16 August 2004 00:01 [Source: ACN]
|Pollution on the Shaying River,
a branch of the Huai River
And the chemotherapy – which he has been undergoing intermittently whenever he can afford it – has drained him of the desire to eat.
According to Xiao’s neighbours, who, like him, have lived all their lives in Huang Meng Ying village in Shenqiu county, Henan province, in central China, it is the Huai River, whose tributary, the Shaying, flows alongside their homes, that is the prime cause of the cancer.
Almost all the deaths in this village last year were caused by cancer of the oesophagus, colon, lung and stomach. Of the 19 people who died in 2003, 15 were suffering from cancer. And all the seven deaths so far this year have been due to cancer. In 2001, the situation was much worse, when as many as 37 people died here, 95% of them from cancer.
‘How could this be a coincidence? Even the water samples from the river, which have been tested, have revealed the presence of carcinogenic wastes from pulp and paper mills and ammonia, fertiliser and chlor-alkali plants,’ says Huo Daishan, a photojournalist and activist, who heads a non-governmental organisation (NGO) called Huaihe Guards.
|Cancer-stricken Xiao Junhai, 57:
No strength to sit, stand, or even speak
We manage to track down a radiologist who has treated some of these patients. She has seen the number of patients with tumours at the local hospital rise from ten in 1972 to 383 in 1997. Refusing to be named for fear of reprisal, she too endorses the theory that it is the contaminated water that is responsible for the proliferation of cancer in the village.
Of the 2000-plus villagers in Huang Meng Ying, nine are deaf, 14 mentally disabled, three blind and nine physically handicapped. The villagers also point to the surge of birth defects, lesions and gall-bladder infections in recent years – a sure indication, they feel, that the water is contaminated.
Huo has fond memories of the time he spent as a child playing in the river. Now, even touching the water would irritate the skin. He recalls an incident of a healthy man in his 30s who went into the water to repair a dyke. He was in the river for a few hours. ‘From that day, his health took a turn for the worse. He did not live beyond 40,’ Huo says with a sigh.
A glimpse of the river, which once irrigated what was one of the most fertile regions of the country, reveals why the villagers have arrived at this conclusion. The once-clear waters are today a floating mass of garbage and chemical effluents, unfit for irrigation, let alone drinking.
According to a recent study by China’s State Environment Protection Administration (Sepa), the quality of water in the Shaying River is below grade V, which is the worst level of pollution. Water at grade III and below is unfit for drinking. The permanganate index (CODMn), which measures the amount of organic compounds in water, is at 11.6mg/l. The ammonia-nitrogen (NH3-N) level is at 5.81mg/l. Dissolved oxygen (DO) is at 2.34mg/l.
Good water quality, at grades I and II, would have 0.2-0.5 mg/l of NH3-N, 2-4mg/l of CODMn, and at least 6mg/l of DO.
Not that the people of Huang Meng Ying have been drinking the river water. They stopped doing that in the 1980s, when poisoned carcasses of fish floated to the surface along with chemical waste, and government officials declared the water unfit for drinking.
But slowly, imperceptibly, the noxious pollutants in the river seeped into the groundwater, poisoning the primary water source the villagers depend on – an 8-10m-deep borewell they had installed at their own expense.
According to the village head, 43-year-old Wang Lingsheng, the borewell needs to be at least 35m deep to be free of contamination. But for the villagers, most of whom are small farmers and whose per capita income is no more than Rmb1000 (US$120.80), it is much more than they can afford.
But can’t the local government pitch in? Wang throws up his hands in despair. Pleading with the authorities – both local and central – is an exercise in futility, he claims. He has been trying to capture the attention of the authorities ever since the problem surfaced ten years ago, when the waters of the Huai were found to be polluted.
His inspiration was a neighbouring village, Da Wang Lou, where the annual per capita income is Rmb3000. The farmers in that village managed to put pressure on polluting paint companies to contribute towards drilling a borewell deep enough to avoid contamination, and provide enough water to meet their drinking and irrigation needs.
