Counting the Cost

The environment in focus

Counting the Cost explores air pollution in China, hydro-electricity in Cambodia, and oil exploration in Brazil.

From air pollution in China, to a new dam on the Mekong River in Cambodia, to oil exploration in South America, this week we take a look at environmental stories from all over the world.

Smog is thick and heavy over China. The country has a growing problem with air pollution, but will throwing hundreds of billions of government dollars at the issue make any marked difference?

This week, the northern city of Harbin was blanketed for days with choking smog, forcing schools to close and flights to be cancelled. At their peak, the pollution levels were more than 40 times that recommended by the World Health Organization. And that is just in one part of China.

The Chinese government is ring-fencing a lot of money to tackle the problem and says it will need to spend nearly $817bn just to fight air pollution.

That was part of Beijing’s anti-pollution blueprint, which promised big improvements in air quality by 2017. The capital alone will have to fork out $163bn to clear its skies. China will also need to close 1,200 polluting factories, limit the number of vehicles on the road to six million, and reduce coal usage.

The government is trying cut its coal use down from 23 million tonnes to only 10 million tonnes a year. But is that doable? We speak to China specialist Andrew Leung.

And, to better understand why air pollution has become so bad in China, Al Jazeera’s Marga Ortigas investigates the problem in Beijing.

Big impact

In Cambodia, a long-standing leader and his government are making decisions about the country’s future, but not everyone is happy about it. 

Thousands of protesters are out in the capital Phnom Penh, claiming that July’s election – which saw the return of Prime Minister Hun Sen – was flawed. The opposition believes there was widespread voter fraud and is demanding international intervention.  
But according to the official election results, Hun Sen’s then 28-year rule was extended by winning 68 seats in parliament. The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party got 55 and is predicting a bleak future.

Part of the government’s plan for Cambodia is a controversial proposal for a dam on the Sesan River, a plan which has already been approved.

The project, called Lower Sesan 2, will flood an area half the size of Singapore, submerging seven villages and forcing the relocation of hundreds of families. The return, the government says, will be much-needed electricity for a country which suffers frequent power outages. Activists, however, claim the plan will reduce fish stocks from the Mekong, on which the population depends.

The Mekong runs through six countries – China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar. Fisheries along the river have an annual output worth as much as $9.4bn, providing food and jobs for more than 60 million people.

To discuss the potentially big impact of this project, we speak to Thin Lei Win, from the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Bangkok, who covers humanitarian issues such as this.

Seeking compensation

In Malaysia, a similar situation exists on Sarawak, on the island of Borneo, which lies just east of the main Malaysian peninsula. Communities are protesting against a hydro-electric project that will submerge their homes and land, and are demanding better compensation.

For more on this, Al Jazeera’s Florence Looi reports from Belaga in Sarawak.

Finally, we look at oil extraction off the coast of Brazil and what people there think about foreign ownership of their resources.

There has recently been an auction of the country’s largest off-shore oil field, followed by protests against that.

The Brazilian president is talking about the benefits, saying that the sale will help fund healthcare and schools. But is that worth the cost of putting their oil in the hands of foreign investors? Al Jazeera’s Alan Fisher takes a look.


Watch each week at the following times GMT: Friday: 2230; Saturday: 0930; Sunday: 0330; Monday: 1630. Click here for more Counting the Cost.

Follow Kamahl Santamaria @KamahlAJE and business editor Abid Ali@abidoliverali