Guangxi River Pollution Highlights Broader Issues

Xinhua reports that five officials in Guangxi have been suspended over heavy metal contamination in the Hejiang river. The owner of one processing plant has also been detained, but as Businessweek’s Christina Larson explained, the problem appears to be much broader:

More than 100 small mines had been operating illegally along one branch of the Hejiang River in China’s poor Guangxi province. Recent heavy rains swept unsecured industrial waste from the mining sites, then dumped the dangerous slag laced with cadmium and thallium into the river, which supplies drinking water to downstream residents. “About 110 km of the river is polluted now,” Xu Zhencheng, vice-director of the South China Institute of Environmental Sciences and leader of a pollution task force appointed by the local government told the China Daily newspaper on Monday. Both cadmium and thallium are known carcinogens. Over the weekend, the local government closed 112 nearby illegal mines.

Guangxi, one of China’s poorest provinces, has a longstanding problem with illegal mines, due to both spotty regulatory oversight and limited economic alternatives. Meanwhile, rivers flowing through Guangxi feed into the Pearl River Delta watershed in wealthy Guangdong province, Guangxi’s richer southern neighbor. [Source]

Southern Metropolis Daily reported that the problem only came to light when fish started dying in large numbers:

Since July 1, fish died off in the Hejiang River and initially, the Hezhou environmental protection bureau did not find any problems with the water. Fish then died in large amounts in the Hemianshi section of the river on July 5. The city environmental authority conducted a second round of examinations and again didn’t find anything wrong because, according to the Hezhou government, “of its limited detection means”.

As more and more fish died, the Hezhou government reported the case to the Guangxi environmental protection bureau. From then on the authorities began a serious assessment of the problem.

Ideally, the Hezhou environmental protection bureau should have discovered the pollution with their first water examination. It is irresponsible for the city government to support the local environmental watchdog’s excuse that it had “limited detection means”, because the city-level environmental watchdogs are mainly responsible for detecting heavy metal pollution. [Source]

The Hejiang is not the only recent case of industrial water pollution to emerge. Last weekend, as Shanghai Daily’s Xu Chi reported, state broadcaster CCTV exposed the use of secret pipelines to dump waste directly into Hangzhou Bay:

China’s Environmental Protection Bureau last year found that more than 90 percent of the water in the bay is now at the country’s worst quality level.

More than 200 chemical factories, including those in Shanghai Chemical Industry Park, are along the bay, an inlet of the East China Sea and surrounded by Shanghai and Zhejiang Province.

Fishermen living around the bay in Shanghai’s Fengxian District told CCTV they only can catch some small fish now even after spending five hours in the morning out at sea.

[…] “Many fishermen have quit their jobs as they can no longer catch big fish in the sea,” a fishing village resident told CCTV. [Source]

Industrial pollution places further strain on China’s already precarious water supplies, even as the demands on them increase. At chinadialogue this week, HSBC’s Wai-Shin Chan highlighted the unsustainable water intensity of the coal mining and power generation that drive the country’s economy. At The Guardian, John Vidal relayed warnings that in China, as elsewhere, tens of millions are living off grain irrigated by overpumping aquifers. “The water table under the North China Plain, an area that produces more than half of the country’s wheat and a third of its maize is falling fast,” wrote the Earth Policy Institute’s Lester Brown, quoted by Vidal. “Overpumping has largely depleted the shallow aquifer, forcing well drillers to turn to the region’s deep aquifer, which is not replenishable.”

Naturally, therefore, Beijing is keen to explore ways of wringing more use out of scarce resources. Chan noted a number of potential water efficiency gains in the coal industry at chinadialogue, while at PRI’s The World, Mary Kay Magistad described an irrigation system that promises to use 70% less water than conventional surface irrigation.

This system was dubbed ‘trace irrigation,’ by its inventor, Beijing native and businessman Zhu Jun.

“I found if I put the chopsticks in water, and took them out, there was a little water going up between the chopsticks,” he says. “And if I held the chopsticks higher, the water goes higher. And I realized, that’s actually the capillary force that I learned in the textbooks in primary school. And maybe that is a good way for irrigation.”

[…] Beijing’s municipal Science & Technology Commission, and its Municipal Agriculture Commission started doing their own trace irrigation trials six years ago, liked the results, and invested. The city of Wuhan has offered him land to build a factory, and the government of Xinjiang – one of China’s driest regions – is now growing test crops. If all goes well, they plan to use the system on a larger scale next year. Saving half the water, without a fussy system that needs electrical power and lots of human supervision, would be a godsend for growing crops in the desert. [Source]