Industrial Pollution Kills Hundreds Along the Huai River Basin in China
by Stephen Voss
The cancer ward of Shenqiu County Hospital is busy on this weekday morning. Bicycles and motorbikes are scattered around the dusty brick courtyard and a white doctor’s jacket hangs from a tree to dry. A line of people stand outside a small one-story concrete building, patiently waiting their turn for a few minutes with Dr. Wang Yong Zeng, the chief oncologist. Most carry their life's medical records with them, clutching the thick folders full of X-rays and documents tightly to their chest.
Shenqiu County, in the eastern part of Henan Province, has seen occurrences of stomach, liver, esophageal and intestinal cancer rise dramatically in the past fifteen years. Houses sit empty where whole families have died, villagers are bedridden with sicknesses they are too poor to have diagnosed and many continue to drink the polluted water because there is no other option. The majority of the 150 million people that live along the Huai River Basin are farmers, and depend on the river water to irrigate their crops. Unfortunately, the Huai is one of the most polluted stretches of water in the country.
“Many people come here after it’s too late,” says Dr. Yong Zeng as he holds an X-ray up to the window light to examine it. Poor farmers suffer for months and even years before they go to the hospital, knowing that if they are diagnosed with cancer, they won’t be able to afford any treatment. In many villages, entire families go into debt for medical bills they will never be able to pay.
China's handling of the environment has been nothing if not consistent over the past two thousand years. It is difficult to find a time in China’s history when anything but environmental devastation occurred in the name of economic and social progress. As far back as 202 BC, the Han Dynasty dealt with the growing population by urging its people to cut down forests to make way for more farmland.
More recently, Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward sought to combat the Industrial Revolution of the West by forcing people throughout the country to built steel smelters. From 1958-1959, an estimated ten percent of China’s forests were cut down to fuel these backyard furnaces. Over China’s long history, the lack of environmental regulation has led to the growing desertification of China’s grasslands, massive flooding that has devastated its farmlands, famine that has killed tens of millions of people and industrial pollution that has poisoned China’s most important resource.
“People don’t live here anymore,” explains Wang Zi Qing, pointing to a rundown house in Dong Cun Lou Village in the Henan Province of China. Like most houses in the village, the floor is made of dirt, and steel bars in the windows do little to block the cold wind. A faded red bed frame sits in a corner of the main room, and a row of dusty ceramic dishes are neatly stacked on a woven mat by the door. The difference is that this house is empty, left behind by an entire family that died of cancer.
Zi Qing lifts his shirt to reveal a thick red scar on his stomach from a recent surgery to remove a cancerous tumor. His older and younger brother died of cancer within a month of each other. He has been a fisherman for most of his sixty years, but is no longer able to make a living or even feed himself from the river. The last time he went fishing, he was only able to catch a few, small fish, their bodies covered in blisters. In front of Zi Qing's house is a small well that he has dug deeper five times in search of clean water, but still feels the water he drinks is polluted.
Dong Cun Lou Village is similar to many of the villages in rural Shenqiu County. Muddy dirt roads run through it, and chickens and stray dogs roam freely. None of the one-story brick houses have running water, and only the Party official in town can afford electricity. Its population of 1500 used to rely on the Shaying River, a major tributary of the Huai that runs by the town. They fished, washed their clothes and even drank directly from the river. The fish are mostly dead now, and contact with the water can bring on itchy rashes and peeling skin.
Huo Daishan carries a slight smile on his face, almost beatific at times. The smile is the same whether he’s meeting with factory owners who dump their wastewater into the river, or singing an old folk song about the Huai. Daishan lives in a small apartment that also serves as the headquarters for the Guardians of the Huai River, the non-profit group he formed to help clean up the river and bring attention to the situation. Currently, he is its only employee and struggles to make ends meet through donations and the small internet cafe he runs.
Daishan grew up near the Huai River and worked as a newspaper photographer before he began hearing stories about the river pollution and cancer cases. After seeing two of his friends die from cancer, he decided to devote his life to cleaning up the river. His work is informed by everything from W. Eugene Smith’s Minamata to the teachings of Tao by Lao Tse.
Lianhua Gourmet Powder Company is surrounded in every direction by farmland. As Daishan climbs the metal staircase to the top of the massive concrete tanks during a recent and unexpected tour of the factory, they roar to life. The still black water begins to swirl and foam, turning a silty brown, while an acrid odor like rotting meat fills the air. As a thick layer of brackish bubbles cover the surging brown water, farmers can be seen tending to their crops in the distance.
According to company executives, this wastewater treatment plant cost 250 million Yuan (approximately $430,000 USD) to build, and appears to sit unused except when tours are given to outspoken environmental activists. During a long lunch at the company hotel, executives were surprisingly candid about their role in polluting the Huai. As they spoke, they toasted to each other’s health with numerous glasses of saki. They talked at length about the workings of the factory and the pollution, seemingly oblivious to the illness and death occurring downstream. This openness was clearly precipitated by their knowledge that as a state-owned business, as well as the top tax payer and top employer in the area, they are untouchable.
A mile away from the factory, steaming black water pours steadily into the river from a large metal pipe. Young children play near the banks of the river and a noxious odor hangs in the air. While there are few stories of cancer in this village, there is a history of birth defects, infertility and skin ailments that began in the early 1990s. According to Daishan, this secret dumping site is one of many that Lianhua has, ensuring that it will be a long time before they have to answer any hard questions about what they do with their wastewater.
The last attempt at cleaning the Huai began in 1994, when the central government announced a comprehensive plan to halt industrial pollution in three years, with the goal of having the river clean by 2000. While some factories were shut down, many reopened and evaded inspectors by operating at night or only shutting down on the days when government officials visited. In 2001, the Communist Party declared the cleanup a success despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. And in July of that year, seasonal flooding caused millions of gallons of polluted water to flow into the Huai, killing fish and demonstrating that the central government’s promises had little effect on the health of the river.
While the government has made attempts to clean up the river since then, economic priorities make a major cleanup unlikely in the near future. Too many factories that are responsible for this pollution have too much economic significance in the region, making local officials reluctant to enforce environmental regulations.
The government has become increasingly tolerant of criticism levied in the state-run media regarding their environmental policies. Their openness is most likely an effort to encourage local Party officials to take responsibility for enforcing environmental regulations. But as long as they are rewarded for economic growth rather than their handling of environmental issues, change will be slow to come.
And at the cancer ward, a man is carefully helped into a metal trailer lined with a canvas vegetable sack and attached to a motor bike. He has just finished his radiation therapy for the day and his family presses close to him, draping blankets over his legs to make him comfortable for the long ride home. As he is slowly driven away he looks up at no one in particular, saying, “Too many diseases, too many diseases.”