20080317-river like blood, roxian, Guangxi, northeastblog3.jpg
River like blood in Roxian, Guangxi
About one third of the industrial waste water and more than 90 percent of household sewage in China is released into rivers and lakes without being treated. Nearly 80 percent of China's cities (278 of them) have no sewage treatment facilities and few have plans to build any and underground water supplies in 90 percent of the cites are contaminated.

Water shortages and water pollution in China are such a problem that the World Bank warns of “catastrophic consequences for future generations.” Half of China’s population lacks safe drinking water. Nearly two thirds of China’s rural population — more than 500 million people — use water contaminated by human and industrial waste.

In Yale University's 2012 Environmental Performance Index, China is one of the worst performers (ranked 116 out of 132 countries) with respect to its performance on changes in water quantity due to consumption, including industrial, agricultural, and household uses. Jonathan Kaiman wrote in The Guardian, “The head of China's ministry of water resources said in 2012 that up to 40 percent of the country's rivers are "seriously polluted", and an official report from the summer od 2012 found that up to 200 million rural Chinese have no access to clean drinking water. China's lakes are often affected by pollution-induced algae blooms, causing the surface of the water to turn a bright iridescent green. Yet even greater threats may lurk underground. A recent government study found that groundwater in 90 percent of China's cities is contaminated, most of it severely. [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, The Guardian, February 21, 2013]

In summer of 2011, the China government reported 43 percent of state-monitored rivers are so polluted, they're unsuitable for human contact. By one estimate one sixth of China’s population is threatened by seriously polluted water. One study found that eight of 10 Chinese coastal cities discharge excessive amounts of sewage and pollutants into the sea, often near coastal resorts and sea farming areas. Water pollution is especially bad along the coastal manufacturing belt. Despite the closure of thousands of paper mills, breweries, chemical factories and other potential sources of contamination, the water quality along a third of the waterway falls far below even the modest standards that the government requires. Most of China’s rural areas have no system in place to treat waste water.

A study by China’s Environmental Protection Agency in February 2010 said that water pollution levels were double what the government predicted them to be mainly because agricultural waste was ignored. China’s first pollution census in 2010 revealed farm fertilizer was a bigger source of water contamination than factory effluent.

Water consumed by people in China contains dangerous levels of arsenic, fluorine and sulfates. An estimated 980 million of China’s 1.3 billion people drink water every day that is partly polluted. More than 600 million Chinese drink water contaminated with human or animal wastes and 20 million people drink well water contaminated with high levels of radiation. A large number of arsenic-tainted water have been discovered. China’s high rates of liver, stomach and esophageal cancer have been linked to water pollution.

Water pollution and shortages are a more serious problem in northern China than southern China. The percentage of water considered unfit for human consumption is 45 percent in northern China, compared to 10 percent in southern China. Some 80 percent of the rivers in the northern province of Shanxi have been rated “unfit for human contact.”

A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center before the 2008 Olympics found that 68 percent of the Chinese interviewed said they were concerned about water pollution.

Websites and Sources: China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environmental Protection (MEP) english.mee.gov.cn EIN News Service’s China Environment News einnews.com/china/newsfeed-china-environment Wikipedia article on Environment of China ; Wikipedia ; China Environmental Protection Foundation (a Chinese Government Organization) cepf.org.cn/cepf_english ; ; China Environmental News Blog (last post 2011) china-environmental-news.blogspot.com ;Global Environmental Institute (a Chinese non-profit NGO) geichina.org ; Greenpeace East Asia greenpeace.org/china/en ; China Digital Times Collection of Articles chinadigitaltimes.net ; International Fund for China’s Environment ifce.org ; 2010 Article on Water Pollution and Farmers circleofblue.org ; Water Pollution Photos stephenvoss.com Book: “The River Runs Black” by Elizabeth C. Economy (Cornell, 2004) is one of the best recently-written books on China’s environmental problems.

Effects of Water Pollution in China

Waters that used to team with fish and welcome swimmers now have film and foam at the top and give off bad smells. Canals are often covered layers of floating trash, with the deposits particularly thick on the banks. Most of it is plastic containers in a variety of sun-bleached colors.

Deformities in fish such as one or no eyes and misshapen skeletons and a decreasing numbers of rare wild Chinese sturgeon in the Yangtze has been blamed on a paint chemical widely used in Chinese industry.

China is the largest polluter of the Pacific Ocean. Offshore dead zones — oxygen-starved areas in the sea that are virtually devoid off life — are not only found in shallow water but also in deep water. They are mainly created by agricultural run-off — namely fertilizer — and reach their peak in the summer. In the spring freshwater creates a barrier layer, cutting off the salt water below from the oxygen in the air. Warm water and fertilizers cause algae blooms. Dead algae sinks to the bottom and is decomposed by bacteria, depleting oxygen in deep water.

Water pollution — caused primarily by industrial waste, chemical fertilizers and raw sewage — accounts for half of the $69 billion that the Chinese economy loses to pollution every year. About 11.7 million pounds of organic pollutants are emitted into Chinese waters very day, compared to 5.5 in the United States, 3.4 in Japan, 2.3 in Germany, 3.2 in India, and 0.6 in South Africa.

