Standing on the quay, Mrs Wu (吳) jokes that there are more pigs than fish in the Jiapingtang River, but she is not smiling. The 48-year-old fisherwoman, who lives in Xinfeng, a sleepy country village, recalls splashing about in the river as a child on sticky summer days. Today, it is inky black, covered in a slick of lime-green algae and smells like a blocked drain.
“Look at the water, who would dare to jump in?” Wu said.
At her feet, a dead piglet bobs on the river’s surface, bouncing against the shore.
This area of Zhejiang Province, 96.5km from Shanghai, has become the subject of public and media scrutiny after more than 16,000 dead pigs were found in tributaries of the city’s river, the Huangpu River, a source of tap water. As clean-up efforts wind down, mystery surrounds the cause of the pigs’ demise and their appearance in the river.
As public concerns about water safety grow, what has emerged is a picture of a rural region marred by catastrophic environmental damage, inherent malpractice and a black-market meat trade.
The first pigs were spotted on March 7 and were soon traced to Jiaxing city in Zhejiang through tags in their ears.
Early tests show that they carry porcine circovirus, a common disease among hogs not known to be infectious to humans.
The Shanghai Municipal Water Department maintains that the water meets the national standard, but has not said much more.
Official opacity has only embittered a public who are increasingly vocal about environmental gripes.
“A sluggish response, a lack of disclosure of official data and muddled information has done nothing to quell our doubts,” Sina Weibo user diamondyangxiaowu said. “In this environmental crisis China’s rivers are facing, there’s no time to dally.”
For Wu and her community, it may be too late. Over the past decade, she has witnessed the near collapse of her livelihood as pig farming in this region has prospered. Her house, a one-story breeze-block box, sits next to the Jiapingtang River. Ten wooden flat-bottomed boats with makeshift roofs of plastic and tarpaulin are tethered to the quay. It is on these boats that Wu and her fellow villagers head out on to Jiaxing’s network of waterways, though these days they are more likely to do clear-up work for the local authorities than fish.
A fisherman doing cleaning work from 7am to 5pm seven days a week can earn up to 10,000 yuan (US$1,600) a year, with an extra 150 yuan a day for carcasses.
“A decade ago, this village was prosperous and we lived a comfortable life,” said Wu, dressed in a leopard-print padded jacket and black wellington boots — her work gear.
“We paid for our houses by ourselves, sent our children to good schools and supported the elderly. Now things are a mess,” she said.
The pig industry blossomed in Jiaxing in the 1980s. Last year, China produced and consumed half the world’s pork, about 50 million tonnes. One village, Zhulin, which is at the center of the scandal, earned the nickname “to Hong Kong” for its steady supply of meat to the territory. Most families in Zhulin keep pigs and the village’s ample fields — which in March are covered in yellow rapeseed flowers — hold hundreds of squat concrete barns holding dozens of squealing hogs.
This upsurge is one explanation for the carcasses, though officials are reluctant to say so.