But Wang did not have the same luck when he tried to approach the polluting companies and the authorities for compensation or even financial assistance.
According to the village head, it is impossible to get a government official to accept any responsibility for a problem at the community level. ‘They all try to pass the buck, whether it is the local government of Shenqiu county, the provincial government of Henan, or the central government in Beijing,’ he says.
It is just too difficult to pin down the culprits as the Huai River, which originates in the Tongbai mountains in Henan, spans more than 1000km and runs through three other provinces – Shandong, Anhui and Jiangsu, where it joins the Yangtze River.
Outrage, anger, resentment – emotions that come cheap in many other countries where democratic channels for protest are easy to tap – are in short supply in China. The fabled stoicism of the Chinese peasant is clearly discernible during our conversations with the villagers, where even the most anguished outpourings are muted.
It was not always like this in Shenqiu county. The culture of quiescence did give way in 1988, a year before the Tiananmen massacre, when, we are told, villagers protested for the first time by scribbling graffiti secretly on the stone walls of a major bridge in the county at night, demanding that the government take some action. Local government officials erased the graffiti the next morning.
Later, in 1995 and 1999, the villagers embarked on signature campaigns. The signatures collected in 1999 were inscribed on a 600m-long banner, which was displayed on the same bridge on the Huai on whose walls the villagers had scribbled graffiti in 1988.
How long before history repeats itself, and the village displays its anger once again? But there are few signs today that it will happen anytime soon. There is no resentment over the economic divide that’s palpable everywhere we go in the province. A divide that manifests itself also as a chasm between the rural and the urban, prompting hordes of impoverished peasants and unemployed youths from small towns to head for the big cities in search of all-too-elusive jobs.
Of course, it is easy to lose a sense of perspective. The problems we encounter here are no different from those seen in most developing countries.
The only difference is the scale of the problems. But the official apathy does create a sense of déjà vu. Has one not seen polluted rivers and indifferent authorities in remote villages in, say, Bihar, an Indian state where the economic divide is, arguably, even more pronounced than in Henan?
Also, can we blame the Chinese authorities for ignoring the environment when there are more than a billion mouths to feed? After all, do not developed countries have a track record of setting ecological concerns aside in their rush to get rich quick? And everywhere we go we see signs of the government trying to redress past wrongs, whether through reforestation or through new regulations or sporadic crackdowns on errant officials.
All that the villagers of Huang Meng Ying are asking for is clean drinking water. One is surprised and saddened by their tolerance of official apathy.
The apathy hits us in the face as we make our way to the municipal government office in Jiaozuo, also in Henan province, in an effort to track down an official in the chemicals department to seek permission to visit a chlor-alkali plant. Having already been refused an appointment by the central government’s Ministry of Environment in Beijing, we decide to try our luck with the local government.
What we find is a maze of corridors lined with plush offices, but few officials. No one can tell us the whereabouts of the official we are looking for. The grandeur of the spanking new glass-sheathed and marble-floored buildings that seem straight out of a street in Singapore or Manhattan contrasts all too sharply with the spartan homes of the villagers in southern Henan.
We wait three hours for an official to emerge from the inexplicably long lunch break that is mandatory in Chinese government offices, only to find that we are on a wild goose chase. And a further indulgence, which compounds our frustration and tests the limits of our patience, is a tennis court.
The official, when he finally makes his appearance, turns out to be the wrong person. He is a friendly young man and eager to help us, but ineffectual. The municipal office is being restructured, and it is quite impossible to track down the official we are looking for, he informs us, after a search through some more corridors.
NGOs in China have to be approved by the government and cannot be totally independent. They do not get tax write-offs for contributions, and this limits their ability to raise funds from foreign agencies – which is a very different scenario from that which prevails in other developing countries, such as India.
