin. And then, the other day, I saw this:

In the industrial city of Harbin, home to more than 10 million people, the PM 2.5 level of fine particulate matter in the air reached 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter in parts of the city Monday, 50 times above what the World Health Organization considers safe. It is the first major pollution emergency of the coming winter Vehicles crawled through the smog with fog lights on or emergency lights flashing. Buses were canceled and a major highway was closed, while hospital admissions soared by 30 percent, local media reported. Visibility was so low in the city, about 780 miles northeast of Beijing, that two city buses got lost while plying their regular routes. Pedestrians wore masks or clutched their hands in front of their faces in an effort to breathe more easily. “I did not even dare to cross the street,” said Zhang Xiaofeng, a 24-year-old bulldozer driver who said his eyes hurt and he was coughing as a result of the smog. “I waited and waited at the intersection and looked again and again, but I couldn’t see if any cars were coming. Even the traffic lights were invisible.” While the air quality had improved by lunchtime, the fog descended again in the afternoon; primary and middle schools and the airport remained closed. “I can’t even see the next apartment building next to mine, which is only 10 or 20 meters away,” said 42-year-old housewife Li Li. “I’m not going out, and I won’t let my child go out.”

What does this matter? Obviously it matters if you live in Harbin, China. You might argue that it doesn’t matter much if Harbin is an isolated case. But the story is the same, or heading in the same direction, around the globe. People breathing dirty air and drinking polluted water. Lands spoiled by industrial wastes.  And larger changes in our climates brought on by the burning of coal and oil and other fossil fuels.

People in Harbin who would rather not be sick and would like something done about the situation must hear the familiar arguments.

We can’t afford major upgrades. We have to stay competitive with other industries. People will lose their jobs if we have to spend that kind of money. Let the industries that know about these problems handle it themselves. The government should stay out of this; the last thing we need is more government regulation.

And so it goes. And so it goes. And meanwhile I’m rethinking about the visit to Harbin.

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