Crises worsened by cloak of secrecy

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 February, 2012, 12:00am


Environmentalists have warned for years of a looming water crisis in China. So just how far off is it now?

Recent water contamination disasters in Guangxi and Jiangsu and severe droughts in parts of Yunnan and Jiangxi that previously had abundant supplies of water have reignited fears that an acute crisis could blow up at any time.

A drought that has gripped the southwestern province of Yunnan for three years has seen 120 rivers dry up and affected more than six million people, with 2.4 million running out of drinking water.

While officials are more apt to blame Mother Nature for water shortages and rumour-mongers for panics sparked by pollution, as seen in Jiangsu and Guangxi, environmentalists point to a series of glaring human errors.

In Yunnan's case, huge amounts of waste, outdated irrigation technology, insufficient funding of agricultural facilities and the building of dozens of large dams on almost every major river have made the water shortage even worse.

Environmentalists say human factors, especially the central government's reluctance to lift the cloak of secrecy, can significantly increase the risk of a crisis, or exacerbate an environmental disaster caused by pollution.

Unfortunately, they have been proven right yet again in both recent cases of toxic spills, which escalated into major panics due to the culture of excessive government secrecy.

Early this month, a toxic chemical spill from a Korean cargo ship near Zhenjiang, Jiangsu, contaminated the fresh water source for the city of three million.

Although locals complained that their tap water began to give off a foul smell from February 2, the city government denied rumours about chemical leaks the next day and insisted the odour was 'extra chlorine' that was part of the normal water sanitisation process.

That explanation did not stop rumours or prevent Zhenjiang residents from scurrying to shops to stock up on bottled water in the following days.

It was not until February 7, when the contamination was believed to be under control, that local authorities admitted the city's water had been polluted by phenol, a harmful acid used in detergents.

But it was already too late. Rumours about the contamination of the Yangtze River had spread further downstream and sparked a wave of panic buying of bottled water in a series of cities, including Jiangyin, Rugao and Nantong.

Highlighting the heightened sensitivity of the issue, authorities in Shanghai, the last major city on the Yangtze, where it flows into the East China Sea, announced on February 9 that it was not affected.

The authorities in Zhenjiang and other affected cities issued statements dismissing health concerns, but the fact that the contamination was deliberately covered up for at least five days had provoked public anger and further undermined the crumbling credibility of local governments.

Nearly 10,000 people took to the streets of Zhenjiang in a rare show of public anger to protest against the local authorities' cover-ups and demand the truth about the contamination.

The toxic metal spill in Guangxi was rather similar in terms of the initial response of local authorities.

Although fishermen in Hechi, Guangxi, began to find dead fish from January 7, the local government did not break the news about the contamination of the Longjiang River, a tributary of the Pearl River, until a week later.

It was caused by the illegal dumping of industrial waste containing more than 20 tonnes of toxic cadmium.

The authorities in Liuzhou, the second biggest city in Guangxi, learned about the spill from the Hechi government on January 18 but covered it up until after Lunar New Year's Day - January 23.

By then, panic had gripped the city of 3.7 million, with rumours that the cadmium spill threatened its water source, and state television reporting that tens of thousands of Liuzhou residents were rushing to buy bottled water.

Environmentalists warn that government has yet to learn the lessons from the many pollution disasters over the past year, from the massive oil spills in the Bohai Sea off the country's northeast coast to a spate of toxic metal and chemical poisoning scandals.

Continued secrecy over key environmental information that is of vital public interest can only invite unwanted rumours and fuel discontent, distrust or even unrest, running counter to the Communist Party's emphasis on maintaining social stability.

Worse, attempts to cover up and keep the public in the dark have undermined Beijing's repeated pledges on greater openness and accountability and threatened to derail its efforts to fix the regulatory loopholes and rein in industrial polluters.

Changing the mindset that has nurtured the culture of secrecy has become a pressing task, but the government appears to have missed the point so far.

Instead of taking concrete steps to promote transparency and enlist public oversight, it has pledged itself to tougher regulations and their enforcement as the answer to environmental degradation.