The transition to a free-market economy has not been painless for those at the bottom of the economic hierarchy. Education and medical care are no longer free, as was the case during the Maoist era.
Xiao says his chemotherapy sessions cost his daughter, who is his caregiver, Rmb10 000/month, whereas her total monthly income as a nurse is Rmb1000. As a result, she is heavily in debt, having borrowed from relatives and friends. To add to the family’s woes, her mother, Wang Guirong, is mentally disabled, a condition that deteriorated in the past three years after she had a paralytic stroke. Treating her mother’s condition has further depleted this family’s financial resources.
|Wang Liushuai, 11, shows lesions
on his back caused by water from
the polluted Shaying River
Also ready with a smile is seven-year-old Wang Huimei, whose parents don’t have the money to pay for the valve-replacement surgery she needs so badly. Her only complaint is that she cannot run like her playmates, and is too sick to go to school.
According to her mother, Sun Suli, Huimei’s congenital heart condition is a result of the mother having drunk the contaminated water when she was pregnant.
It is difficult to test the veracity of her claim, or to know to what extent poverty and malnutrition have contributed to congenital birth defects among the villagers.
But the contamination has certainly played its part in contributing to the ill-health of the villagers – even the various commissions set up by the government in the past three decades have testified to this.
The Chinese government’s efforts have seemingly failed to clean up the Huai River, the country’s third largest, which supplies water to one-sixth of the country’s 1.3bn people.
According to Sepa, water from the Huai’s tributaries is too polluted to supply even industries or farms, let alone drinking water. Millions of tonnes of industrial waste (mainly waste from paper and pulp plants and some effluents from chemical/fertiliser plants) have been the main cause of pollution.
In her recently published book, The River Runs Black, Elizabeth C Economy documents the cavalcade of government-appointed bodies that sought to tackle the problem of river-water pollution after the environmental disaster of 1974, when one of the many dams across the Huai burst, releasing toxic wastes into the river.
Some action appears to have been taken, according to Huo, with several polluting paper mills and chemical plants having been forced to close shop. The government imposed strict standards for wastewater treatment and there was a ban on the release of untreated effluents into the river.
However, by 1990, it was back to square one, as economic interests took precedence over environmental concerns. Economy points out that, in a bid to cut costs, only half the factories operated their wastewater treatment plants. And only 25% of even the treated wastewater was meeting the state-imposed standards.
Fearful of a second environmental disaster, the Bureau of Water Resources pressured local officials to close down or retrofit their plants to contain pollution. And in May 1994, Sepa sent a delegation to the province to report on companies’ conformance with environmental standards.
Nevertheless, just two months later, a number of factories emptied their untreated wastewater into the Huai, filling it with contaminants such as ammonia and nitrogen compounds, potassium permanganate and phenols.
‘The water turned black, factories were forced to close. About 26m lb of fish were killed and thousands of people treated for dysentery, diarrhoea and vomiting. Villagers pelted officials with eggs. One thousand factories were closed down or relocated,’ says Economy.
But it was only a short respite for the villagers. By 1997, about 40% of the closed factories had re-opened. Some pulp and paper factories banded together to form large production centres to avoid following regulations targeted at small plants.
The crisis has assumed such monstrous proportions that Sepa’s director, Xie Zhenhua, at a press conference held this June, admitted that the campaign to clean up the Huai River, which was launched in 1996, had made little progress and that problems had resurfaced.
Even as the GDP (gross domestic product) of the Huai River valley grew by 134% from 1996 to 2003 and the COD discharge in the river declined by 50% in the same period, statistics from the Huai Water Resources Committee showed that the river’s water quality this May was as bad as its worst level in the 1990s, according to Xinhua News Agency.
One of the reasons for this anomaly could be the heavy dependence on the river’s resources. According to Wang Jijie, vice-director of Sepa, even though the Huai River makes up only 3.4% of the country’s total water resources, it is home to 16.2% of China’s population and 15.2% of the country’s farmland. It also flows through the less-developed areas of the four provinces it covers.
