The history of Chinese civilisation has been, to a large extent, a story of gaining control of the country’s erratic water supply.
Drought and deluge have plagued the nation for millennia, and rulers have risen and fallen on their ability to protect their people from these two scourges.
Now, China’s leaders are having to confront a new hydrological challenge, this time, one of their own making.
China’s rivers, lakes and aquifers are hideously polluted as result of three and half decades of rapid economic growth. Unsurprisingly, Chinese citizens are increasingly unhappy about it.
This month a scandal involving the pumping of industrial wastewater back into the ground in Weifang, a city in Shandong province, got huge coverage online and in the media, and led to a wider debate about the state of China’s water supply – in particular the poor health of the country’s aquifers.
Ground water is traditionally thought of as clean because it is filtered by the rock and soil that surrounds it.
But over-pumping and the practice of filling underground reserves with dirty water now means that some 90 % of China’s ground water is contaminated, says China’s Geological Survey.
In addition some 40% of the water in the country’s rivers and lakes is also classified as “unfit for human contact” according to 2011 data from the environment ministry.
“This is proof that we mutilated our environment for GDP,” wrote one Sina Weibo user
Another netizen called on the government to “slow down and wait for morality to catch up”.
Chinese citizens have been emboldened to comment on environmental issues by the success of a campaign last year to force the government to publish data on air quality in cities across the country. The recent hazardous smogs in cities like Beijing (see WiC178) have also made people more vocal.
In response to the Weifang story the social activist Deng Fei asked people to take photos of the rivers in their hometown when they went home for Chinese New Year.
Hundreds posted images –many of them showing waterways choked with garbage or thick with effluent – and thousands more tweeted in support of the campaign.
Some blamed the polluted water in their region for a high incidence of cancer in their communities, a phenomenon known as ‘cancer villages’ that the government finally acknowledged this month.
“Today I cried when I saw the ground water pollution campaign you launched, I left my hometown at a young age and work in Shanghai, my family still live at the junction of Weifang and Pingdu. Now almost every family can tell you a sad cancer story. My sister’s mother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer last year, her father-in-law had already died. I thank you very much on behalf of all the people who still live there,” one weibo user named Chunling wrote.
Others took Deng’s campaign forward by challenging local environment officials to take a dip in the rivers they are responsible for. To sweeten the deal – and presumably to imply that the officials are corrupt – they offered cash incentives of up to Rmb200,000 to go for a swim.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, no one accepted (in contrast, former leader Mao Zedong was extremely keen on being photographed swimming in Chinese rivers).
But perhaps the real reason that such active discussion is being allowed is that the government has finally got round to doing something about water pollution. A Reuters article detailed how Beijing plans to invest $850 billion in cleaning up China’s waterways over the next decade. The admission that ‘cancer villages’ exist, came when the government published its first ever five-year-plan for the environmental management of chemicals on February 20.
“We should declare war on groundwater pollution without delay,” announced the People’s Daily. It suggested that officials should be held responsible if companies openly flouted environmental laws.
“Only, when the rule of law is a yardstick as hard as steel, will we have a real blue sky, green land, clean water and a beautiful China,” it wrote.
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