Business as usual is not an option
Beijing maintains all manner of statistics on economic and social indicators, but when it comes to industrial pollution, it is strangely silent. The facts and figures that are so abundant and readily available about development and growth are nowhere to be found for the number of people stricken by lead, cadmium or arsenic poisoning, the toxicity levels of water in rivers and lakes, and where the heavy metals came from or the area of land made unusable. All that is on hand is anecdotal evidence given by the few people brave enough to speak out, scattered localised reports from environmental groups and campaigners and the evidence of factories pouring waste into waterways that are discoloured, putrid and lifeless. This is despite the government having pledged better enforcement and tough rules.
There are heartbreaking and frightening cases. Our Sunday magazine recently told of Yi Xiaomao and Liu Guian, whose young daughter, Bingjie, was among dozens of people in Xinma village of Hunan province thought to have died as a result of toxic waste being dumped on their land by a private electroplating manufacturer. Villagers have been made compensation promises by authorities and told to keep quiet about their ordeal, but the few agitating for justice tell of collusion between local officials, the factory owner and hired thugs. Such stories are similar to the dozens of other incidents of heavy metal poisoning that have come to light over the past few years.
Authorities have vowed changes. Worrying about unrest over pollution and compensation claims, they have shut factories, rounded up suspects, handed out payments, set targets and ordered limits. Environmental Protection Vice-Minister Li Ginjie said last month improved rules for heavy metal pollution were being accelerated and new projects in affected areas would be halted. The State Council in February approved measures to reduce emissions in critical areas by 15 per cent compared with 2007 levels within four years.
These are necessary steps, but there are no specifics. Without knowing what the 2007 levels were, it is impossible to gauge the targets. As our reporter witnessed, textile factories in the Guangdong towns of Gurao and Xintang continue to pour chemical brews into rivers. Despite the rhetoric, local officials would still seem to be putting economic growth targets ahead of environmental and health concerns.
Business as usual cannot be an option. Excessive levels of heavy metals are present in some mainland-grown vegetables and rice. Lives, especially those of children, remain at risk. Improving enforcement of rules, dramatically raising penalties and resolving the conflict between local government and public interest are priorities. Most basically, though, authorities have to improve transparency and media scrutiny so that the problem is better understood by all people.