In China, Water You Wouldn’t Dare Swim in, Let Alone Drink

After more than three decades of economic prosperity, China faces serious environmental challenges, including its increasingly filthy waterways

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CHINA DAILY / REUTERS

Workers clear away rubbish along a river in the Chinese town of Rui'an, in Zhejiang province, on Feb. 18, 2013

Jin Zengmin was in a betting mood. Last month, the eyeglass entrepreneur from eastern China’s Zhejiang province announced that he would offer a $32,000 reward to the chief of the local environmental-protection department if he dared to swim in a nearby river for a mere 20 minutes. Jin’s wager, which was announced on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like social-media service in China, turned viral on the Internet. The environmental cadre, unsurprisingly, declined to swim in the polluted water.

After more than three decades of economic prosperity, China faces serious environmental challenges that are sure to be discussed during the National People’s Congress, the annual conclave currently underway in Beijing. Air pollution blankets hundreds of cities, and the soil in vast parts of the country is contaminated. Thousands of rivers too have been ruined by China’s rapid urbanization and industrialization, like the waterway in Jin’s hometown, Rui’an, a small city near Shanghai that is home to more than 100 shoe factories. “When I was a child, people swam or washed vegetables in the river,” Jin told TIME. “But those factories use chemical raw materials to make shoes and dump their industrial waste directly into the river.”

(PHOTOS: Root of the Nation: Zhang Kechun Photographs China’s Yellow River)

In photographs posted by Jin on Sina Weibo, the river surface is covered by floating rubbish. What lies beneath could be even more dangerous. The smell, Jin alleges, is putrid. On Dec 8, Jin’s sister died of lung cancer at the age of 35. He blames water pollution for her death. “When my sister received medical treatment in big cancer hospitals in Shanghai,” Jin says, “we found that many patients there are from my hometown. They have various cancers, and what is astonishing is that most of the cancer patients are in their 30s to 50s. They are still young. I realized these cancers may have something to do with the water pollution in our hometown.”

After Jin’s sister died, he called the local environmental-protection department and asked them to check for water contamination in the river. Jin says he was told by officials that the river was fouled by some household garbage but that the water still met national quality standards. Outraged, Jin took his bet online. Soon, a local newspaper conducted a crude experiment to test the river’s toxicity: they placed a live fish into water fetched from the river. Two hours later, the fish died. “I made my bet because I’m confident the water in the river is poisonous,” Jin says.

(MORE: Spring Sandstorms Add to China’s Bad-Air Misery)

In January, air pollution was one of the hottest topics on Weibo, one of the few public places where Chinese can express their grievances. Faced with citizen outrage, the Beijing government unveiled antipollution measures to try to combat the record smog. February turned into water-pollution month. After Jin’s wager became an Internet sensation, Deng Fei, a Chinese environmental activist, encouraged Weibo users to post pictures of polluted rivers in their hometowns. Thousands of people responded with photographs of fetid local waterways.

Local environmentalists say that China has enough money and technological prowess to clean up its rivers. The missing ingredient for an environmental campaign? Official motivation. Local governments depend on polluting factories to buoy local economies; local bureaucrats know their promotions are contingent on keeping growth rates high. Still, Chinese citizens are no longer sated simply by economic advancement and have taken to Weibo to express their dissatisfaction. “The appeals made by Jin Zengmin and other Weibo users forces people to face up to water pollution and have attracted more people to join the antipollution campaign,” says Ma Jun, a water expert and founder of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. “[Internet activism] can prevent local governments from standing in line with the heavy polluters.”

(MORE: Beijing Chokes on Record Pollution, and Even the Government Admits There’s a Problem)

Meanwhile, the price of China’s economic success continues to soar. Most of the country’s groundwater is tainted. Smog envelops the eastern seaboard. Soil pollution is pandemic, although just how bad it is few know because the exact figure has been deemed a “state secret.” Environmental whistle-blowers have been beaten and jailed. Many of the protests that have proliferated nationwide in recent years are related to environmental issues. Last June, hundreds of angry villagers from Deyang city in western China’s Sichuan province held a protest march after their crops were destroyed by what they said was industrial waste. The villagers were so angry that they occupied the local government office and clashed with the police.

On Dec. 31, a broken pipe at a chemical factory in central China’s Shanxi province caused a leak of 38.7 tons of aniline, which is used to make industrial chemicals and is toxic to human beings. The aniline spilled into a river that serves as a source of drinking water for more than 1 million people in north China. Yet the local government hid information about the chemical leak for five days. Public outrage ensued, just as it has across the country after countless other environmental nightmares. Asks Jin: “If we Chinese die of cancer caused by pollution, what’s the meaning of economic growth for us?”

