(March 27, 2013) Pollution is once again a dire concern in the wake of China’s formal acknowledgement last month of cancer hotspots, known as “cancer villages,” long speculated to be caused by drinking and irrigation water contaminated by industrial chemicals and heavy metals. More recently, unmanageable garbage sites have posed a threat to Beijing’s drinking water supply. As China’s new leadership moves to clean up the country, citizens still lack access to information that would help them help both their health and their environment but that’s not stopping them from Twittering towards change.
Probe International Roundup – China’s Cancer Villages
In their five-year plan, “Guard against and control risks presented by chemicals to the environment during the 12th Five-Year period (2011-2015),” released last month, China’s environment ministry admitted for the first time to the existence of “cancer villages”* – places with significantly higher rates of cancer compared to the national average – that are commonly associated with pollution, such as the mass production and use of toxic chemicals banned by developed countries and the unchecked, as well as accidental release of hazardous chemicals and heavy metals into public waterways.
According to the BBC, the report acknowledges that such chemicals could pose a long-term risk to human health, making a direct link to the so-called “cancer villages”:
“There are even some serious cases of health and social problems like the emergence of cancer villages in individual regions,” it said.
Although, the ministry’s plan to blacklist 58 chemicals and produce a chemical elimination list by 2015 is a positive step in a long overdue direction, citizens directly affected by contamination need more transparency from authorities in battling the pollution that threatens their lives.
Yixiu Wu, a Greenpeace East Asia campaigner, told The New Scientist, that the five-year plan lacked accountability:
“It is still a question whether the government is willing to release all the information about the factory locations and their environmental risk,” she says. “It is very important for people who are living nearby.”
For Beijingers meanwhile, drinking water sources are under threat from out-of-control garbage dumps.
Last month, Beijing authorities ordered the removal of garbage dumped at an illegal landfill near the Miyun Reservoir, Beijing’s largest surface and drinking water resource, after it was exposed via social media.
One villager, Ai Min (a pseudonym), told the Global Times the dump had been in use for three years and that many villagers in his area, 500 metres away, had been diagnosed with cancer during that time.
“It was construction trash, but later on all the household garbage from Bulaotun township was transported here. It smells awful and there are birds searching for food in the site,” said Ai.
Ai alleged that many villagers had contracted cancer since the trash dumping started …
“In 2011, more than 30 people died and in 2012, more than 40 people died. They were both old and young people who died of diseases like lung and liver cancer,” said Ai.
Zhang Junfeng, founder of NGO Happy Water Journeys, told the Global Times that seeping pollutants from trash into shallow wells less than 60 metres deep represented a health problem:
“If the trash has many metal elements like those from batteries, people are likely to get poisoned and have cancer. The severe influence can be seen within five years,” he said.
Zhang stressed that the Beijing government should take responsibility to protect Miyun’s water quality by giving money to local citizens to collect their trash and deal with it properly.
Last week, another garbage mountain in Henan province was highlighted as a pollution menace to a reservoir that provides drinking water for more than 20 million Beijing residents. The South China Morning Post (SCMP) writes:
Xinglong county began depositing rubbish in Qingsongling rubbish dump in 1989. Once a 50-metre deep valley, the rubbish dump was completely full when it was closed in 2009. The rubbish mountain now occupies an area of 23,000 square metres.
When heavy rains hit, floods carry refuse along a small river to the Yangzhuang reservoir, which flows into Jinhai Lake, one of Beijing’s major sources of drinking water, SCMP reports. It further notes that a dam built next to the former dump site, aimed at preventing rain from washing garbage into the lake’s lower reaches has been “absolutely useless,” residents of nearby Longwo village told reporters.
With new alarms raised on China’s sorry waterways and skylines almost daily, the country’s legion of social media users have kept track with an urgent and unrestrained reportage that has culminated in the most direct action China has ever mustered to address its environmental woes; rallying an unprecedented strength in numbers that has seen hazardous projects brought to a halt and progress on legislative reform, as well as setting a rocket under political leaders. The daily telegraphing of the country’s pollution plight over China’s social media is forcing transparency on a government long-obsessed with social control.
Unusually frank open media coverage earlier this year of Beijing’s “airpocalypse” – when air pollution reached suffocating proportions in January – has been attributed in no small part to the power of the public forum. Asking why, in this instance, the Chinese government permitted such candor, The Atlantic writes:
Social media plays a role. Prominent Beijing real estate developer Pan Shiyi regularly tweets information about pollution to his several million followers on Sina’s Weibo, and the flurry of similar comments by more ordinary users has brought the pollution issue into the open. At a basic level, the government understands that once an issue hits critical mass, there’s little point in perpetuating the myth any further.
Also, unlike other issues which threaten the Chinese government’s hold on power, environmental concerns do not discriminate by class or income level. While many of Beijing’s citizens may not pay attention to esoteric political issues, the Communist Party surely believes that pollution has the potential to unite a large number of people against its governance.
* Already in use, the term “cancer villages” gained prominence when a journalist plotted 40 of them on a Google map in 2009. A number of media sources have suggested that number might run to 450 such cancer clusters across China.