Water Pollution and Health and Protests

Nearly two thirds of China’s rural population — more than 500 million people — use water contaminated by human and industrial waste. Accordingly it is not all that surprising that gastrointestinal cancer is now the number one killer in the countryside,

More than 130 residents of two villages in Guangxi Province in southern China were poisoned by arsenic-contaminated water. Arsenic showed up in their urine. The source is believed to be waste from a nearby metallurgy factory.

In August 2009, a thousand villagers gathered outside a government office in Zhentouu township in Hunan Province to protests a the presence of the Xiange Chemical factory, which villagers say has polluted water used to irrigate rice and vegetables and caused at least two deaths in the area.

Sources of Water Pollution

Major polluters include chemical factories, drug manufactures, fertilizer makers, tanneries, paper mills.

In October 2009, Greenpeace identified five industrial facilities in southern China’s Pearl River delta that were dumping poisonous metals and chemicals’such as beryllium, manganese, nonylphenol and tetrabromobisphenol — into water used by local residents for drinking. The group found the toxins in pipes that led from the facilities.

In February 2008 the Fuan textile factory, a multimillion dollar operation in Guangdong Province that produces enormous quantities of T-shirts and other clothes for export, was shut down for dumping waste from dyes into the Maozhou River and turning the water red. It turned out the factory produced 47,000 tons of waste a day and could only process 20,000 tons with the rest being dumped into the river. It latter quietly reopened in a new location.

Polluted Chinese Rivers and Lakes

20080317-pollted river.jpg
China has some of the world's worst water pollution. All of China's lakes and rivers are polluted to some degree. According to a Chinese government report, 70 percent of rivers, lakes and waterways are seriously polluted, many so seriously they have no fish, and 78 percent of the water from China's rivers is not fit for human consumption. In a middle class development near Nanjing call Straford a polluted river has buried underground in giant pipe while a new ornamental river, rally a lake, has been built above it.

According to one government survey, 436 of China’s 532 rivers are polluted, with more than half of them too polluted to serve as sources of drinking water, and 13 of 15 sectors of China's seven largest rivers are seriously polluted. The most polluted rivers are in the east and south around the major population centers with the pollution getting worse the further downstream one goes. In some cases each city along a river dumps pollutants outside their city limits, creating increasingly more pollution for the cities down stream. Chinese environmentalist Ma Jun said, “What’s not receiving attention is the destruction of the river ecosystem, which I think will have long-tern effects on our water resources.”

Many rivers are filled with garbage, heavy metals and factory chemicals. Suzhou Creek in Shanghai stinks of human waste and effluence from pig farms. There have been devastating fish kills caused by the release of chemicals into the Haozhongou River in Anhui province and Min Jiang River in Sichuan Province.

The Huai flows through densely populated farmland between the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers. Bottlenecks and elevation changes make the river both prone to flooding and collecting pollutants. Half the checkpoints along the Huai River in central and eastern China revealed pollution levels of “Grade 5" or worse, with pollutants detected in ground water 300 meters below the river.

The Huai river in Anhui province is so polluted all the fish have died and people have to drink bottled water to avoid getting sick. Some places have water that is too toxic to touch and leaves behind scum when it is boiled. Here, crops have been destroyed by irrigation water from the river; fish farms have been wiped out; and fishermen have lost their livelihoods. The South-North Water Transfer Project — which will travel through the Huai basin — is likely to deliver water that is dangerously polluted.

The Qingshui River, a tributary of the Huai whose names means “clear water,” has turned black with trails of yellow foam from pollution from small mines that have opened up to meet the demand for magnesium, molybdenum and vanadium used in the booming steel industry. River samples indicate unhealthy levels of magnesium and chromium. The vanadium refineries foul the water and produce smokes that deposits a yellowing powder on teh countryside.

The Liao River is also a mess. Gains made with new water treatment facilities have been canceled out by higher than ever levels of industrial pollution.

In May 2007, 11 companies along the Songhua River, including local food companies, were ordered to shut down because of the heavily-polluted water they dumped into the river. A survey found that 80 percent exceeded pollution discharge limits. One company turned off pollution control devices and dumped sewage directly into the river.

In March 2008 contamination of the Dongjing River with ammonia, nitrogen and metal-cleaning chemicals turned the water red and foamy and forced authorities to cut water supplies for at least 200,000 people in Hubei Province in central China.

Polluted Groundwater in China

About 40 percent of China's agricultural land is irrigated with underground water, of which 90 percent is polluted, according to Liu Xin, a food and health expert and a member of an advisory body to parliament, told the Southern Metropolitan Daily.