More than 60% of the river’s resources has been tapped for drinking, irrigation and industrial production, which weakens the river’s self-purification ability.
The problem has been further aggravated by the heavy industries lining the river’s path. Paper, chemical, textile, food and beverage industries contributed to 26.6% of the region’s GDP, but they were responsible for 78.4% of COD and 94.2% NH3-N discharge from the industrial sector in the region. And the chemical industry contributes 77.3% of the total NH3-N discharge into the river, according to the Sepa vice-director.
Wang Jijie also admits that there have been cases of factories that discharge a large amount of wastewater on the sly. During a recent investigation by Sepa along the Huai River, 52 of the 165 companies visited by the investigating team exceeded the government’s emissions ceiling.
Huo of Huaihe Guards says that, even though some factories have been fined and ordered to install effluent-treatment plants, they do not operate it regularly as costs are high.
‘It would cost them ten times more to operate the treatment plants than to pay the fine for failing to conform to emission standards.’
Wang Jijie is aware that those who obey the law will have to bear high operating costs, while those who do not, benefit from low costs. He admits that the government has to fine-tune its laws.
He adds that the local governments also have to play their part by restructuring the industrial sector and planning agricultural and industrial production strictly in tune with the river’s capacity.
The delay in the completion of sewage projects and the irregularity in the operations of existing sewage facilities have also contributed to the pollution of the river. The Sepa investigation found that 17 of the 30 sewage plants they visited along the Huai River were not operating regularly.
Pan Yue, also a vice-director at Sepa, admits that the programme to clean up the Huai River – part of the country’s 10th Five-Year Plan (2001-2005) – is only 33% complete.
Some local government officials recently told the Chinese media that funding for sewage projects was often out of their reach. For example, it took seven years for the authorities in Fengyuan county, Anhui, to obtain government funding for a Rmb160m project to build an 80 000 tonne/day sewage plant, according to a CCTV report. Even then, only Rmb25m was approved, enough to complete only the project’s first phase.
In Huainan, Anhui, the first 100 000 tonne/day sewage plant was completed in 2002. However, only one of the two lines at the plant is in operation and it can process only 20 000 tonne/day of wastewater, according to CCTV. This is because 428 companies owe more than Rmb50m in wastewater-treatment fees accumulated since 1999, when the law was implemented.
The local authorities have tried sending warning letters to corporations, threatening to cut off their water supply if they do not pay up. But these warnings have been ignored. An official says the authorities have not resorted to the drastic step of cutting off the water supply to these companies, as that would affect the jobs of the employees.
Some of the biggest taxpayers in some municipalities are the worst polluters, and it is a delicate balance between jeopardising the livelihood of the villagers and maintaining a clean environment.
The Zhengzhou municipal government in Henan province recently announced that companies that violate the emission standards more than once would be shut down. It has also tried to rein in its officials by ordering them to resign if they have been criticised by the media or during high-level meetings on environmental issues on more than two occasions.
Credit must also be given to the Jiaozuo Chemical Power Group for seeking to adhere to effluent and emission standards, if its claims are taken at face value. The company has installed a fishpond and an aviary, which would set off ‘alarms’ if effluent or emission standards are transgressed. Treated wastewater is recycled in the fishpond and birds would die if there was a chlorine leak in the chlor-alkali and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) facilities.
China’s Safety Production Bureau recently introduced safety-production permits for companies producing dangerous chemicals such as acrylonitrile, methylene di-p-phenylene isocyanate (MDI), toluene diisocyanate (TDI) and methyl methacrylate. Companies that are already producing such chemicals must apply for the permits by January next year, and for new facilities, companies must obtain the permits before they can operate the plants.
An official reveals to ACN that the permits were a result of a recent spate of incidents at chemical plants, such as the chlorine gas leak and explosion at Chongqing Tianyuan PVC plant in April this year that killed nine people.
