The acid test

America may have toxic assets. China has toxic water

The acid test

In short supply: safe water and confidence among locals

A drought in eight provinces was bad enough (see WiC3), but a manmade water disaster in Jiangsu province is now grabbing the headlines too. Residents of the coastal city of Yancheng were left waterless last weekend when a toxic chemical spill polluted the water supply.

About 200,000 residents were without tap water for a day, and local people have been reluctant to switch back from bottled water, even when the authorities got the water supply flowing again. Claims that tap water was now safe were largely ignored by a sceptical public.

According to the China Daily, the culprit was Biaoxin Chemical Company, which had discharged carbolic acid into the city’s water supply. In the wake of the disaster, Biaoxin’s factory has been shut down.

Qin Boqiang, a researcher at the Nanjing Institute of Geography and Linology says more accidents are likely if high risk chemical plants continue to be built on the upper reaches of an urban water source. In fact, Yancheng, a city of 1.5 million, has five chemical plants within 12km of its waterworks.

A local farmer says that in the eight years since the factory opened, fish stocks have disappeared from the river.

According to the China Business News, this is also not the first time that the Biaoxin Chemical Company has transgressed. It has been fined before for previous incidents. The newspaper comments: “The fact that such an enterprise has been punished and still ignores relevant laws and regulations, reflects on the one hand that the enterprise’s managers lack legal awareness, as well as an awareness of their social responsibility, and on the other hand that the local environmental protection departments and other institutions are still careless in doing their job.”

The same theme is pursued by the People’s Daily (the ruling party’s official Chinese language newspaper). It writes on its website: “Several chemical enterprises emphasise economic gain instead of environmental protection and would readily sacrifice the environment for profits. They pay no attention to the living standards of civilians. Do they have social morality, or do they only think about profit-making and forget about others’ lives?”

Some local government officials, it adds, exacerbate the problem by turning a blind eye to polluters – so long as these companies contribute to economic growth. “In some places the officials forget that they are the servants of the people but become the ‘indirect killers’ of the environment by blindly chasing revenues and economic growth.”

Unfortunately, this is not the first spill (and probably not the last). In November 2005 the nine million residents of Harbin were deprived of safe water for an extended period by an 80km chemical slick.

But China Business News see one (faint) silver-lining in the handling of the disaster. It applauds the local government for activating its emergency response plan quickly, and preventing community panic.

It also comments on a greater openness in communication between the government and the media – a departure from other incidents in which information has been slow to emerge; “Compared with the practice of hiding or delaying reports – as practiced by some local governments in previous disasters – the government of Yancheng has done quite a good job in handling the crisis.”

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