The city of Wuxi, in east China’s Jiangsu province, was hit by a serious ecological disaster this week. A large bloom of blue-green algae in Taihu Lake caused water quality to deteriorate severely. Despite the local water department’s attempts at mitigating the crisis, the water supply to a great number of households was contaminated, the water becoming putrid and very unpleasant to drink. In response, the Wuxi city government used their website to tell residents to come together and surmount the crisis, which they described as a “natural disaster.”
While it is crucial to help others in the face of a crisis, labelling the algae bloom a natural disaster was completely inaccurate. Taihu Lake has suffered from low water levels this year, and the weather has been hot – with little rain -- all of which will have contributed to the algae bloom. However, the local government announced that, “the water quality problem is in no way caused by manufacturing or any other human activity,” when in fact there were local factors causing the algae bloom. In particular: the serious eutrophication of Taihu Lake, caused by the great volume of pollutants discharged into the water.
The water in Taihu Lake has not always had this problem. The 1980s song “Beauty of Taihu Lake” shows how at that time the lake was rich in fish, and the area produced a lot of rice. “Green reeds at the water’s edge; rich in fish and shellfish at low tide; the lake water weaves through irrigation nets; the fragrance of fruit and rice floats around the lake.”
But after industry set up around the lake, large amounts of industrial waste and urban sewage were pumped into the water, and chemical fertilisers from agriculture ran into the lake, all contributing to the pollution, which has made the water only suitable for rinsing rice and vegetables. It has affected fish and shellfish stocks on an unprecedented scale, and damaged the bodies and minds of local residents.
Environmental pollution is not a natural disaster; it is created by humans’ unsustainable production processes and lifestyles. Cleaning up Wuxi’s drinking water will mean controlling eutrophication, which means reducing sewagedischarges into the lake. City officials in Wuxi need to recognise that water pollution is the source of the problem. Simply labelling it an “act of God” means the issue will not be resolved, and the situation may repeat itself.
We need to clean up Taihu Lake’s water pollution right now, but we should also reflect on the management of the lake. The end of 1998 marked a cut-off, when polluters were forced to meet a new set of standards. At midnight on January 1 1999, the Taihu Lake authorities made a big show of launching the “Midnight Action” campaign, announcing that more than a thousand highly polluting workplaces around the lake had reached the new standards on pollution. This announcement was supposed to herald a revival in the lake’s fortunes and set an example for others.
But there has been little in the way of good news about Taihu Lake’s water quality, despite over a billion yuan invested in managing the lake. In fact, a large amount of Yangtze River water was channelled into the lake to dilute the pollution, but the overall water pollution indicators remained high. Studies reveal that pollution from homes and lakeside industries continue on a large scale. Black, putrid river water still flows into the lake, and several years after the successes of ‘Midnight Action’ were announced, there are still a number of major polluting projects in the area, in places like Suzhou, Wuxi and Changzhou. Only now are we confronted with nature’s merciless revenge.
As the fetid bloom of blue-green algae continues, creating putrid drinking water and affecting people’s livelihoods, we should question our collective conscience. The regional environmental protection department recently announced that there were over 300 polluting businesses in the region, and many of them high-risk industries such as chemical engineering, printing and dyeing plants and pharmaceutical manufacturers (for more information see www.ipe.org.cn). Government departments need to decide whether they are only going to impose a fine on these polluting businesses, or genuinely supervise their behaviour and urge improvements.
Some of the businesses violating environmental laws in the region are quite small, but others are household names. These include Jun Yao Dairy Company, Chang Chai Company Ltd. and Zhengdan Company. There are also transnational companies polluting the lake, such as Xiapu Electron Components Company Ltd. in Wuxi or Samsung Electronics Company and City Elevator Company in Suzhou. These industries must now tell us if they have truly reformed, and if they can really guarantee the safety of the local environment.
It is not the first time that drinking water in the region took on a strange odour; and similar incidents have happened all over China. But the Wuxi incident clearly demonstrates a conflict between China’s development and environmental protection.
The Taihu Lake basin is right to want to catch up with the Pearl River Delta and become the world’s factory. But development should be established on the basis of ecological protection and environmental standards should be put into place. Otherwise the world’s factory will also end up creating the world’s rubbish tip and the world’s sewer.
We appeal to the environment protection department to strengthen monitoring and call on industry to bear responsibility for the environment. We also urge both government and industry to publicise information about water pollution, and allow residents who need clean water to take action and help monitor polluters in their own communities. Only when all parts of society take action can we stop pollution flowing into Taihu Lake and see the clear waters returned to their former splendour.
Ma Jun is director of the Institute of Public and Environment Affairs