A polluted river runs through it Cleanup: China has set a goal of correcting, by 2000, practices that have poisoned the Huai River. The project will test the country's ability to deal with its environmental problems.

Sun Journal

March 03, 1996|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BENGBU, China -- In the 20 years he has piloted boats along the Huai River, Hu Yaowei has learned the location of almost every shoal and mastered the river's tricky currents. He has learned the rules of the water. Recently he's added a new one: Never, ever drink the water.

"We have to carry our water on board for cooking or drinking," he says, casting a glance at the murky current. "It's poisoned."

So poisoned, that half the river's 191 tributaries are dead, fish kills are an annual occurrence and the area's cancer rate is reported to be higher than average.

Under intense local pressure to attack the problem, China's central government has turned the Huai (pronounced H-why) River into the first major test of the country's fledgling environmental protection agencies.

Their mission is to clean up the river -- the most polluted in the country -- by 2000.

Success could be an important turning point in China's otherwise bleak record of environmental protection. If the Huai can be cleaned up, then China may be able to sustain its surge of economic growth, which has come at tremendous environmental cost.

Failure, though, could become an ominous sign that the country's rapid development will run aground because of poisoned air, water and soil unable to sustain further growth.

China already is facing serious water shortages; even living alongside a river does not guarantee a supply, as this river proves.

"It's akin to the worst of the U.S. basins before the United States began its cleanup program in the '60s," says Lee Travers of the World Bank.

"But they're facing it at an earlier stage of development than other countries." That is, the problems are serious, even though the country is far from fully developed.

"The Huai River is the number one environmental priority in China," says Dr. Stephen Hammalian, executive vice president of EA Engineering, Science, and Technology Inc., a Baltimore County environmental engineering firm active in the plan to clean up the river.

"It's a wall to further development."

At first glance, the Huai doesn't appear more polluted than other waterways here. The river and its watershed have an exhausted, gray look common to much of central China, the result of too many people trying to do too much on too little land.

The only hints of the past are in the evocative names of the towns, such as Bengbu -- "shell port," in honor of a pearl industry that has disappeared.

The 600-mile river is now a busy shipping artery, where dozens of 50-foot river barges lumber past factories and small farming plots bravely perched on the flood plain.

Two factors finally pushed the Huai into ruin: the number of people -- there are 150 million in the river basin -- and that population's interaction with the region's uneven rainfall.

Because there is little rain during much of the year, people have constructed more than 5,000 dikes and dams to keep the precious water from escaping. It is used for irrigation and as communal cesspools, with untreated wastewater and effluent from hundreds of new paper mills and tanneries dumped into the river's dammed-up arms.

The three months of summer bring 70 percent of the year's rain. Dikes are opened to relieve the pressure, allowing nine months' worth of pollution to surge through the basin, killing fish and in some areas reducing the crop yield to zero.

A wave of pollution in 1994 poisoned about 1,000 fishermen, with 230 requiring hospitalization. In 1995, officials at a closed conference reported abnormally high rates of intestinal and stomach cancers.

The official line now is that cancer rates are normal, but no studies are available to contradict the original report from the National Environmental Protection Agency.

It's believed that the polluted waters may spread their poisons through fish, which are a popular food when they can be found.

"Sometimes the fish die," says Mr. Hu, the boat pilot. "But the big ones often do survive and we eat them. Everyone does."

Whatever the river's precise effects on health, its cleanup started after the 1994 poisonings, when residents "strongly demanded that the pollution be stopped," according to the government-run New China News Agency.

That led to last year's conference and the government's decision to make the Huai a national priority.

"You typically have small village enterprises that set up paper mills" that flout pollution laws, says Xu Jingsheng, deputy director of the Anhui Environmental Protection Bureau. "We have shut down dozens of them, but we have to keep inspecting because after you close them down, they re open."

A major concern, says Mr. Xu, is the economic impact, since people in this region already have below-average incomes. Subsistence farming is common, and the small tanneries and mills are a quick way to prosperity -- and the provincial government plans to close about 250 of them this year.

The cleanup strategy is based in part on U.S. experiences.

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