In February 2013, Xu Chi wrote in the Shanghai Daily, “Shallow underground water in China has been severely polluted and the situation is deteriorating rapidly, with water quality data in 2011 showing that 55 percent of underground supplies in 200 cities was of bad or extremely bad quality, according to the Ministry of Land and Resources. A review of underground water carried out by the ministry from 2000 to 2002 showed that nearly 60 percent of shallow underground water was undrinkable, the Beijing News reported yesterday. Some reports in the Chinese media said water pollution was so severe in some regions that it caused cancer in villagers and even led to cows and sheep which drank it to become sterile. [Source: Xu Chi, Shanghai Daily, February 25, 2013]

Jonathan Kaiman wrote in The Guardian, “A recent government study found that groundwater in 90 percent of China's cities is contaminated, most of it severely. Chinese media responded with surprising urgency – the Straits Times newspaper in southeastern Fujian province presented the findings in a full front-page spread."Groundwater is a key source of drinking water, industrial and agricultural use, especially in northern China," said Ma. "If this resource gets contaminated, it's far more difficult to restore than surface water or the air." [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, The Guardian, February 21, 2013]

Chemical companies in east China's Weifang City were accused of using high-pressure injection wells to discharge waste sewage more than 1,000 meters underground for years, seriously polluting underground water and posing a cancer threat. Kaiman wrote: “Ground zero for the recent flurry of online outrage is Weifang, a city of 8 million in coastal Shandong province. Weifang's internet users have accused local paper mills and chemical plants of directly pumping industrial waste into the city's water supply 1,000 meters underground, causing cancer rates in the area to skyrocket. "I was just angry after receiving information from Web users saying that the groundwater in Shandong had been polluted and I forwarded it online," Deng Fei, a reporter whose microblog posts sparked the allegations, told the state-run Global Times. "But it came as a surprise to me that after I sent out these posts, many people from different places in northern and eastern China all complained that their hometowns have been similarly polluted."

Weifang officials have offered a reward of about £10,000 to anyone who can provide evidence of illegal wastewater dumping. According to a Weifang Communist party committee spokesperson, local authorities have investigated 715 companies and have yet to find any evidence of wrongdoing.

In September 2013, Xinhua reported on a village in Henan where the groundwater has been badly polluted. The news agency said that locals claimed the deaths of 48 villagers from cancer are linked to the pollution. Research carried out by Yang Gonghuan, a professor of public health at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences has also linked high rates of cancer to polluted river water in Henan, Anhui and Shangdong provinces. [Source: Jennifer Duggan, The Guardian, October 23, 2013]

Cancer Villages and Polluted Waterways in China

According to the World Bank, 60,000 people die each year from diarrhea, bladder and stomach cancer and other diseases directly caused by water-borne pollution. A study by the WHO came with a much higher figure.

Cancer village is a term used to describe villages or towns where cancer rates have risen dramatically because of pollution. There are said to be around 100 cancer villages along the Huai River and its tributaries in Henan Province, especially on the Shaying River. Death rates on Huai River are 30 percent higher than the national average. In 1995, the government declared that water from a Huai tributary was undrinkable and the water supply for 1 million people was cut off. The military had to truck in water for a month until 1,111 paper mills and 413 other industrial plants on the river were shut down.

In the village of Huangmengying — where a once-clear stream is now greenish black from factory wastes — cancer accounted for 11 of the 17 deaths in 2003. Both the river and well water in the village — the main source of drinking water — have an acrid smell and taste produced by pollutants dumped upstream by tanneries, paper mills, a huge MSG plant, and other factories. Cancer had been rare when the stream was clear.

Tuanjieku is town six kilometers northwest of Xian that still uses an ancient system of moats to irrigate its crops. The moats unfortunately don’t drain so well and are now badly contaminated by household discharges and industrial waste. Visitors to the town are often overwhelmed by the rotten egg smell and feel faint after five minutes of breathing in the air. Vegetables produced in the fields are discolored and sometimes black. Residents suffer from abnormally high cancer rates.

One third of peasants in the village Badbui are mentally ill or seriously ill. Women report high numbers of miscarriages and many people die in middle age. The culprit is believed to be drinking water drawn from the Yellow River downstream from a fertilizer plant.

The waters around Taizhou in Zhejiang, the home of Hisun Pharmaceutical, one of China’s largest drug makers, are so contaminated with sludge and chemicals that fishermen complain their hands and legs become ulcerated, and in extreme cases need amputation. Studies have show that people who live around the city have high cancer and birth defect rates.

20080317-yangtze  pollution ESWN, env news 5.jpg
Yangtze pollution

Polluted Yangtze, Pearl and Yellow Rivers

China's three great rivers — the Yangtze, Pearl and Yellow River — are so filthy that it is dangerous to swim or eat fish caught in them. Parts of the Pearl River in Guangzhou are so thick, dark and soupy it looks like one could walk across it. Industrial toxins were blamed for turning the Yangtze an alarming shade of red in 2012.

In recent years pollution has become a problem on the Yellow River. By one count 4,000 of China’s 20,000 petrochemical factories are on the Yellow River and a third of all fish species found in the Yellow River have become extinct because of dams, falling water levels, pollution and over fishing.

