Wrong side of the river

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 February, 2012, 12:00am


Hechi villager Lu Yu feels frustrated and angry that his forgotten village on the right bank of a tributary of the Pearl River has been left to deal on its own with the massive toxic metal spill in Guangxi.

Nearly a month after one of the worst cadmium contaminations on the mainland in decades, the 21-year-old and his parents, who make a living from fishing, still depend on the water from the polluted Longjiang for their livelihoods.

Lu says he has many questions about the pollution, which was caused by the illegal upstream dumping of industrial waste containing the little-known but life-threatening element, but that no one in the government bothers to hear him out or explain.

'We are worried and are very concerned about the health impact of the contamination,' said Lu, a migrant worker in Guangzhou. 'But no government officials have come to our aid, either by offering alternative water sources or by answering our questions.'

Like Lu, residents of Beiji in Yizhou city, under the jurisdiction of Hechi, also felt concerned about the government's seeming evasiveness. Many key questions have gone unanswered.

Some 200 Beiji villagers have accused Hechi authorities of deliberately denying the fact that their village was affected by the spill and keeping them in the dark about the health hazards posed by cadmium, one of the most toxic metals on earth.

Beiji villagers are particularly bitter that while they are left helpless, two villages sitting on the opposite river bank have enjoyed freshwater supplies and full media attention.

The 220 villagers in Laren and Guangxia have received at least one bottle of water per household, free of charge, every day over the past three weeks, Xinhua reported.

Although just across the river, Laren and Guangxia were identified by Hechi authorities as the only two villages affected by the spill, while Beiji, according to the city government, was not affected at all.

The government also insists it is safe for Beiji villagers to drink from the community's freshwater source - a large pit dug just a few steps from the polluted river - citing a drinking water test conducted by Yizhou's centre for disease control on January 23, the first day of the Year of Dragon.

Villagers were quick to point to obvious discrepancies and conflicting official explanations regarding the contamination.

For example, Hechi authorities distributed a written warning about the spill to each family in Beiji on January 23, telling villagers not to drink water from the river because of contamination caused by unspecific heavy metals.

On February 4, they again warned that the river posed a health threat to people and animals.

Meanwhile, China News Service quoted the mayor of the downstream city of Liuzhou, Zheng Junkang, as saying that cadmium concentrations on the upper reaches of the Longjiang were still nearly 20 times the national safety limits.

However, Hechi authorities have repeatedly reassured Beiji villagers that their drinking water is safe.

Villagers, distrusting and disappointed in the official line, staged a rare demonstration on February 3 demanding health check-ups, fair treatment and to know the truth about the extent of the river's contamination.

But environmental and health officials in Yizhou have stuck to their assertion that the quality of drinking water in Beiji met national safety limits and that villagers should not worry about the cadmium pollution.

They promised to conduct another test on the village's drinking water, but villagers said they did not believe the results were likely to be credible.

'I am really confused,' said villager Long Binggang.

'How could it be possible that it is safe to drink from the river while it is still badly contaminated?

'We know pollution exists, but how can we tell how bad the metal contamination is without a trustworthy government explanation?'

Lan Richeng, the head of Beiji village, said it was unfair that they were treated differently and that government-controlled media had ignored their suffering.

'We don't even know what heavy metals caused the contamination and we don't understand why the government refused to provide bottled water for us,' he said.

According to Lan, pollution of the Longjiang has worsened over the years, but his village has no other alternative water source.

Not all of the villagers, who largely live by planting sugar cane and breeding silkworms, can afford to buy bottled water every day at 7 yuan (HK$8.60) per bottle, Lan said.

Long Binggang is one of them. The 24-year-old father-to-be said: 'We have bought bottled water from time to time. But as we need a lot of water every day it is impossible to cook with bottled water alone.'

The lack of transparency in the handling of the spill may have more grave consequences as many in the village, like Long and Lu, continue to use water from the river to cook and to tend their farm produce.

Despite the Hechi authorities' denials of metal poisoning cases, many local residents have reported symptoms they believe to be linked to the consumption of contaminated water and food.