Gap between intentions, impact
There is little doubt that the Chinese government means business when it says it would like to rein in pollution. But the chasm between intentions and impact remains large.
A number of new regulations on environment and safety are unveiled from time to time, but have little effect. The problem lies in implementation, as one government official in Shanghai admits with rare candour.
According to NGOs, this is due to a lack of accountability by both the central/local authorities and the companies that pollute the environment by not following safety regulations. There is also a conflict between protecting the environment and expanding the economy. A major challenge confronting China is in reconciling the two targets.
New rules for new projects aimed at reducing greenhouse-gas emissions went into effect on 30 June this year. Called the Clean Development Mechanism Regulation, they create a legal foundation for the expansion of clean-development practices in China. Only Chinese enterprises and companies held by Chinese partners can apply for clean-development projects.
Priority will be given to projects aimed at improving energy efficiency and exploration of new renewable-energy sources.
Developed countries could earn emission credits by participating in emission-reducing projects in China and other developing countries.
While the moral justification for emission credits could be debated, what is indisputable is the fact that air pollution has become a serious threat to health in China, whether it is exhaust fumes in congested cities such as Shanghai, Beijing and Nanjing, or emissions from outdated chemical plants.
The culprits are mainly coal-based plants – either small acetylene plants in Shaanxi and Inner Mongolia, or coal-based power plants.
In fact, in Nanjing, we could not see the city’s skyline because of the haze enveloping it. According to NGOs, industrial pollution is a contributory factor. But officials in chemical companies dismiss the phenomenon as one caused by the humidity in Nanjing.
During our travels in Henan, we also come across huge piles of coal in the open, a sure source of air pollution.
However, it is not all doom and gloom. Several government officials in Henan and neighbouring provinces such as Shanxi, Hebei and Shaanxi have been punished for failing to enforce environmental regulations.
Corruption remains a major problem. Some polluting plants, which were shut down, were restarted a few years ago, apparently by paying off government officials, who have since been prosecuted. Some 16 000 firms have been investigated and 428 people responsible for the illegal discharge of pollutants have been penalised all over the country in the last three years, according to Sepa.
A director of a county environmental protection bureau in Sichuan province in southwest China was removed from office this May for failing to stem river-water pollution caused by the Dongfanghong Paper Co, which discharged liquid waste into Qiuxi River. The pollutants caused the death of 60 000 kg of fish. The paper mill was closed down and fined Rmb150 000.
Accidents are another problem. Recently, a sulphuric-acid spill in the Huai River killed one person.
In a pre-emptive move, the Chinese government enforced a regulation banning the transportation of hazardous chemicals such as acrylonitrile, MDI and TDI along the Yangtze River (ACN 21 June 2004).
The ban has drawn considerable criticism from chemical producers. Foreign chemical majors with joint ventures in China, as well as exporters, are lobbying the government to withdraw the ban, contending that road transportation is more dangerous than river transportation, and that, technically, the Yangtze is an extension of the international waters and so should not be treated as a domestic waterway.
But Sinochem contends that the river route is far more hazardous and the damage from accidents is more widespread than on roads, where the impact is spread over a smaller area. A Sinochem official maintains that if ISO (International Standards Organisation) trucks are used for transporting hazardous chemicals, there is very little danger of leakage.
No one can deny that the snowballing congestion on China’s highways and roads provides a sure recipe for disaster. On the other hand, accidents are widespread on the Yangtze, especially as many of the smaller barges used for transporting the dangerous chemicals are more than ten years old and not in the best condition.
After all, the Yangtze is known to have dangerous currents, so much so that swimming across the River Wild, as author Simon Winchester describes it, was considered an act of great heroism – a feat that no less a figure than Mao Zedong accomplished with considerable fanfare.
