“The whole of the river was an opaque, pale brown fluid,” wrote the scientist. He concluded it was a “fermenting sewer”.
The river in question was the Thames, under investigation 155 years ago by the scientist Michael Faraday. In 1858 the stench from the London river was so acute that it was named ‘the Great Stink’. That summer Britain’s parliament – situated within odour range at Westminster – took the decision to construct the world’s first modern sewage system.
Urbanisation has long been the major driver in river contamination and China’s rapid shift of population to towns and cities means that very few of its 1,500 rivers have been spared.
Pretty much every conceivable object has found its way into a Chinese waterway. Just last week, the Yangtze Evening News reported about a man named Liu who was fishing in Huai’an. He thought he’d caught a really big fish, but instead reeled in a motorbike.
But the big story to emerge this week came from Hebei province, where state news agency Xinhua reported that waste from two iron ore firms had been dumped into the Beiming River.
What made the story all the more newsworthy was that these firms were part of China Minmetals, a major state-owned metals and minerals trader (readers will recall it recently bought Australia’s OZ Minerals).
A firm of that stature knows the environmental rules – and is supposed to be under strict government diktat to obey them. The fact that the illegal discharge found its way into the river is a serious embarrassment for all concerned.
The pollutants in question are tailings, the materials left over from the iron ore extraction process. The ore operators had built a reservoir to contain them but was sued by a rival operator when it flooded. After the lawsuit, the Minmetal subsidiaries stopped using the reservoir, and dumped the tailings into the river instead.
Minmetal’s local manager, Zhang Wenxue says a deal was done with local villagers, paying $11,680 for the right to dump the waste into the river. An anonymous official quoted by the Economic Observer newspaper also stated that the local government knew what was going on “but were not able to control it because the ores are owned by a big state-owned enterprise.”
Such news won’t surprise the campaigner Greenpeace, which has recently been sampling water in the Pearl River – the waterway that runs through China’s biggest industrial area in Guangdong. Greenpeace claims that the country’s third longest river contains high levels of heavy metals linked to brain damage.
There are 70,000 factories around the Pearl. “Products made in the region that are exported worldwide are being manufactured at a high cost to the river,” says Edward Chan, campaign manager of Greenpeace China.
The report showed that samples taken near industrial sites contained 25 times the amount of beryllium permitted by local environmental protection regulations.
The Pearl is not alone. China Daily columnist Zhu Yuan wrote last month that 70% of Chinese rivers have been polluted – the environmental upshot of 30 years of breakneck industrialisation.
And according to a survey by the Guangzhou Public Opinion Research Centre almost 60% said rivers were “gravely polluted” and they’d only use bottled water.
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