China Pollution

Blighted village raises fears about south-north water scheme

Kelly Haggart and Mu Lan
January 29, 2006

A cancer cluster that has been linked to water pollution in a village downstream of the Danjiangkou dam in Hubei province highlights the human misery caused by China’s poisoned rivers.

Collecting water samples near Zhaiwan

It also raises fears that the south-north water transfer project, which will divert river water from central China to major cities in the arid north, will worsen the pollution and related health risks in villages such as Zhaiwan. The blighted village of 3,400 people is situated about 100 kilometres below the Danjiangkou dam on the Han River, a major Yangtze tributary. Zhaiwan’s Party secretary, Zhai Zhanhong, says that more than 80 villagers have died of various cancers since 1999. He himself has lost four family members to cancer. Dr. Lin Fengrong of the Hubei Provincial Disease Prevention and Control Centre in Wuhan, who has found elevated levels of arsenic in samples of Zhaiwan’s drinking water, estimates the cancer death toll at 130 in the past decade. But, she says, establishing the true extent of the problem would require a major epidemiological study costing tens of thousands of dollars.

Hospital director Chen Huanchao

Though they may lack the scientific data to bolster their case, the villagers, and experts such as Dr. Lin, believe the cancers in Zhaiwan are linked to the contaminated water in the Han River and in village wells. Another prominent doctor, Chen Huanchao, director of the Hubei Cancer Hospital in Wuhan, told the official Xinhua news agency [Aug. 21, 2005] that he is convinced of the connection between Zhaiwan’s tainted water and its high cancer rate. Yun Jianli, the 61-year-old founder of a local environmental group called Green Han River, has spearheaded a river-cleanup campaign. In the course of their investigations, volunteers with her group found tributaries in the Han valley, the Diao and Li rivers, to be so severely polluted that the foul-smelling water was the colour of soy sauce. Factories along the local rivers pour out effluent containing chemicals known to be harmful to human health. The village of Mazhuang on the Li River, for example, has eight paper mills, which produce toilet paper by means of primitive manufacturing processes. And to avoid detection by environmental inspectors, the factories are usually closed during the day – but going full blast at night, when they can discharge untreated wastewater under cover of darkness. Tests conducted in April last year by environmental officials from nearby Xiangfan city found a number of toxic substances in Zhaiwan’s drinking water, including chromium and benzene – the same carcinogen that poisoned the Harbin water supply after a factory explosion in November caused a major leak into the Songhua River in northeast China. Zhou Shengxian, the new director of the State Environmental Protection Administration, told a press conference earlier this week [Jan. 24] that a government survey conducted in the wake of the Songhua disaster found that more than 100 riverside chemical factories pose a serious threat to the nation’s drinking water. Mr. Zhou said that many of the plants had been built in inappropriate locations, without environmental impact assessments, and that information on the dangerous facilities would be published some time after the lunar New Year, which begins on Jan. 29. It is not known whether any of the factories degrading the rivers in the Zhaiwan area appear on this list.

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