Water a threat to health in China

AFP , WULI VILLAGE, CHINA

Mon, Mar 20, 2006 - Page 4

Wei Dongying dumped 30 plastic bottles from an oversized plastic bag onto her living room floor.

"Look at all the different colors: red, black, yellow, brown," said Wei as she picked up the bottles containing samples of water taken from the canals and viaducts surrounding Wuli, a village of 1,500 people in eastern China.

"The water used to be clear here. Now look at it. Filthy, undrinkable polluted water," she said.

Wei, 38, is a fisherman's wife who became an environmental activist after a personal health scare she believes was related to the intense pollution in the village.

In late 2002, Wei discovered two hard lumps on her lymph nodes.

"I had them removed and the doctors said it was a 90 percent chance that the problem was related to the environment," said Wei, 38, revealing the scar across her throat from the operation.

Although her growths proved benign, about 60 other Wuli residents have contracted cancer, including her brother-in-law who died in 1998 at the age of 47.

Wuli is described in China's media as being one of the nation's so-called "cancer villages," a legacy of the pollution caused by a chemical industrial park with 25 factories that was set up there in 1992.

Located about 220km southwest of Shanghai along the Qiantang river, it is not just the water that has been degraded but also the air.

Gaseous, bitter chemicals assault the nose, lingering on the tongue and itching the throat.

The situation in Wuli is a depressingly familiar one around China, especially along the heavily industrialized eastern beltway where factories take advantage of the natural waterways to expel toxic waste.

More than 70 percent of China's rivers and lakes are polluted, while underground water supplies in 90 percent of Chinese cities are contaminated, according to government reports.

Chen Weifang (陳偉方), vice chief of the Xiaoshan district environmental bureau that has jurisdiction of Wuli, said one of the main problems was that fines for polluting factories were too low.

The factories often discharge their chemicals into the water at night to avoid detection and are happy to pay the fines when they were eventually caught, Chen said.

Corruption involving industry and local officials is also widely regarded as a major problem, environmental activists say.

Chen said that while the rates of cancer in the village were not higher than surrounding areas, he still believed there could be a link between the pollution and the disease.

The story is disturbingly similar across the border in Jiangsu Province, if not worse.

In Yixing, a city of more than 1 million people, water pollution in its townships is so severe that the area has received numerous official visits by top party brass, including Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶).

Wen admitted at the end of the annual parliamentary session in Beijing last week that the Chinese Communist Party had allowed the unbridled economic expansion of the past two decades to severely damage the nation's environment.

"We need to step up our efforts to carry out special environmental and ecological campaigns ... we need to pay attention to the protection of major waters, air and land," Wen urged.

Despite heightened party worries, environmental activists say little is being done because immediate economic interests continue to come first.