Shanghai, China – A river flowing through Rui’an city in China’s Zhejiang province is so badly polluted that not even a $30,000 reward could persuade a local environmental official to swim in it for 20 minutes.
That was the challenge that Chinese entrepreneur Jin Zengmin put to Bao Zhenming, the Environmental Protection Bureau chief in Zhejiang, on Chinese social media website Weibo. Jin posted three photos showing the river full of floating garbage, and said he was able to swim in the river when he was a child. He blamed nearby rubber shoe manufacturing plants for polluting it.
An official with the local Environmental Protection Bureau was quoted by the state-run China Daily newspaper as saying that Bao had inspected the site and found that “it is not chemical waste” that was polluting the river, but “household refuse dumped by local residents”.
“In less than 10 years, the quality of groundwater had deteriorated rapidly … If this trend continues, Chinese people will have no clean water to drink in the near future.“
– China Daily commentary
Despite the hefty reward to take a dip Bao declined the offer, but not before Jin’s photos and “dare” had gone viral online, drawing much attention to the badly polluted state of China’s rivers.
China’s recent problems with air pollution, dubbed the “airpocalypse”, grabbed headlines around the world as a number of cities, especially the capital Beijing, have been frequently shrouded in a thick and dangerous layer of smog since the start of the new year. But the problem of water pollution has also gained increased media and public attention within China.
President Xi Jinping officially becomes head of the China on Tuesday, and environmental protection will be a major priority for his government. In a move last week, the government issued a list of chemicals and industries that will be prioritised for pollution prevention and control.
The Ministry of Environmental Protection in a report also linked pollution in the country’s water systems to the spread of cancer in certain villages, which are mostly located close to factories or heavy industry.
So-called “cancer villages” is a term increasingly used to describe areas where the number of cancer cases has increased. It is a phenomenon that has been investigated by journalists, scientists and campaigners, but which had not been officially recognised before.
The document warned that the country faces a “grave” situation from chemical pollution, and that there has been “a string of chemical pollution accidents, leading to polluted drinking water and higher rates of cancer in some areas”, according to the state-run China Daily newspaper.
It also confirmed that the level of some dangerous pollutants – including endocrine disrupting chemicals in China’s water sources – are above international levels and described the situation as “very grim”. China produces and uses “toxic and hazardous” chemicals that are prohibited and restricted in many developed countries.
About 40,000 types of chemicals were being used in China and some 3,000 of them contained “poisonous, corrosive, explosive or combustible properties”, the ministry report said, highlighting a five-year plan to “guard against and control risks presented by chemicals to the environment”.
Greenpeace applauded the government’s transparency and apparent move to address the problem.
“This five-year plan is a breakthrough because for the first time it lists the most dangerous chemicals. It shows that the government is taking its first steps and major steps to address pollution caused by chemicals,” toxic campaigner Yixiu Wu told Al Jazeera.
Wu said although scientists and journalists had profiled “cancer villages” previously, never before had the phrase appeared in official documents. “It shows the government is being more transparent and honest in addressing the problems. This is a huge step.”
“The more people see that their action can lead to suspension or revocation of licences at a local level, then the more it will happen.“
– Debra Tan, China Water Risk
Social media outrage
Social media such as Weibo has proven a popular way for members of the public to draw attention to such environmental problems and to vent their anger and frustration.
“These sort of social media campaigns are having an impact and growing in popularity,” said Debra Tan of China Water Risk, a Hong Kong based non-profit initiative. “I think it is going to be harder to clamp down on them or harder to control.
“It is a way of redress against poor enforcement. And the more people see that their action can lead to suspension or revocation of licences at a local level then the more it will happen,” she told Al Jazeera. “There is also a general rise in affluence and as people urbanise, move to cities and have access to the internet, and to these kinds of social media, they also become more aware.”
It’s not just dirty rivers that have come to the attention of China’s micro-bloggers, polluted groundwater has also been a target. Just before the Chinese New Year holiday, journalist and activist Deng Fei posted a request on Weibo for people travelling home over the holiday to take a photo of waterways in their hometowns and post it to the social media website.
A large number of photos showed rubbish and sludge-filled rivers, but it was groundwater that received the most attention. Web users accused factories and chemical plants in Weifang, Shangdong province, of discharging untreated waste underground.
“I was just angry after receiving information from web users saying that the groundwater in Shandong had been polluted and I forwarded it online. But it came as a surprise to me that after I sent out these posts, many people from different places in northern and eastern China all complained that their hometowns have been similarly polluted,” Deng Fei told the state-run Global Times.
In response to the online campaign, the government in Shandong province offered a reward of 100,000 RMB ($16,000) for evidence of local companies pumping waste water underground. It was reported in China’s state media that more than 700 companies had been investigated, but the authorities claimed to have found no violations.
Chinese state media has also been drawing attention to the issue of groundwater pollution. Recently state television station China Central Television (CCTV) reported that 55 percent of the groundwater of Chinese cities is either “poor” or “very poor”, quoting a study by the Ministry of Land and Resources.
The head of the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Research Institute under the China University of Political Science and Law, Wang Canfa, told CCTV that investment by the government in environmental protection has not caught up with China’s economic development.
“We need to allocate at least 2.5 percent or 3 percent of GDP to environmental protection in order to see positive results. But so far, only 1.6 percent has been invested,” Wang said.
While the government has made an effort to clean it up, groundwater over the last few years has worsened instead of improving, said Tan. “This is a problem because this is the hardest type of water to clean up. And most of the north of China is more reliant on groundwater than the south of China.
“Pollution has been awful in China recently,” she said.