09/06/2006, 00.00
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More than 312 million farmers have no drinking water

The water contains fluorine, arsenic, and other chemical substances, according to the Minister of Water Resources. Sugai, a small village flooded by the chemical waste of two mills, is a case in point.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The water available to 312 million Chinese farmers is contaminated by fluorine, arsenic, and other organic or industrial waste, the Minister of Water Resources, Wang Shucheng, said on 4 September. 

Wang said he planned to supply safe drinking water to 160 million farmers in the next five years and to all rural residents by 2015, with an investment of 40 billion yuan (around four billion euros) over 10 years. In areas polluted by chemical substances, purifying plants will be built.

Experts say the primary concern should be not to increase pollution. They point to a recent case in Sugai, a small village of 57 homes along the Yellow River in Inner Mongolia. On 10 April, it was swamped by a black, foul-smelling lake.

Near the village, there are two mills, the Saiwai Xinghuazhang Paper Company and the Meili Beichen Paper Company, which had been dumping sewage into the Yellow River for decades. When the practice was banned five years ago, the sewage was channeled instead into a drainage canal connected to the region's intricate irrigation and flood protection system. In June 2004, the commission that regulates the irrigation system poured more water in the canals and the mass of sewage ended up in the river: tens of thousands of fish perished and the city of Baotou in the valley was left for weeks without drinking water.

The media applauded the decisive intervention of the authorities: the two factories and those responsible for irrigation were condemned to pay 300,000 dollars to Baotou. The factories were ordered to shut down to install water recycling.

But local officials in Urad Qianqi – the plants come within this territory – merely built a temporary sewage containment pool. Li Wanzhong, director of the Inner Mongolia Environmental Protection Bureau, concluded that the pool was a "threat to the river" and ordered the closure of the factories. But no one shut them down.

A violent storm last April threatened to push sewage from the pool into the Yellow River. Local officials feared another spill into the river and broke the wall of the containment pool to divert the sewage into a strip of more than 4km beside the river, where several small villages, including Sugai, stood. No one warned the residents.

After more than three months, homes are still not habitable and large wells of sewage have stagnated in what were once fertile cultivated fields. Village residents no longer have a home, they cannot cultivate their fields and they have itchy skin rashes on their legs.

Urad Qianqi's Communist Party secretary, Jia Yingxiang, said installing the required anti-pollution plants was "too expensive" and "factories were allowed to reopen because so many local workers were dependent on them".

A government report after the April spill said the pools had been built on a tight budget and to save money, their walls were not high enough.

For years, the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) has complained that local environmental protection officials are directly accountable to local officials, who frequently do not follow Beijing's instructions and who have interests in protecting polluting industries, either to promote economic development or because they are corrupt.

Zhang Lijun, SEPA deputy director, said: "We have heard people protest many times, saying: dirty officials, dirty water." In April, a SEPA survey ascertained that 80% of 7,555 of the most polluting factories stood on river banks or lakes, or in thickly populated areas.

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