PHOTOS: China’s Electronic-Waste Village

72 comments
BruceMorganWilliams
BruceMorganWilliams

Moral to the story is - product prices should reflect the damage they do.   Set the pigovian pollution tax and get the problem solved via market forces (i.e., selfishness).  Tax can be our friend.

AquaPure
AquaPure

Not one person, business or government in this world is exempt from the responsibility of protecting our water resources. We all pay the price, now and in the future, for not caring for our water supply to ensure clean drinking water for everyone. www.aquapuresolutions.com

Hvacrpro
Hvacrpro

Everything not just water can transfer chemical poisoning through paints, toys, plastics housewares, and yes... all the crap that says made in china... uh huh.  including asian cars... stop buying them America.... wake the fk up.  or pretty soon all that conservative corporatism pie you been eating is going to have side effects that will have u soundling like rush limpbutt

universal93
universal93

If there were democracy in China people would have refused to do the messy, cleaning up kind of jobs..!!

ChrisGiddings
ChrisGiddings

What's powerful here is that the Chinese people are waking up to the power of collective discourse.

Once the Chinese people awaken and begin to push for real reforms and real progress, China has the power, economically and workforce wise, to rapidly eclipse any Western nation in almost every conceivable category.

Between China and India, the United States has to make some extremely difficult economic, industrial and socio-political decisions regarding what kind of commitment we have to ensuring the progressive momentum and the so called "superiority" of our nation. And Brazil isn't all too far behind on that list either.

MichaelJohnson
MichaelJohnson

i think the title would have a stronger impact if the ideas were switched; water so dirty you wouldn't drink, let alone swim in.  i wouldn't drink any water that i swam in.

JoeEllisse
JoeEllisse

The republican mentality at its core.  Unfortunately, the US consumer who buys Chinese contributes to this mess.  As consumers, we need to remember that businesses are not concerned with the well being of its citizens and the environment but only the bottom line at whatever cost.  Economic prosperity should be measured, ideally, by the well being of a society's environment, and its citizens and not by how fast is able to expand its economic infrastructure. 

rxlawdude
rxlawdude

This, my friends, is the USA without the EPA and those pesky "job killing" regulations.  Better than "people killing" unfettered greedy free markets.

cpc65
cpc65

MOST polluted country in the world right now. A crying shame. 

EnderLyon
EnderLyon

The difference between Communism and a Democracy....

In a Democracy, the leadership has to use all the tools of statecraft, lying, cheating and stealing to screw over their people. 

With Communism, the Government has no such impediments. 

TimMcNeil
TimMcNeil

As we react with disgust to this story, please remember the shoes we are wearing probably came from one of those 100 shoe factories responsible for the pollution. I bought them at Walmart because they were cheap. They were cheap because the Chinese do not have the environmental protection laws we have in the US, which add to the cost of doing business. Sometimes it is hard to recognize the true costs of a product.

RichHicks
RichHicks

Remember this story the next time politicians are encouraging fracking.


YOU WILL BE DRINKING THE LEACHED POISONS

GreenTvLake
GreenTvLake

Water is life. It is the very essence of life, health and longevity. My ancestors of many generations past knew this and thankfully, passed that knowledge as I will pass it to my children. It is very sad to see this pollution in water yet it extends way beyond this.

This also has been passed down it many forms yet still rings as true now as then; "We know that the white man does not understand our ways. One portion of land is the same to him as the next, for he is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs. The earth is not his brother, but his enemy, and when he has conquered it, he moves on. He leaves his father's graves and his children's birthright is forgotten. The sight of your cities pains the eyes of the redman. But perhaps it is because the redman is a savage and does not understand".

My work with GreenTV has taken me to all areas of the world yet so often we forget, we have and share only one planet. "All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons and daughters of the earth".

j.r.lakeside
j.r.lakeside

This is what the Free Trade agreement was all about and why so many companies scrambled out of the U.S. -- Now they have NO environmental restrictions, and plenty of dirt cheap labor. You wonder why Wall Street is so happy.  Our grandchildren are going to pay a very heavy price for our tennis shoes and digital gadgets -  and it won't be paid in money.