More than 80 percent of the Hai-Huaih Yellow river basin is chronically polluted. In October 2006, a one kilometer section of the Yellow River turned red in the city of Lanzhou in Gansu Province as result of a “red and smelly” discharge from a sewage pipe. In December 2005, six tons of diesel oil leaked into a tributary of the Yellow River from a pipe that cracked because of freezing conditions. It produced a 40 mile long slick. Sixty-three water pumps had to be shut down, including some in Jinan, the capital of Shandong Province.

The Yangtze River is polluted with 40 million tons of industrial and sewage waste. Half of China’s 20,000 petrochemical factories lie on its banks. About 40 percent of all waste water produced in China — about 25 billion tons — flows into the Yangtze, of which only about 20 percent is treated beforehand.

The pollution has taken its toll on aquatic life. Fish catches from the river declined from 427,000 tons in the 1950s to 100,000 tons in the 1990s. The Yangtze is in danger of becoming a “dead river” unable to sustain marine life or providing drinking water. According to report by the Chinese Academy of Sciences released in April 2007 the Yangtze is seriously and largely irreversibly polluted. More than 600 kilometers of its length and almost 30 percent of its major tributaries are in critical condition.

Sections of the Grand Canal that have water deep enough to accommodate boats are often filled with trash sewage and oil slicks. Chemical waste and fertilizer and pesticide run-off empties into the canal. The water is mostly brownish green. People who drink it often get diarrhea and break out in rashes.

Polluted Lakes, Canals and Coastal Areas in China

20080317-dead fish in Hangzhoiu pond China Daily, env news.jpg
Dead fish in Hangzhou pond

Studies have showed that the quality of coastal waters are deteriorating quickly as a result of land-based pollution. The study found that 8.3 billion tons of sewage was released in Guangdong Province’s coastal waters in 2006, 60 percent more than five years earlier. Altogether 12.6 million tons of polluted “material was dumped in waters off the southern province.

Some lakes are in equally bad shape. China’s great lakes — the Tai, Chao and Dianchi — have water that is rated Grade V, the most degraded level. It is unfit for drinking or for agricultural or industrial use.

Describing China's fifth-biggest lake a Wall Street Journal reporter wrote: "The slow, hot days of summer are here, and sun-fed algae is starting to clot the milky surface of Chao Lake. Soon a living scum will carpet a patch the size of New York City. It will quickly blacken and rot...The smell is so terrible you can not describe it.”

Canals, See Changzhou, Places

Apple Accused of Making a River Runs Black

In many cases factories fouling critical water sources are making goods consumed by people in the U.S. and Europe. Problems created by China’s water pollution are not just confined to China either. Water pollution and garbage produced in China floats down its rivers to the sea and is carried by prevailing winds and currents to Japan and South Korea.

In March 2012, Peter Smith wrote in The Times, Beyond the brick cottages of Tongxin runs Lou Xia Bang, once the soul of the farming village and a river where, until the digital revolution, children swam and mothers washed rice. Today it flows black: a chemical mess heavy with the stench of China’s high-tech industry — the hidden companion of the world’s most famous electronics brands and a reason the world gets its gadgets on the cheap. [Source: Peter Smith, The Times, March 9, 2012]

The article then goes on to describe how the town of Tongxin was being affected by chemical waste from local factories that, as well as turning the river black, has caused a “phenomenal” increase in cancer rates in Tongxin (according to research by five Chinese non-governmental organisations). The factories have grown up in the last few years and make circuit boards, touch screens and the casings of smartphones, laptops and tablet computers. As usual in these cases, Apple was mentioned — although the evidence appears to be a little sketchy as to whether these factories are actually players in the Apple supply chain. [Source: Spendmatter UK/Europe blog]

Smith wrote in the Times: “Workers at the Kaedar factory, five metres from a kindergarten where children have complained of dizziness and nausea, have secretly confirmed that products had left the factory bearing the Apple trademark.”

Red Tides, Salt Tides and Algae Bloom in China

Algae blooms, or eutrophication, in lakes are caused by too much nutrients in the water. They turn lakes green and suffocate fish by depleting the oxygen. They are often caused by human and animal waste and run off of chemical fertilizers. Similar conditions create red tides in the sea.

The government estimates that $240 million worth of damage and economic loses was caused by 45 major red tides between 1997 and 1999. Describing a red tide near the town of Aotoum that left the seas blanketed with dead fish and fishermen badly in debt, a fisherman told the Los Angeles Times, "The sea turned dark, like tea. If you talk to the fishermen around here, they'll all break into tears."

In some places the Chinese have tried to minimize the damage caused by algae blooms by pumping oxygen into the water and containing the blooms by adding clay which acts as a magnet for algae. A lack funds keeps China from tackling the problem using more conventional means.

A severe drought in 2006, caused large amounts of seawater to flow upstream on the Xinjiang River in southern China. In Macau salinity levels in the river jumped to almost three time above the World Health Organization standards. To combat the problem water was diverted into it from the Beijiang River in Guangdong.

