PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 August, 2006, 12:00am

ON A CLEAR day, the mountains of Fujian are easily seen from Nangan, one of several islands that make up Taiwan's Lienchiang county. But at other times, the more noticeable feature is a dark trail of rubbish that washes from the mainland across the strait and on to its shores.

'The problem is most serious after the first typhoon of each year,' says Chen Hsiu-hua, director of Lienchiang County Environmental Protection Bureau. 'There's always some rubbish floating over, and there's always more after a typhoon, but the first typhoon of the year brings real trouble for us.'

Ports become so choked with floating refuse that maritime traffic is hindered and workers have to be despatched to clear sea lanes.

'People would have to stop what they're doing to spend one or two days cleaning up trash,' says the bureau's deputy director Chen Wei-hong. Increasingly, he says, local authorities are having to turn to military personnel stationed on Matsu for help. And in a county known for the beauty of its coastline, beaches are being spoiled for tourism, a mainstay of the local economy.

'You can never throw anything away; you can only throw it somewhere else. We residents of Matsu understand this very clearly,' says Chen Hsiu-hua. 'Everything the people in Fujian throw away ends up on our beaches.'

Lienchiang is part of the Matsu group of islands lying as close as 19km off Fujian's Min River estuary, about 210km northwest of the Taiwanese port of Keelung. Until a decade ago, Matsu was better known as a Taiwanese defence outpost, but that changed when most of the military moved out in 1994 and the area was opened to tourists. Parts of the archipelago were designated a scenic area, attracting visitors with its varied bird life, abundant wildflowers and fishing, as well as traditional buildings.

Although the rubbish problem isn't new, it has worsened in recent years with rapid development on the mainland.

'[The refuse] is noticeably more than it used to be,' Chen says. The amount is hard to quantify, but in the past, 'it wasn't so bad that you thought of photographing it,' he says. 'It wasn't preventing boats from getting in the harbour.'

The deteriorating situation prompted Chen and his colleagues to visit the Fujian provincial capital, Fuzhou, in June, urging the authorities to raise environmental awareness among coastal residents and post warnings of penalties for illegal dumping.

'In English, the saying is 'out of sight, out of mind' and that's true in this case,' Chen says. 'By approaching mainland authorities and reminding them of this problem, we're taking the first step towards fixing it.'

However, the rubbish problem starts in the heart of Fujian. Refuse dumped in the Min River watershed is quickly flushed downstream and out to the islands of Matsu at the river mouth. Chen is cautiously optimistic about the response from Fujian, but says it would be more effective to change attitudes towards dumping than to strengthen laws.

'They [mainland officials] are eager to adopt clean energy - and everyone is upset about industrial waste polluting their rivers - but they don't think as much about solid waste,' he says.

Matsu's sanitation workers are kept busy year-round, picking up the accumulated rubbish on beaches. There is plenty of wood and natural debris, but their frequent clean-ups also gather growing quantities of everything from snack packaging and used syringes to animal carcasses and the occasional corpse. Some of the material is burned on the spot, and the remainder either recycled or shipped to Taiwan for incineration.

Shen Mei-jun is among the workers clearing up a stretch of coast near Tienho Temple on Nangan Island. Wielding a broom, she sweeps the debris into heaps for easy gathering. The piles aren't large today, but Shen says in recent months there has been far more rubbish than she has been able to handle. Even so, she perseveres. 'This beach is special because it's Matsu's beach,' she says, referring to the goddess of the sea after whom the archipelago is named.

Many residents volunteer for the clean-up drives organised by local officials, some out of a similar devotion to Matsu (known to the Cantonese as Tin Hau), and others out of necessity.

Chen Mei-ju, the owner of the Qinbi Resort on Beigan Island, is aware of the cost of environmental neglect. Business at her seaside bed-and-breakfast would be choked if the rubbish were left to rot on the nearby beach, she says.

'My business relies on word-of-mouth, and if people hear the beach is filled with garbage, they won't want to come,' she says. 'Matsu's economy is fishing and tourism and they're both badly affected by the problem. When the trash comes, we all go out to clean it up. Our livelihoods depend on it.'

Matsu isn't the only community suffering as a result of the mainland's rubbish-clogged and polluted rivers. A recent study of refuse collected on South Korean shores found that 34.2 per cent came from abroad, the mainland being the biggest contributor, followed by Taiwan.

But the people worst hit are mainland communities, says Wen Bo, China programme director of the San Francisco-based green group Pacific Environment, who blames the environmental woes partly on the bureaucracy.

'River conservation, management of water resources, environmental pollution; all these problems are handled by different ministries and bureaus,' he says. 'The Ministry of Water Resources' main task is how to use water, not protecting it. The State Environmental Protection Administration [Sepa] is charged with keeping pollution out of the water, but has no authority over river basins. Sepa does deal with polluting factories, but only through fines. It's more like a tax bureau; businesses pay to be able to dump their waste.'

The mainland's introduction of rubbish-burning power plants as a partial solution to energy needs and waste-disposal problems is aggravating environment woes, Wen says.

'There are better alternatives,' he says. 'What they're doing with incineration in South Korea is more advanced, but the Chinese are using dated technologies. Local governments buy technologies that are being abandoned by other countries, even outlawed. What they're purchasing is not cutting-edge.' However, many such power plants have been set up since the first was built in Shenzhen in 1992.

'It creates the wrong mindset,' Wen says. 'People think that trash can be used to create energy so there's no need to conserve or recycle.'

Wen says the long-term solution is to raise environmental awareness on the mainland about proper rubbish disposal and keep what may be out of people's sight still in their minds. 'Right now, the attitude is, 'If [trash] is not in my territory then my territory is clean',' he says. 'We've got to let people know they live in a larger ecosystem.'

Citing the example of Xiamen, Jennifer Turner, a co-ordinator with the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington, DC, says official attitudes may be changing. Kinmen Island, which lies across from the city, gets a mere fraction of the floating rubbish that Matsu gets from Fuzhou.

'Xiamen University has a lot of folks working on integrated coastal management issues,' she says. 'I was struck by how sharp the local government seemed on environmental issues ... It may be the one city that is not doing such dumping.'

Wen, however, suggests Xiamen's comparative cleanliness is illusory.

'As with Dalian, just as they pump their human waste into the deep sea, they pump solid waste, too,' he says. 'The coastal areas are clean, but when you examine the marine environment, it's not healthy. They have a very serious red tide problem.'

And until the mainland solves its growing waste-disposal woes, people such as Shen deal with the fallout. While the environmental bureau worker is happy to help restore her island to its natural beauty, she's depressed by the thought of growing piles of rubbish to come.

'I'll pray to Matsu that we can make the sea clean again,' she says.