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The Huai River: Ten Years of Cleanup with Few Results

As the Chinese leadership is busy in transforming China into an industrial powerhouse, the country’s living environment is also worsening rapidly due to increasing amounts of pollutants as a result of that development. Sixteen of the top 20 cities with the worst air according to World Bank are in China. The pollution of rivers and lakes, which are both draining vessels for waste and sources of drinking water, irrigation and food, can have potentially devastating effects. One of the most notorious examples is the Huai River Basin.

The Huai River, located between the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, provides water to around 150 million people in the Henan, Anhui, Jiangsu and Shandong provinces in Central and East China. A decade ago, alarmed by the increasing pollution of the river, the Chinese government launched a campaign to clean it up. However, recent studies show that the effort has been far from successful.

Recently, a three-man team of investigative reporters from China’s Xinhua News Agency conducted a study along the river over a course of 30 days, interviewing farmers along the river and experiencing the effects of pollution personally. A portion of their findings were published in the article “After Ten Years of Anti-Pollution Project, the Huaihe River is Crying” on China’s Xinhua News Agency website.

“The study discovered that: Pollution in Huai River is seriously on the rise; all major water pollution indicators either reached or exceeded the historical record. In about 60 percent of the Huai River’s surrounding areas, water quality was rated as category five pollution. (The worst on a scale of one to five) Water pollution has seeped into the soil, and now even ground water is contaminated. The pollution has directly affected the lives of one hundred and thirteen million people.”

The report continued to state a slew of facts surrounding the river’s pollution.

“After careful study of the recent water quality indicators, the reporters found that since 2000, the Huai River’s pollution problem has continued to worsen. Right now, the pollution situation has regressed to the state of ten years ago. From late January to early May 2004, data collected from 13 cross-sections along the main Huai River all exceed the pollution standard. In Xuyi County, Jiangsu Province, the water quality was found to be the worst, with five of the most severe pollutants in the river for over a hundred days, an unprecedented record… For one important pollutant, COD, its discharge rate was 1.5 million tons in 1993 at its worst. In 2000, COD discharge was 943,300 tons. However, starting in 2000, it rose at a rate of 10% per year. By 2003, the COD discharge reached 1,232,000 tons. However, in the original target established in1993, the COD discharge goal for the year 2000 was set at 368,000 ton per year. In 1993, 3.74 billion tons of untreated sewage flowed into the river. By 2003, total sewage discharge increased to 4.369 billion tons. Another main pollutant, ammonia-nitrate discharge, was dumped into the river at an even higher rate. In 2003, 121,600 tons of ammonia nitrate was dumped into the Huai River, a 30% increase over 1998.”

So what does this really mean to the 150 million people living along the banks of the river? A recent article in The New York Times entitled “Rivers Run Black, and Chinese Die of Cancer” by Jim Yardley referenced the possible effect on the people’s health.

“Epidemiological research for cancer in the Huai basin is scant. None has been done in Huangmengying. Nor does any scientific evidence prove that pollution is causing the rising cancer rate. What is clear is the wide range of pollutants, from fertilizer runoff to the dumping of factory wastes.

“But Dr. Zhao Meiqin, chief of radiology at the county hospital, said cancer cases in the area rose sharply after heavy industry arrived in the 1980’s and 90’s. Before, the area had about 10 cases a year. ‘Now, in a year, there are hundreds of cases,’ she said, putting the number as high as 400, mostly stomach and intestinal tumors. ‘Originally, most of the patients were in their 50’s and 60’s. But now it tends to strike earlier. I’ve even treated one patient who is only 7.’

“Dr. Zhao said most cancer patients came from villages close to the factories along the Shaying River, a major tributary in the Huai basin. Mr. Wang, the village Party chief, also said the highest concentrations of cancer were found in the homes closest to the village stream, which draws its water directly from the Shaying.”

The Xinhua report found that in certain villages along the river, wells dug as deep as 40 meters still turned up water that was foul and polluted. One of the villager’s comments perhaps put the hopelessness of the locals in perspective, “The river water is black and it stinks. It’s good for nothing. We spent several thousand yuan to dig a well. The well water tastes strange, but no one dares to send the water to the lab to test. If the test says the water is undrinkable, what do we do? Don’t drink water?”

According to the same report, total investment into the river’s cleanup over the past ten years have totaled 60 billion yuan (~ US$7.3 billion). However, the ten-year effort has brought basically no change in the water quality. So what happened?

One case study is the Lianhua Gourmet Company, the biggest MSG producer in China. It is one of the worst polluters of the river, but also has over 8,000 employees and is the biggest taxpayer in the city of Xiangcheng, one of the cities upstream from the river basin. Lianhua is a publicly traded company, but its majority stockholder is the city of Xiangcheng.

According to the New York Times article, “One retired local Communist Party official said party cadres had always protected Lianhua. He said a son-in-law of a Lianhua chief executive once even headed the city’s environmental protection bureau.”

The conflict of interest resulted in an outrageous situation reported by China’s own State Environmental Protection Administration. The company used secret channels into the city’s sewage system to dump pollutants into the river.

While the Chinese government continues to pump money and resources into the project, such conflicts of interest prevent real progress. Meanwhile, the underprivileged Chinese farmers continue to suffer the consequences of economic growth at the expense of the environment. Ultimately, China needs to resolve the conflict in priority between the health of its economic growth and that of its citizens at large. So far, the conflict has been rather one-sided.

Lily Qu is a Chinascope correspondent.