20080317-algae bloom in Dianchi Lkae in Yunnan in 2007, china daily 2.jpg
Algae bloom in a Yunnan lake

Water Bodies Struck by Algae Blooms in China

Red tides have increased in their numbers and severity in coastal areas of China, particularly in Bohai Bay off eastern China, the East China Sea and the South China Sea. Large red tides have occurred around the Zhoushan Islands near Shanghai.

In May and June 2004, two huge red tides, covering a total area size of 1.3 million soccer fields, developed in Bohai Bay. One occurred near the mouth of the Yellow River and affected an area of 1,850 square kilometers. Another struck near the port city of Tianjin and covered nearly 3,200 square kilometers. It was blamed on the dumping of large amounts of waste water and sewage into the bay and rivers leading into the bay.

In June 2007, coastal waters off the booming industrial town of Shenzhen were hit by one the biggest ever red tides. It produced a 50 square kilometer slick and was caused by pollution and persisted because of a lack of rain.

There were large algae blooms in freshwater lakes throughout China in 2007. Some were blamed on pollution. Others were blamed on drought. In Jiangsu Province the water level in one lake dropped to its lowest level in 50 years and became inundated with blue-green algae that produced smelly, undrinkable water.

Huge Algae Bloom Strikes the Coastal Chinese City of Qingdao

China's coastal waters are suffering "acute" pollution, with the size of the worst affected areas soaring by more than 50 percent last year, an official body said. The state oceanic administration (SOA) said 68,000 square kilometers (26,300 square miles) of sea had the worst official pollution rating in 2012, up 24,000 square kilometers on 2011. [Source: Economic Times, (March 21, 2013)

Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “In what has become an annual summer scourge, the coastal Chinese city of Qingdao has been hit by a near-record algae bloom that has left its popular beaches fouled with a green, stringy muck. The State Oceanic Administration said an area larger than the state of Connecticut had been affected by the mat of “sea lettuce,” as it is known in Chinese, which is generally harmless to humans but chokes off marine life and invariably chases away tourists as it begins to rot. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, July 5, 2013 |~|]

“Some beachgoers appeared to be amused by the outbreak, at least according to the Chinese media, which in recent days has featured startling images of swimmers lounging on bright green beds of algae, tossing it around with glee or piling it atop of one another as if it were sand. Local officials, however, are less enthused. They declared a “large-scale algae disaster,” dispatching hundreds of boats and bulldozers to clean up the waters off Qingdao. With a few days workers and volunteers had cleared about 19,800 tons of the algae, according to the Qingdao government. While valued for its nutrition — or as an ingredient in fertilizers and biomass energy production — algae in large quantities can prove dangerous as it decomposes, producing toxic hydrogen sulfide gas. It also smells like rotten eggs. |~|

“The green tide, spread over 7,500 square miles is thought to be twice the size of an outbreak in 2008 that threatened sailing events during the Beijing Olympics, which took place around Qingdao. At the time, officials deployed boats, helicopters and 10,000 workers to keep the waters clear for the competition. The cleanup costs were later estimated at more than $30 million. Abalone, clam and sea cucumber farms suffered more than $100 million in damage, according to a 2011 study by researchers from the Chinese Academy of Fishery Sciences. An outbreak in 2009 was even bigger, affecting a stretch of the Yellow Sea nearly as large as West Virginia. |~|

Causes of Huge Algae Bloom Off of Qingdao

Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “Although biologists are at a loss to explain the most recent algae bloom, scientists suspect it is connected to pollution and increased seaweed farming in the province just south of Shandong. While similar green tides have been reported around the world, the annual bloom in the Yellow Sea is considered the largest, growing to an estimated million tons of biomass each year. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, July 5, 2013 |~|]

The green tides were first reported in Qingdao in 2007. A key factor is the high supply of nutrients from agricultural runoff and wastewater. But those pollutants have been in the Yellow Sea for decades, leading scientists to look for new triggers. A group of researchers believe that the algae that washes up around Qingdao originates farther south in seaweed farms along the coast of Jiangsu Province. The farms grow porphyra, known as nori in Japanese cuisine, on large rafts in coastal waters. The rafts attract a kind of algae called ulva prolifera, and when the farmers clean them off each spring they spread the fast-growing algae out into the Yellow Sea, where it finds nutrients and warm temperatures ideal for blooming. |~|

“It feeds off those nutrients and grows bigger and bigger and eventually you can see it from satellites,” said John Keesing, a scientist at the CSIRO Division of Marine and Atmospheric Research in Australia who is studying the green tide with Chinese researchers. “The currents gently move the algae in a northeastern direction out into the center of the Yellow Sea. You get a huge amount, and eventually it starts to wash on shore.” |~|

“While farmers have long grown seaweed along the Jiangsu coast for consumption, the rafts expanded much farther offshore starting in 2006, which may have contributed to the recent blooms, according to an article published last May by Mr. Keesing and his colleagues. The answer to curtailing the blooms may lie in disposing of the algae that clogs the nori rafts on land. “We haven’t suggested people stop growing porphyra, but proper husbandry methods to prevent much of the waste algae from going into sea, that’s probably the only preventive measure that could be deployed,” he said.

