Four years ago, a petrochemical plant on the border of China and Russia spilled 100 metric tons of the toxic chemicals into a tributary of the Amur River. The river is the main drinking supply for a town in Russia named Khabarovsk, and it put hundreds of thousands of lives at risk.
Naturally, Khabarovsk turned to Moscow for help. But they also contacted a group of friends in Portland — including my dad.
My dad, Thomas Benke, has been involved in the Portland-Khabarovsk Sister-City Association, or PKSCA, for many years. And his actions after the toxic spill showed me that sister-city associations can be a means for not only cultural exchange but also serious global cooperation.
PKSCA implements a wide reach of humanitarian programs in Khabarovsk that include solid-waste management, emergency services, educational exchanges, hospitals, orphanages, and village schools. And it, along with Oregon Fujian Sister State Association (OFSSA), has responded to disasters such as chemical spills and earthquakes. My dad has volunteered for both. One of his main motivators has been to help preserve the environment. (He holds degrees in chemical engineering and environmental law.)
There is an undeniable synergy between a clean environment and economic development. The old idea that there must be some trade-off between economic development and environmental protection in developing economies is gradually being replaced by the realization that the foundation of economic development — a healthy workforce — thrives on clean air, clean water and an unpolluted landscape.
My father explained to me that soon after the spill in Khabarovsk, he traveled there to deliver and introduce a Gas Chromatograph, a device for testing drinking water in disaster areas. The device was purchased by the City of Portland. In May 2007, PKSCA followed up by inviting two chemists from the Vodokanal (Khabarovsk Water Bureau) to work with the Portland Water Bureau and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. Most importantly, PKSCA set up a training session at SRI Instruments in Los Angeles — the company that built the Gas Chromatograph. SRI Instruments' contribution was substantial — they built a specialized device that could detect the contaminants in the Amur River and provided free repair for the device.
Not only did PKSCA quickly respond to the water crisis in Khabarovsk, but by providing further training sessions in the United States, they also sustained and fostered a stronger more informative relationship between Portland and Khabarovsk officials, as well as sister-city board members.
On May 12, 2008, an 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck China’s Sichuan Province, killing tens of thousands of people and displacing nearly five million. Immediately, Fujian Province requested assistance from its Sister State, Oregon, for whatever aid they could provide. Below, Thomas described the international and OFSSA response to the crisis.
The world responded with cash and supplies. The people of Oregon donated cash generously through several local and international non-profit organizations. The Oregon-Fujian Sister State Association, because of its unique relationship with Fujian Province, resolved to do more — to donate emergency response tools that would leverage Sichuan Province’s capacity to respond.
The pre-existing relationship of trust between the two jurisdictions allowed Fujian province to request help from Oregon. The Sister-Province relationship made all the difference — we were able to overcome the cultural issues of pride and face that might have otherwise required Fujian province to decline aid. It's all about overcoming the formidable cultural barriers, and I think that that's the key.
It's the difference between your neighbor, somebody in your community coming in and offering help as opposed to a stranger from someplace you know nothing about.
When my dad first explained sister city associations right after the toxic spill four years ago, I thought he was obsessed with his involvement in both organizations. Now about to graduate from college, I plan to follow his lead and hope to work internationally for an NGO.