Empty gesture?

Xi’an tries mobile sprayers in new pollution fight

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Ready, aim and fire

The First Emperor would not be pleased. Qin Shi Huang spent much of his life searching for a way to live forever. And now his final resting place looks like being a threat to the mortality of many of its current citizens.

Xi’an, home to the Terracotta Army which guards the Emperor in the afterlife, is one of China’s most polluted places. According to Greenpeace, it ranked ninth worst out of 74 cities in 2013, with air quality 10 times worse than the World Health Organisation’s maximum for PM2.5, the fine particulate matter that is most damaging to human health.

The city’s topography doesn’t help. The Qin mountains, which border the capital city of Shaanxi province, trap pollution from local industries, as well as dust from storms originating in the Gobi desert.

The terrible air quality is also putting off tourists and local officials have been told promotion depends on their response to tackling it.

So far many of the measures have been dismissed as gimmicks, and are adjudged to be having about the same chance of success as the First Emperor’s quest for eternal life.

In the case of the latter Qin dispatched a Taoist alchemist and 1,000 boys and girls in search of three spirit islands where immortals were thought to live. (They never returned and legend has it that they decided to colonise Japan instead.)

The Xi’an Bureau of Parks attempt to convert haze into clean air is a little less dramatic, comprising two trucks with dust sprayers. The idea is the water sprays – which can spurt 120 metres into the air – will force the haze earthwards, dissipating it at ground level.

But Southern Weekend was scathing in its condemnation of the truck and similar “phony solutions”. Other gambits include the launching of unmanned drones called parafoil planes which spray chemicals designed to freeze the airborne pollutants (these then drop as particles onto the ground).

Southern Weekend also quotes Mou Yujing, a researcher at the Centre for Eco-Environmental Studies, who says the water sprays may actually be making the situation worse in Xi’an by increasing the humidity and enabling PM2.5 and other particles to merge, forming new contaminants such as PM1, which can be even more harmful to human health.

The newspaper contacted a number of companies which supply the vehicles, noting that many began life spraying anti-pesticides over crops but have now moved into anti-dust and air pollution work as well. All the companies are jumping onto a lucrative bandwagon – but without providing any evidence that their vehicles make any difference, Southern Weekend complains. The manager at one firm told the newspaper that it has signed an agreement with the NDRC, the central government’s powerful planning agency, to study haze control, but then admitted that its research has not drawn any substantive conclusions.

Lei Baoping, the procurement officer who purchased Xi’an’s trucks, says the criticism has made him far more cautious in estimating their likely impact. “I feel they must be doing something to help reduce the haze, but without proper research I am wary of talking nonsense,” he admits rather candidly.

Mou, the environmental researcher, says the real problem lies with the central government, which has failed to put proper policies in place since Chinese premier Li Keqiang became the latest in a long line of political figues to declare war on pollution in March.

Liu Wenjie, Director of Policy and Regulation at the Wuhan Environmental Protection Bureau, says that the introduction of meaningful urban air quality rankings has helped in improving public awareness of the pollution problem. “But it has also placed a lot of pressure on environmental protection departments, which get very anxious about falling down the rankings,” Liu says. Another outcome is that local governments have been casting around for quick fixes, and look keen to give the impression of a new round of anti-pollution activity.

Here’s hoping that the environmental protection bosses don’t go the same way as the First Emperor. According to another legend he misguidely drank mercury, believing it to have life-enhancing properties.

Unsurprisingly, it killed him.

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