Lake Tai Pollution

Lake Tai is often choked with industrial waste from factories producing paper, film and dyes, urban sewage and agricultural run-off. It sometimes is covered with green algae as a result of nitrogen and phosphate pollution. Locals complain of polluted irrigation water that causes their skin to peal, dyes that turn the water red and fumes that sting their eyes.

Dams built for flood control and irrigation have prevented Lake Tai’s from flushing out pesticides and fertilizers that flow into it. Particularly damaging are phosphates which suck out life-sustaining oxygen. Starting in the 1980s a number of chemical factories were built on its shores. As of the late 1990s there were 2,800 chemical factories around the lake, some of which released their waste directly into the lake in the middle of the night to avoid detection.

Lake Tai Algae Blooms

20080317-lake tai algae bloom nasa 2007.jpg
Algae bloom in Lake Tai

In the summer of 2007, large algae blooms covered parts of Lake Tai and Lake Chao, China’s third and fifth largest freshwater lakes, making the water undrinkable and producing a terrible stench.Two million of residents of Wuxi, who normally rely on water from the Lake Tai for drinking water, couldn't bathe or wash dishes and hoarded bottled water that rose in price from $1 a bottle to $6 a bottle. Some turned on their taps only to have sludge emerge. The bloom on Lake Tai lasted for six days until it was flushed out by rain and water diverted from the Yangtze River. The bloom on Lake Chao did not threaten water supplies.

Reporting from Zhoutie, near Lake Tai, William Wan wrote in Washington Post, “You smell the lake before you see it, an overwhelming stench like rotten eggs mixed with manure. The visuals are just as bad, the shore caked with toxic blue-green algae. Farther out, where the algae is more diluted but equally fueled by pollution, it swirls with the currents, a vast network of green tendrils across the surface of Tai Lake.” [Source: William Wan, Washington Post, October 29, 2010]

“Such pollution problems are now widespread in China after three decades of unbridled economic growth. But what's surprising about Tai Lake is the money and attention that's been spent on the problem and how little either has accomplished. Some of the country's highest-ranking leaders, including Premier Wen Jiabao, have declared it a national priority. Millions of dollars have been poured into the cleanup. And yet, the lake is still a mess. The water remains undrinkable, the fish nearly gone, the fetid smell lingering over villages.”

“At Tai Lake, part of the problem is that the same industrial factories poisoning the water also transformed the region into an economic powerhouse. Shutting them down, local leaders say, would destroy the economy overnight. In fact, many of the factories shut down during the 2007 scandal have since reopened under different names, environmentalists say.”

“Tai Lake is the embodiment of China's losing fight against pollution. This summer, the government said that, despite stricter rules, pollution is rising again across the country in key categories such as emissions of sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain. Just months before, the government had revealed that water pollution was more than twice as severe as previous official figures had shown.”

The algae bloom on Lake Tai was caused by toxic cyanobacteria, commonly called pond scum. It turned much of the lake florescent green and produced a terrible stench that could be smelled miles away from the lake. The Lake Tai bloom became a symbol of China’s lack of environmental regulations. Afterwards a high-level meeting on the lake’s future was convened, with Beijing closing down hundreds of chemical factories and promising to spend $14.4 billion to clean up the lake.

Lake Tai Activist

Wu Lihong, a peasant who worked for a while as a salesman, had been trying to draw attention to the condition of Lake Tai for more than a decade. William Wan wrote in Washington Post, “The story of Tai Lake is a story of high-level promises and lower-level reneging, of economic interests superceding environmental ones. And it is an illustration of China's awkward relationship with environmental activists, who challenge the government's authority but are often the loudest force pushing its new environmental priorities on the local level.No one knows this story better than Wu Lihong. For almost two decades, Wu - a peasant living along the lake,- waged a one-man campaign to clean it up. He kept track of the thousands of factories springing up along its shores and took pictures of the untreated waste they discharged into the lake. He mailed water samples to inspectors, called TV stations and spoke out in the face of threats from factory bosses and local leaders. [Source: William Wan, Washington Post, October 29, 2010]

“His actions cost him his job, threatened his marriage and landed him in prison for three years. He returned home this spring to find the lake virtually unchanged. Now, with no job prospects and few friends willing to risk a visit, he spends much of his time alone at home, mulling over what he has sacrificed - whether it was worth it, and whether he should continue.”

“To hear Wu's story firsthand is to witness the paranoia he now lives in. A short, baby-faced man, Wu, 42, assumes his cellphone is tapped and prefers meeting strangers in obscure spots outside town. After agreeing to take a reporter to his home, Wu pulls up his shorts to reveal a two-inch scar on his inner thigh. He said he got it a few weeks ago by the lake when two thugs attacked him with a knife. He points to rounder scars along his arm and his hands - cigarette burns, he said, from police interrogations.”

