Pollution threats stir delta residents to action

Following a series of pollution threats, residents could be in for a long battle for the environment

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 July, 2013, 3:47am

Pearl River Delta residents haven't had to worry too much about serious pollution threats, but that all changed this month.

Xu Qiaoyin , a teacher and native of Jiangmen , now living in Shenzhen, is among a growing number of delta region residents increasingly worried about toxic risks affecting what they call "our dear home".

"I would have thought that contamination was only the concern of the backward and developing hinterlands. And suddenly, overnight, we find all kinds of pollution on our doorstep," Xu said.

Xu's fears are not groundless as Guangdong residents see one pollution crisis after another affect the land they harvest, the air they breathe and the water they drink.

On July 6 the Hejiang River, a tributary of the Pearl River - a drinking source for the delta - was found to contain excessive amounts of heavy metals thallium and cadmium after a large number of fish died. Since then, the county government has warned the water utility and residents not to drink or catch fish from the river.

The news triggered fear among residents of several cities in the delta because the Hejiang River's source is in neighbouring Guangxi autonomous region and flows into the Xijiang River, a main artery of the Pearl River that provides most of the water for Zhuhai , Zhongshan , Guangzhou and Macau.

Local authorities apologised for the river pollution in a public statement to residents on July 10 and assured them that the water supply to the delta was still safe for consumption.

Although thallium and cadmium are toxic and samples indicated that the concentration of thallium was 0.00022 milligrams per litre, or 1.2 times the allowed maximum level, Zhou Quan , director of the environment inspection bureau of the Guangdong Environmental Protection Department, told Guangzhou Daily that, "China has the strictest standards for thallium in surface water, 20 times stricter than Japan's limit. Water in the Hejiang River still falls within Japan's standards for drinking water."

"Fish turned up dead in the river. But it's still safe to drink for Japanese," lamented Wu Qianxing , a Guangzhou native. "I'm just speechless after the official's comments."

In June, residents in the delta were informed that nearly half the rice they bought in local markets could contain excessive levels of cadmium, mostly from neighbouring Hunan province.

Now they might have the same worries about vegetables. Some 28 per cent of the soil in the Pearl River Delta contains heavy metal pollutants, according to a report submitted by the Guangdong Land and Resources Bureau to the provincial people's congress on July 10.

The report says 50 per cent of the land in Guangzhou and Foshan, both industrial hubs in the delta, is contaminated. This explains previous reports that vegetables in the region had excessive levels of heavy metals.

"I used to think that locally grown food and vegetables tasted better, and were fresher and healthier. Now, I worry when shopping at the wet market," said teacher Xu. "I don't know whether the vegetables I buy are grown on poisoned land. I'm going to feed them to my three-year-old daughter."

To ease growing public concerns over soil pollution, Chen Shaomeng , deputy head of the agricultural bureau in Shaoguan in northern Guangdong, issued a statement saying that rice with excessive amounts of cadmium was not considered "poisoned" and that it would be safe for consumption after a year or two.

As well as concerns over polluted rivers and farmland, residents took to the streets in Jiangmen on July 12-13 to protest about air quality after authorities announced plans for a 37-billion-yuan (HK$46.5 billon) uranium fuel processing plant.

Residents of Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hong Kong and Macau said they took part in the rallies because they all breathe the same air in the delta. "My parents received calls from relatives in Jiangmen and went back by high-speed rail that weekend to fight for our hometown," Xu said.

The many young protesters tried to get the attention of the overseas media. "Thanks to Hong Kong and Macau media, they helped us to have our voices heard in the outside world," one demonstrator said.

After the protests, authorities decided to suspend the uranium processing plan.

Residents protesting against environmental degradation could be in for a long fight.