Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Along the Zhangweixin River, in northern Shandong province, farmers are irrigating their fields with water from the ink-coloured river covered in thick globs of floating foam. They also drink it when their wells run dry. And people in Dezhou, where the river starts, eat the food from these fields.
AsiaNews begins today a series of articles focusing on water pollution in China, a problem that has been getting worse despite government policies. However, the authorities have tended to deal more with the consequences than with the causes of pollution, which now stands as the population’s first worry.
The Zhangweixin River, which begins in Dezhou, runs along the border between Hebei and Shandong, flowing into the Bohai Sea after a journey of 460 kilometres.
Upstream, the river is called the South Canal and is connected to the Hai River, which is the country's dirtiest river, with more than 80 per cent of its reaches heavily polluted.
The foam-covered black river runs by Sinusi village, choking, foul odour filling the air. Its 3,000 residents use the water in irrigation but crop yields are declining, but they fear drought more. They drink water from wells.
Some of the villages in area have wells hundreds of metres deep. But in Qingyun, 20 kilometres from Sinusi and famous for its red dates, wells are only about 25 metres.
The village's party chief, Yin Yugui, admits that here “the water has a bitter and sour taste,” but there is nothing else. Drilling deeper wells can take years and money is in short supply.
The deputy director of Dezhou's Environmental Protection Office, Cai Wenxiao, said that “pollution in the Zhangweixin River is mainly from other provinces upstream.”
Paper mills and chemical plants in Henan and Shanxi have been identified by the central government as the main polluters. Official statistics show that whilst less than 20 per cent of the river pollution was from Shandong, the central province of Henan contributed about 65 per cent of the pollutants.
During the first seven months of last year, Henan shut down 140 polluting enterprises and Shandong closed 15 factories. But many remain open like the Zhaodongfang paper company in Dezhou's Pingyuan Township which has been accused of illegally dumping large amounts of industrial waste water. It was not closed, Mr Cai said, because "the pollution it caused, though threatening public health, has not contaminated freshwater access". And no official “dares to report the company's pollution problems to higher-level government," he said.
Residents have complained to the local and central governments but have not achieved any results, not even some form of compensation. Many have even said that they were threatened by local officials.
Many of Dezhou’s half a million residents are unaware of the pollution. The government built several dams to keep this pollution away from the city channelling water from the Yellow River.
The city’s Mayor Wu Cuiyun sees many more tasks more urgent than cleaning up the rivers. Its gross domestic product ranks only 11th among the province's 17 cities and she wants to attract as much investment as possible.
Zhang Dexin, the head of Dezhou University's economics and management department said 75 per cent of the city's population worked in agriculture, but their output contributed only 4.4 per cent of its GDP last year.
He told the South China Morning Post that the “major problem in Dezhou today is the lack of big industries. We need large chemical plants and power plants to power up the economy and absorb rural labour. Some pollution can be tolerated. It's a common practice of local governments all over China, not just Dezhou.”
Shuigou village, which is found at the mouth of the river, was once famous for its great fish catches that gave locals an annual income of 8,000 yuan at a time when the national average was still in three digits. Now there is little fish and frequent red tides kill crabs and shrimp near the shore.
“Our hair began to fall out. Many got heart attacks. And more cancer patients have been reported in recent years,” said Wu Jianbang, the village's party secretary.
Complaining to the local and provincial governments or to the country's top environmental watchdog, the State Environmental Protection Administration, has proved useless. The river and the “ocean can never be restored,” he said (PB)