"At first, there were other villagers reporting the pollution, too," said Han Yaobing, 60, who was one of them. "But everyone gave up under the pressure of authorities. He was the only one left." After Chinese and foreign media picked up his story, Wu became a national hero and by 2005 was being praised by Chinese and international organizations. That year, China's highest-ranking legislative body, the National People's Congress, declared him one of China's top 10 environmental activists and flew him to a ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.”

Lake Tai Activist Harassed, Arrested and Imprisoned

Around the time of the algae bloom Wu Lihong was sentenced to three years in jail on trumped charges. At the time of his arrest he was preparing to go to Beijing with photographs and other documentation of dumping by chemical factories in the lake. Wu had been particularly outraged by the designation of Yixing, the home of many chemical factories, as a “Model City for Environmental Protection.” Wu's conviction was based on a confession that Wu said was coerced with torture and five straight days of sleep deprivation.

William Wan wrote in Washington Post, “All that changed in 2007, when - just two years after Beijing lauded him for his work trying to protect the lake - Wu learned that the central government planned to award his city the title of "National Model City for Environmental Protection," praising the very local officials Wu had fought for years. Wu was furious. He started gathering more evidence, telling friends he planned to sue the central government over the title. Within weeks, he was arrested.” [Source: William Wan, Washington Post, October 29, 2010]

“The exact charges changed several times, and most were ultimately dropped. In the end, Wu's conviction on two charges of blackmail and fraud relied heavily on his confession, which Wu says he signed after being hung by the arms for five days and beaten with branches. While he was in prison, authorities put his wife and daughter under 24-hour surveillance. Shortly before Wu's release, the guards in front of his house were replaced by three traffic cameras erected on the single-lane road leading to his farmhouse.”

In the face of this bleak future, Wu now questions whether he sacrificed everything for nothing. "Maybe I should have just focused on making a living, raising my family," he says in his living room, holding his wife's string of carved monkeys. "But this is where I live. A man cannot just run away to Shangri-La while his home is ruined." Across the room, Wu's wife says little. Because Wu can't find a job, she now works two - one at a wool factory and the second, ironically, at a chemical plant on Tai Lake.”

“Improvements” at Tai Lake

As Tai Lake became a national scandal, hundreds of industrial plants were shut down, local officials were dismissed, and billions of dollars were committed to clean it up. It became part of the new nationwide push to tackle air quality, forest preservation and water pollution. Beijing has earmarked $16 billion to clean up Lake Tai. William Wan wrote in Washington Post, “Progress since then, however, has proved elusive. By some standards, the lake has improved. The level of nitrogen and phosphorus - ingredients for algae growth - have decreased slightly. By others measures, such as overall water quality, the lake has gotten worse. According to government statistics in July, 85 percent of the lake was put in the worst possible category for water quality, unsuitable for drinking, irrigation or even recreation.” [Source: William Wan, Washington Post, October 29, 2010]

“Meanwhile, plant executives argue they have already done their part by installing new discharge treatment machines. But water quality experts jokingly call the new equipment "on/off machines," because they say the machines are only turned on during inspections. But the worst sign of all is the fact that almost every city on the lake has quietly begun finding other sources of drinking water. The projects, which are costly but seldom publicized, indicate that even as local authorities devote billions to repairing the lake, few believe it will recover.” "The fear is that once these cities no longer depend on the lake for drinking water, the urgency will disappear," said Ma Jun, director of the non-governmental Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs.

Efforts to Combat Water Pollution in China

20080317-waste water.jpg
Water treatment plant

Alarmed by the amount of pollution in its rivers, China begun enacting new environmental regulations and laws and taking more action to clean up its rivers. Beijing is closing polluting factories, building new sewage treatment plants and changing agricultural practices. To clean up Suzhou Creek in Shanghai, government officials are moving polluting factories and sewage is being diverted to the Yangtze River which flushes it out to the sea. Elsewhere local officials have rejected plans to build metal plating factories over concerns about pollution.

In August 2006, the Chinese government admitted that China has serious water pollution and drinking water problems and earmarked $132 billion for cleaning up and improving China’s water supply. Allocations included $30 billion for urban water supply projects and $50 million in wastewater projects. Projects include sewages works, pipes, desalination plants and the South-North Water Diversion Program. Environmentalists estimate that for China to truly address it water problems it needs to spend $300 billion alone on antipollution equipment.

Chinas want to reduce water pollution discharges by 10 percent between 2008 and 2010. More than $8 billion was spent on cleaning up the Huai River basin in Henan and Anhui Province in the 1980s and 1990s. Great progress was made. In the mid 1990s the clean up was heralded as a great success and much of the work stopped. By the mid 2000s the river was polluted again, in many cases worse than it was before.

Laws on the books are widely ignored. There is little transparency. Money earmarked for waste water projects is sometime re-appropriated to build power plants. Local officials have close relationships with business owners that own the factories and mines that cause the pollution.

