Can China possibly deal effectively with a crisis of such staggering dimensions? People have very little to lose when they have no water to drink.

Tired and frustrated, Wang Guoxiang and other Xiangtan city officials were slurping a midnight snack of instant noodles last Friday when the anti-pollution chief for Hunan province walked into their crisis room. Immediately, Wang said, he stopped eating and shouted at the visitor.

At the top of his voice, he insisted that something be done to stop the discharge of poisonous metals that had begun three days earlier into the slow, meandering Xiang River, from which Xiangtan, 800 miles south of Beijing, draws its drinking water. As a people’s delegate, Wang recalled complaining to the environmental official, he and his allies had been fighting for months for more controls on upstream smelters but had found little support from the provincial authorities.

Workers take water samples from a smelter for testing after a cadmium spill last week in the Xiang River contaminated drinking water supplies in the downstream city of Xiangtan, 800 miles south of Beijing.

“You guys pay no attention to the safety of drinking water for our Xiangtan people. If you can’t solve the problem this time, your position is in danger,” Wang said he told the anti-pollution chief, Jiang Yimin. “And I wasn’t kidding,” he added.

The late-night confrontation in Xiangtan, a sprawling city of 500,000, was a telling episode in China’s latest pollution drama: the accidental release into the Xiang River of heavy doses of cadmium, a likely carcinogen, by a state-owned smelter in an industrial park about 25 miles upstream.

The fouling of the Xiang River attracted wide attention, but it was far from unique as China struggles to reconcile breakneck economic growth with protection of the environment. After more than two decades of swift industrialization, a recent government report found that up to 70 percent of the country’s rivers and lakes are seriously polluted.

Staggering. 70 percent of the water, unpotable, poisonous. Great article, and there’s a money quote:

The controlled press, meanwhile, published official assurances that drinking water was safe because of the emergency chemical treatment by Xiangtan’s water distribution system. Nevertheless, the news reports said, the river water still contained unhealthy amounts of cadmium.

The water is safe to drink. There is no SARS in Beijing.

You can fool some of the people some of the time….

The Discussion: 6 Comments

It’s just not going to work. China will not be able to solve these problems with it’s current system. In stable, developed countries, the people react to and influence policy. Here in China, every word of opposition is a “threat to stability”, and thusly condemed or even punished. China is going to eat itself alive in the next 50 years.

January 12, 2006 @ 8:04 am | Comment

I think there are voices and attempts from the top-down bureaucratically to stablize the problems, because environmental proection/degradation is only common sense. Nevertheless, these are locally pervasive problems that stagger (industrial pollutions happen at the regional and local levels, and a lot of times, non-point sources). Locally, corruption, lack of trained professionals and awarness all contributed to the worsening crisis.

January 12, 2006 @ 2:27 pm | Comment

I agree it won’t work because the regime is currently at war with its own people- by taking their land and giving it to any odious company that comes along, they have to deal with the people in a heartless manner. There can be nothing proactive or progressive while such a situation exists.
Nothing in this article is new; the World Bank actually said that 75% of China’s water is unfit- for drinking , for fishing in, for bathing. It’s much worse. By problem with this comment is that it’s rather nebulous. Hearing water contains carcinogs is bad because it COULD later on down the line do stuff to people. You should rfer people to that Stephen Voss photo assignment to show people “Here. This is ONE village. This is happening now.” This would shock them…

January 12, 2006 @ 3:07 pm | Comment

it’s a problem about system, not much about awareness of enviroment. don’t expect mainland will make a huge progess on the environmental protection. when we would pay the price for our ignorance on environment is only a matter of time.

January 12, 2006 @ 11:37 pm | Comment

I’ve heard something else that I find very scary in relation to this.

Apparently, a large quantity of the pollution created by recent accidents has been trapped in snow and ice, and when it thaws, it could pottential be released back into the environment.

Of course, since snow melt supplies a lot of people with drinking and irrigation water, and becasue run off occours over a long period, Chinese could be expossed to these pollutants for soe time to come.

January 14, 2006 @ 5:22 am | Comment

hey i love chinese food it the bomb digidy!!!!! go food!!! you should try american food its good to!!!

May 15, 2006 @ 7:51 am | Comment

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.