Many in Beiji, as well as Guangxia and Laren villages, said they have suffered from diarrhoea. Lu Yu said he felt itchy after taking a shower with polluted river water.

Fisherman Qin Zutie began to find dead fish in the river in mid-January, but did not realise metal contamination was responsible until at least a week later. He is upset that the government did not disclose news of the toxic spill.

'We had no idea about the pollution. Or we would never have eaten those dead fish as we usually did,' Qin said.

Fishermen on the Longjiang have continued to report the sighting of dead fish. More than 40,000kg of fish were killed, affecting over 230 fish farmers, according to an estimate by the Hechi government earlier this month.

Locals have also challenged official reports of the contamination. The government said mid-January sightings of dead fish marked the start of the spill.

But Xinhua and other state media have quoted fishermen as saying they began to find dead fish as early as January 7, eight days earlier than the official story.

According to various mainland media reports, pollution experts said the contamination might have been caused by other toxic metals besides cadmium, which they said was unlikely to be the real cause of the fish dying.

China News Service also lashed out at the Hechi and Liuzhou authorities over their lack of transparency in tackling the contamination in the first place, saying that escalated the crisis.

According to the semi-official agency, Hechi's government delayed reporting news of the spill to the city of Liuzhou for at least three days, until January 18.

The agency also claims Liuzhou's authorities wanted to play down the spill during the Lunar New Year, .

Officials waited for days before making news of the spill public.

By then, the city of 3.7 million had a fully-fledged pollution scare on its hands, with tens of thousands of residents rushing to stock up on bottled water.

Analysts said the fact that the pollution spread to Liuzhou, the second-largest city of Guangxi, actually helped break the official silence over the massive spill and forced local authorities to ramp up efforts to tackle the disaster.

Despite repeated assurances as to the safety of drinking water, the toxic cadmium slick, stretching over 300 kilometres, is still moving slowly towards Liuzhou, threatening freshwater supplies to the city and downstream areas, which include Guangdong.

Analysts say Beiji villagers' accusations have put the government's renewed pledges on pollution control to the test.

Guangxi's Communist Party chief, Guo Shengkun, promised last week to severely crack down on polluters, clean up the environment and not let the public drink a drop of contaminated water.

However, Greenpeace China campaigner Ma Tianjie said: 'Local authorities have placed their top priority on maintaining stability, but the lack of openness and accountability has simply resulted in unwanted consequences, such as widespread pollution scares and growing distrust.'

Ma said mainland authorities appeared to have made little progress in lifting secrecy on important environment information despite the fact that local authorities had been required to report pollution cases swiftly to higher-level governments since the massive chemical spill on the Songhua river in 2005.

In an effort to repair an image tarnished by the spill, seven local officials in Hechi, including the city's environmental chief, have been removed from their posts.

And Hechi's mayor made an apology early this month to people who have been affected by the spill.

Analysts, however, said those moves were far from being enough to restore crumbling public confidence and regain the people's trust.

Guangxi authorities have blamed two smelters in Hechi for illegally dumping tonnes of cadmium into the Longjiang.

They arrested seven people, mostly factory executives, for alleged roles in the spill early this month.

Members of the official expert panel of an emergency task force handling the spill have disputed that explanation for it, however.

'It seems unrealistic for us to believe that small-scale smelters were capable of discharging enormous amounts of industrial wastewater containing as much as over 20 tonnes of cadmium within such limited time,' said Xu Zhencheng, a leading member affiliated with the environment ministry, according to the China Business Journal.

With up to 13 tonnes of cadmium remaining undissolved in the river, Zhou Yongzhang, director of Sun Yat-sen University's Research Centre for Earth, Environment and Resources, said the spill would have a lasting impact on downstream areas, including Guangdong, as cadmium deposits would eventually wash down to other areas along the river.

Ma of Greenpeace China said more evaluation was needed of the long-term environmental impact of cadmium deposits.


The number of years the effects of cadmium can last once it is absorbed into the body, according to a World Health Organisation study