In some cases the local governments that are supposed to do something about pollution are the same ones that own the factories that do the polluting. That is the case with huge MSG factory In Xiangcheng in Henan Province which employs 8,000 people and produces toxins like ammonia nitrate. One official who spoke anonymously to the New York Times said of the government in Xiangcheng: “There are a lot of officials who don’t care about pollution. Some leaders are just interested in making money.”

Sometimes there are protests. In July 2007, police clashed with thousands of people in Yuanshi, a town in Sichuan Province, angry over pollution of local water supplies by a brewery. Seven villager were detained and 20 were injured. The protest began after the brewery dumped waste water which contaminated drinking and irrigation water.

Private Companies Battle Water Pollution in China

Many Chinese cities have outsourced their water treatment to large private companies. The French company Veolia alone manages water systems in 17 Chinese cities, including Changzhou, Lizhou and Shanghai. The water situation in these cities has been dramatically improved but residents now have to pay a significant amount of money for water that in the past was free or nearly free. [Source: Vanity Fair]

In Shanghai, where Veolia has a $243 million, $50-year contract, the French company has laid 900 miles of large diameter pipes, hooked up 300,000 new structures to the water system, built sewage and water treatment plants and hired 7,000 local people between 2002 and 2006. To pay for all those Veolia is gradually raising water prices.

Some pensioners in Lizhou pay a quarter of their $40 a month pensions for water. When asked about conserving water, one pensioner said he lived an building, with 70 or so apartments and his water bill was determined by dividing the total bill for the apartment among its residents, meaning that one person’s effort to conserve water would bring few rewards if others wasted water.

Long Cun is a large village on the Liu River in Guanxi Province that is down river from a paper mill that dumped so much pollutants into the water the river became “as black as soy sauce..” Villagers complained and have been given piped water from the city of Lizhou. The only problem is that the residents of the town have to pay four dollars a month for their water, a considerable sum for people that only earn $20 to $30 a month.

Chinese Water Pollution Worsens Despite Efforts to Curb It

In July 2010, the Ministry of Environmental Protection, told the China Daily, the number of accidents fouling the air and water doubled during the first half of 2010, with an average of 10 each month. The report also found that more than a quarter of the country rivers, lakes and streams were too contaminated to be used for drinking water. Acid rain, it added, has become a problem in nearly 200 of the 440 cities it monitored. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, July 28, 2010]

Water treatment facilities built by the national government are sometimes left idle by their local operators because of the high cost of operating them. Chinese environmentalist Ma Jun told the Washington Post, “Hundreds of sewage plants have been built around China, but we haven’t seen our water getting cleaner. We have more than 600 records of violations by sewage plants discharging above standards or simply not treating it at all or properly disposing of the sludge.”

Chinese Environment Official Challenged to Swim in River

In February 2013, Jonathan Kaiman wrote in The Guardian, “an eyeglass-retailer executive from Rui'an City, coastal Zhejiang province, offered the city's environmental protection chief Bao Zhenming more than £20,000 to take a 20-minute dip in a highly polluted local river. The entrepreneur, Jin Zengmin, posted the dare to his microblog beneath pictures showing the waterway overflowing with discarded aluminum cans, polystyrene boxes and paper lanterns. He blamed the river's industrial demise on dumping by a local rubber shoe factory. The Rui'an government responded by saying that most of the river's pollution was caused by individuals, not factories, and could be attributed to overpopulation. Bao has since declined the offer. [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, The Guardian, February 21, 2013]

The challenge to Bao came as the government announced on Thursday that it will force heavily polluting industries to participate in a compulsory insurance programme to ensure they can adequately provide compensation for damage. The mining and smelting industries must participate in the scheme, along with lead battery manufacturers, leather goods firms and chemical factories. Petrochemical companies and firms that make hazardous chemicals and hazardous waste would also be encouraged to participate.

Reuters reported: “Chen Yuqian, 60, a farmer from the town of Pailian in eastern Zhejiang province, said he has been beaten up five times in his decade-long fight against soil and water pollution --beatings for which he blames local officials. On February 20, Chen issued a challenge on Weibo, China's version of Twitter, daring officials from the local environment protection bureau to swim in a stretch of polluted river. He offered 300,000 yuan ($48,200) as a reward. [Source: Sui-Lee Wee and Adam Jourdan, Reuters, March 10, 2013]

“Four days later, dozens of men, carrying sticks and rocks, charged into his home and started smashing things, Chen said. "They are trying to scare me so that I don't petition anymore, so that I don't report on the pollution anymore," Chen said. Xu Shuifa, the Communist Party secretary of the district that governs Chen's village, told Reuters by telephone that he had no links to the attackers and said the attack was linked to a land dispute Chen has with three of his neighbors. Back in Beijing, Dong, the attorney, said he had filed an appeal with the environment ministry for the soil survey data and expected a decision within two months. He said he would go to court if he was denied. ////

Image Sources: 1) Northeast Blog; 2) Gary Braasch; 3) ESWN, Environmental News; 4, 5) China Daily, Environmental News ; 6) NASA; 7, 8) Xinhua, Environmental News ; YouTube

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2014

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.