An armada of over 3,300 [update: 5,916] dead pigs drifted down the Huangpu river towards Shanghai over the weekend, prompting a major clean-up operation. Some of the animals are said to have frozen to death; some are apparently among the 20,000 casualties of a disease outbreak in upstream Zhejiang earlier this year, with porcine circovirus detected in the river water. The virus does not harm humans, and officials insist that the river, a major source of Shanghai’s drinking water, is as safe as ever. Many have reacted with scorn, however, in weibo posts, political cartoons and spoof film posters for Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning “Life of Pig“. But floating carcasses are not unheard of: ironically, their unusual numbers on this occasion may be the result of authorities’ success in keeping diseased meat out of the food supply. From Louise Watt and Didi Tang at the Associated Press:
Authorities have been pulling out the swollen and rotting pigs, some with their internal organs visible, since Friday — and revolting images of the carcasses in news reports and online blogs have raised public ire against local officials.
“Well, since there supposedly is no problem in drinking this water, please forward this message, if you agree, to ask Shanghai’s party secretary, mayor and water authority leaders if they will be the first ones to drink this meat soup?” lawyer Gan Yuanchun said on his verified microblog.
[…] “Ever since the police have stepped up efforts to crack down on the illicit market of sick pigs since last year, no one has come here to buy dead pigs, and the problem of pig dumping is worse than ever this year,” an unnamed villager told the Jiaxing Daily newspaper, which is run by the local Communist Party.
In Shanghai itself, farmers are compensated for proper disposal of carcasses, but no such incentives are in place upstream. In any case, Reuters’ Jane Lanhee Lee reported, at least some of the official disposal points around Jiaxing are already full:
At Bloomberg’s World View, Adam Minter examined the timing of the spectacle, which coincided with the 10th anniversary of the 2003 SARS outbreak:
Over the past several weeks, Chinese news outlets have been running features looking back on the mistakes made, lessons learned and steps taken during SARS outbreak. They call for increased monitoring, unspecified mechanisms for notifying the public and relevant public-health institutions, and greater transparency. Needless to say, whether it was the fault of farmers or public-health officials, none of those standards were met in the run-up to the dead-pig tide.
To be sure, this isn’t SARS, but for a global-health community dependent upon Chinese transparency in the event of another epidemic, official Chinese reticence, if not ignorance, about whatever and whoever led to thousands of virus-laden pig carcasses in Shanghai’s water supply is deeply worrying.
Following recent high-profile spills of industrial chemicals into China’s rivers, the plague of pigs highlights agricultural water pollution, whose scale actually exceeds that of industrial and other pollutants. From Lily Kuo at Quartz:
In fact, waste related to animals made up about 90 percent of organic pollutants in China’s water, according to Wang Dong of the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning. In a 2012 study from Huazhong University, waste from pigs, cattle, sheep, and other animals left 228,900 tonnes (252.6 tons) of biochemical oxygen demand, a standard measure for organic pollution, in part of the Han River in central China. Now, about 15 percent of China’s major rivers are too polluted for safe use, not just from local factories, but farmers who throw animal carcasses and waste into nearby streams.
[…] And the health consequences of this trend can be severe. For example, in 2011, a farm was found throwing duck excrement into a river in Henan province, giving thousands of people diarrhea.