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Disaster in Taihu Lake

Ma Jun

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A fetid bloom of blue-green algae recently threatened the water supply for city residents near China's third-largest lake. But this was not a natural disaster, says Ma Jun, and local polluters must be held to account.
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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 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

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Totally agree!

Where is the hero in environmental protection who firstly exposed the pollution in Taihu Lake? Should the government release him from the prison?



i can believe that.

arrest the people who made the pollution ASAP.



My opinion

I agree with the views of this article.Water pollution in China is very serious.Our government,some departments and us should try together for pollution control in Taihu Lake.



Nature as scapegoat

Climate change has become an excuse for many local officials. Every time something happens, they blame it squarely on global warming, absolved of all responsibility, as if it has nothing to do with the actions of governments and corporations. This is what's happened with the drought in Chongqing. It's putting the cart before the horse.




Man's social development has led to a prominent problem -- the environment. Protecting the environment and sustainable development are now part of national strategy. It should be a basic human right and serve as a foundation to environmental legislation. Some nations have already enacted the right of residents to public environment into law and are protecting that right. Although China has environmental laws and protective measures, there is no legislation to recognize residents' rights to the environment. Under the current legal framework, residents are not accorded proper compensation, even in cases where compensation is given, it is far from enough to make up for the losses incurred, it is also ad hoc and hobbled by "rule by man" realities. This article is a systematic analysis of the concept of "right to environment", explores the acts that infringe on such rights and methods of redress, it is likely to aid China's residents in seeking legal redress from breaches of their environmental rights.



Cut pollution, treat pollution

Protect Taihu lake's waters, preserve the lake's beauty!



Must take action!

A healthy lake ecosystem should look clear and transparent, diverse in aquatic plants; this is what we called as clear condition. However, once catastrophe occurs, it will cause algae bloom, the water condition become cloudy, which is the clouding condition. Both of these conditions are stable, if to reverse the clouding condition, by reducing the nutritive salt to the lowest level and rebuilt aquatic plants, it will takes a long period, Taihu has been under such clouding situation, which has yet effectively reduce the concentration of nutritive salt to the lowest level. For instance, in 1947 the occurrence of algae bloom at Lake Apopka in America, in which government also participate to carry out the study, it has been taken 40 years long, however, the actual engineering work to control the situation just happened in recent 20 years.Within these 60 years, although huge funding has been allocated by government to tackle the issue, eventually the water quality has been improved; but the rebuilt aquatic plant can only survive by the littoral. It is still lots of efforts in order to fully recover the condition. Nowadays, Taihu has followed the path of Lake Apopka. Never too old to learn, never too late to turn. Hope that the local government would take effective action for remedy, return Taihu a clear environment, to avoid next generation continuously living in situation overflowed by blue-algae.



所以问题关键在于, GDP作为考核政府官员业绩的主要指标。事实证明在我国这样政府行为的国家,真是贻害无穷。

The root cause of problem is GDP evaluation of officials

Environmental officials from Taihu Lake district said, at those economic development area, foreign companies do not just benefit from economic policies, and also enjoy inequality in term of competition. Those medium sized companies are paying for charges for disposing pollutants even though they have yet to meet the pollution targets that have been set, however, foreign companies can be excused or paying less on these charges. It is due to foreign companies is the focal point in attracting investment funds. In addition, they will also resolve the local employment issue and encourage economic growth. I say: Are they needed for current benefits at the expense of destroying our homes? The counterpart says: If you don’t grant any preferences and the city nearby offer more favourable conditions, they would definitely win the investment funds. God! In fact, it’s never short of funding and economic growth in this area is always stable, is it worth to work so hard to attract more investment funds? The counterpart says: More investment fund will enhance the economic growth, and increase GDP; this will also reflect leaders’ achievement. I question: Isn’t it destroying the homes of common people and interests of their next generation? They answer: They don’t care and pollution will never cause any impact to them. As such, the crucial point is, GDP is set as the standard to evaluate achievement of government officials. The reality proves that, in a country with a political system like that of China, it will leave as a legacy of trouble.




not retorsion but warning

I post a comment yesterday, but the webmaster didn't approve it. What I want to say is that I want to tell Mr. Ma Jun nature gives us only a warning, not a severe retorsion. Li Rusi



Even Worse Disasters to Come

If China does not change the perception for the relationship between the environment and its economic growth, maybe in less than 20 years, the country will run into a natural catastrophe, from when more disasters will be expected. Sincerely hope that the Taihu Lake Incident can prompt us to carry out a continuing discussion nationwide. It is such a pity that our generation does not care about the children’s future at all.

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