A further criticism against the government’s initiatives to curb pollution is its inconsistency. Quite a few officials from chemical companies point to the fact that dangerous chemicals such as benzene and styrene are not included in the list of hazardous chemicals that cannot be transported across the Yangtze. The inconsistency appears inexplicable after the recent benzene spill in southern China that captured so much attention.
A crucial question that is often posed is: who will bear the cost of pollution control? As one industry source points out: ‘It is fine to talk about environment-friendly technologies. But how many local producers can afford to retrofit their plants with these up-to-date technologies?’
One NGO feels that the foreign chemical majors could play a more active role in mentoring local producers and distributors on environmental issues.
Doing their bit
Some foreign majors claim they are already doing their bit.
An official in BASF-YPC Co says the company holds regular discussions with the neighbourhood community in Nanjing, in Jiangsu province, to make people aware of the impact that the company’s new cracker complex, due to start up next year, may have on their living environment.
Says the official: ‘Of course, in any plant there can be an emergency. We have to explain what we would do then to protect them. Some people have had a bad experience from history. They had been bothered by methylamine production ten years ago. So we invited the authorities and representatives from the communities to inspect our plants in Germany. They could walk through the plants and that helped put the people here at ease.’
An official from Secco (a joint venture between BP, Sinopec, and Shanghai Petrochemical), whose petrochemical complex is also scheduled to begin production next year, claims it conforms with the Chinese government’s environmental regulations. ‘I can understand why the government wants to upgrade the HSE (health, safety and environment) standards in China and why it wants to stop accidents,’ says the official.
‘Experience in the West shows that it is more dangerous to put acrylonitrile on the roads than on water,’ he says. He adds that the state of the roads in China and the number of traffic accidents are enough proof of the danger that the road-route poses.
Secco will use BP Shipping to vet the ships and barges it employs for transportation of dangerous chemicals to ensure that they meet safety standards. ‘We will also vet our customers’ premises to ensure that they have adequate storage to receive our products safely, and we conduct inspections regularly. The Chinese fleet is a bit old, but a lot of new ships and barges are being built,’ says the official.
The debate remains unresolved. But on one issue there is no dispute. With China emerging as an increasingly preferred site for investment, issues relating to environmental protection will assume centre stage in the country in the months to come.
But debate and legislation alone are not enough.
Xiao Junhai and his fellow villagers in Huang Meng Ying in Henan have a right to a safe and clean environment. And it is up to the Chinese government and the chemical players in the country to ensure that this right is protected.
Cancer-stricken Xiao Junhai, 57: No strength to sit, stand, or even speak
Pollution on the Shaying River, a branch of the Huai River
Wang Liushuai, 11, shows lesions on his back caused by water from the polluted Shaying River
|Type of facilities||Biochemical oxygen demand (BOD5) (mg/L)||Chemical oxygen demand (CODCr) (mg/L)|
|Grade I||Grade II||Grade I||Grade II|
|Large-/medium-scale enterprises||Newly built||60||150|
|Small-scale enterprises (wastewater discharge 1000m3/day)||Newly built||150|
|SOURCE: SHANGHAI ENVIRONMENT ONLINE|
|New facilities||Existing facilities|
|Capacity||More than or equal to 300 000 tonne/year||More than or equal to 45 000 tonne/year||Less than
45 000 tonne/year
|More than or equal to 300 000 tonne/year||More than or equal to 450 000 tonne/year||Less than |
450 000 tonne/year
|Ammonia-nitrogen (NH3-N) (mg/L) grade I||50||50||50||120||80||100|
|Maximum amount of waste water discharge allowed (m3/ tonne of ammonia)||10||80||120||10||100||150|
|SOURCE: SHANGHAI ENVIRONMENT ONLINE|
EMISSIONS STANDARDS FOR THE CHEMICALS SECTOR
|Height of emission pipe (m)||Emission standard (kg/h)||Emission standard (mg/m2)|
|Sulphuric acid fog||30-45||260|
|SOURCE: SHANGHAI ENVIRONMENT ONLINE|
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