Micker1
Micker1

Does not surprise me. China only cares about one thing, the amighty dollar. The royals and well to do in China do not live near these rivers or streams. China takes the shortcut in everything they do with no laws or regulattions and no one overseeing them. Yet we allow China to dump their contaminated, sub standard products in our country. We do not allow our companies to sell products that are contaminated, sub stanbard and dangerous to our citizens but we allow China to do it. Our government is at fault as well as big businesses like HP, WalMart, Sony, Dell and the list goes on. If we stopped China from dumping their goods in this country and made them meet the same high standards we have it would be a different story. As long as countries like ours allow this crap in China will keep making it at the expense of their people and ours.

OU812IC
OU812IC

Ah Yes all the people who say do away with the EPA, it's just another wasteful government agency, incompetent, killing jobs, etc.etc. As Fox News and the GOP have pounded over and over

Well look at China, it's America before there was the EPA and laws and rules to run business in America

Sure EPA i'm sure has some issues and there are some people in the agency just milking it, but they also must be doing some good or we would be like China or the way we were before with burning rivers and lovely multi-colored waterways And Chemical alley running right down the middle of the U.S. Spewing millions of tons of Toxins into our air. All i know is now things are much cleaner and clearer Hell I can even see Russia from my front porch here in Washington State now because of the clean clear air

GreenTvLake
GreenTvLake

A bet for Jin Zengmin from China. I will bet lifetime rights to my source of clean mineral water to set up an American method for cleansing polluted water in one or more locations there.

I am a Cancer survivor and very sorry about his sister and others. My last name is Lake (like the water) with American Lenape Indian ancestry and know water purification. Nothing to lose, much to gain. Bet's on!

MarkSweetipo
MarkSweetipo

Hey just like the US in the late 1950s.  Now maybe China will join the modern developed world and get rid of that joke of government system they have in place.

CamilleMseikeh
CamilleMseikeh

These are the Chinese intentions for Planet Earth.... Give them control and they will bring a river like this to a city near YOU.

paulrkerekes
paulrkerekes

Take a good look at your possible future, America. This is what the Republicans would turn America into by removing all the "job-killing" clean water regulations and allowing corporations and businesses to "police themselves."

Blogmudgeon
Blogmudgeon

China is 'manufacturing' the same environmental issues that the United States encountered in the first half of the 20th century as a result of unregulated and uninspected industry.  Aside from cheap labor costs, the lack of environmental protections from manufacturing processes in a prime reason that American companies chose to farm out manufacturing to second world countries.  Now those countries are beginning to reap the harvest of all this...

Moi
Moi

This is a problem, but the fact that fish dropped into a container of the water died within hours proves nothing. They could have died from hypoxia, shock at sudden temperature change, pH that was incorrect for the fish species, etc.  There are any number of reasons why these fish may have died, far too many to definitively say "it's a canary in a gold mine" based off of this "experiment." Just saying.

MizeM
MizeM

It's deja-vu all over again. Industry in China is using an old, flawed argument -- that an economy cannot flourish and prosper without damage to the natural world.  This has been proven time and again to be untrue.

Sustainable businesses are not only profitable but also often more efficient and attractive to consumers.  It's not a question of technology or innovation either; we have it.  It's political will and the influence of wealthy special interests.

The oil and gas industry is case and point.  The industry has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the US on lobbying and paid scientists to convince Americans that we cannot prosper without their pollution.  Even today, as we know better, owners of dirty power plants and politicians threaten economic doom if government imposes the smallest regulations to clean up their pollution.  It's akin to being held hostage, a gun to our heads, and that's no way to do business or run a country.    

MindFury
MindFury

What are they worried about. Why isn't CNN reporting that we are GIVING the the Great lakes water....

OU812IC
OU812IC

This is what happens when greed and Governments and big corporations run everything.

Happens all over the world. Happens in the U.S. Big corporations pay millions to politicians to get to do what they want. If the Republicans take over they will do away with the EPA and this country will go down real fast.

My 28 year old son is married to a Russian Girl. I was talking with her not long ago about Russia and how nice it looks there, she said don't let it fool you many areas of Russia are very polluted, she said river and lakes you cannot go near, very bad air in big cities and she flat out stated it is because Russia does not have the environmental laws like the U.S. she says the U.S. is much cleaner and she has been across the whole U.S. 

I read on many blogs how more and more people say so what let the EPA go away, so what let the big Corporations have their way, see that's what the big corporations want and that is scary. What happens as big corporations get bigger they hire more and more people so now these people are happy all they care about is that they have a job and then you have more and more people with the corporate mentality of who cares about the earth as long as I have a job. That is the whole Big Coporations goal. Corporate mentality grows larger and larger and the turth and the people who care and have the facts and know what is really happening get smaller and smaller and less infuential. Anytime a study by scientists come out about pollution, fracking, oil, extinction, global warming, ice melting etc.etc. the corporations pay millions to debunk it all, they pay millions to lawyers on call just for that reason to debunk everything. I'll listen to the scientists before I listen to corporate paid lawyers or corporate paid scientists. We are treating this planet like locusts, just eat it all up and when we are done we will just find another planet to move to. This it people and we are rapidly overpopulating, overusing, and destroying it

bellaluna30
bellaluna30

@ChrisGiddings The US already has - it's outsourcing jobs to both China and India (not to mention Mexico).  I'd say the decision's been made.

Promontorium
Promontorium

@MichaelJohnson You misunderstand the phrase. To say "let alone" then refers to something so unimaginable it's not even up for discussion, i.e. 'let it alone'. The more extreme thing is what is 'let alone'. Your claim that you would not drink anything you swam in is non sequitur. Most people would be willing to swim in bodies of water they wouldn't consider drinking, so the standard of quality for swimming in water is much lower than for drinking, hence the title which in effect means 'This water is so bad, you can't even swim in it, knowing this, it would be unthinkable to drink it for that would be far worse.'

Promontorium
Promontorium

@rxlawdude Right and Europe's food inspection standards are magnitudes higher than in the U.S. and they're all eating horse meat and calling it burgers. But we're no better with out "quality" standards as all our fish are lies. By the way, all this pollution is due to the Chinese government and their regulations. You can be damn sure nobody is allowed to solve the issue but the state, as it is here in the U.S. And if you think the U.S. isn't polluted, check out that dolphin that died within hours of entering a channel in NYC. Government is always the cause of problems. Never the solution. 

3paulsen
3paulsen

@TimMcNeil Moral to this story:  boycott products made in China, even if it means paying more!

j.r.lakeside
j.r.lakeside

@Micker1 CHINA only cares about money??????  Half of the companies creating this mess are owned by the U.S. and other Western nations. Pull your head out of your ...... China is doing what we did from the 1800's forward and would still be doing if we hadn't started choking on our own waste. 



j.r.lakeside
j.r.lakeside

@GreenTvLake Ask yourself this important question: why are so many "foreign" companies buying up U.S. companies that have massive water rights  - Nestle for one - Gerber, beer companies, and other companies that have access to and consume our fresh water resources by the billions of gallons. Fresh water is the gold and platinum of the next decade. While we are distracted by our politicians failure to lead, our most important resource is being tapped and stolen. WAKE UP folks. 

OU812IC
OU812IC

@GreenTvLake 

Sorry Chinese Gov. would never allow you to do that, because that would be admitting they have/are destroying their country in the name of good ole $$. Hell they put people in prison for trying to make a statement about things like this. The Chinese Gov. cares not about it's people or other people on this planet they only care about $$

did you hear the recent story from Australia largest Meth bust ever over 450 million dollars worth in one load. Came from China. Now China has very strict drug laws(prison, beating, death) if caught in China selling,making etc. The Aussie's are saying they have information that the Chinese Government is allowing massive loads of drugs to be made in China by certain groups as long as they only export it and as long as they pay the Government off.

fseque83
fseque83

@paulrkerekes Because of statements like this people can take you tree hugers seriously.  This would never happen here, we already went through that stage in our economic development.  You people do yourselves a huge disfavored when you only speak with exaggeration and hyperbole.  Effing clowns.  BTW we, the US, pollute less and less everyday, if you want to bad mouth someone talk about the Chinese and Indians they are the ones that are going to be polluting this world the most going forward. 

pinky
pinky

@paulrkerekes  

"Regulation" is when they tell you that it's ok to poison the river a little bit.

The government can't create a budget, and when they could, they couldn't live within it. That is all on the record and in plain sight.

If they do that in plain sight, what on earth makes you think that their "reasonable regulations" are actually any good for the environment, that they can actually analyze and solve problems and do it consistently?

Politics is the art of managing little problems into bigger ones, so that you have something to do for the people.

OU812IC
OU812IC

@paulrkerekes 

And before all you Repub's come on saying BS

Do some research and read, they have said those exact things. They would do away with the EPA and let corporations regulate themselves because they say who knows the coporations better than themselves and that right there is the reason we better never allow it to happen.

OU812IC
OU812IC

@Moi 

It was an experiment Yes, but the rivers they are talking about had many fish in them,  So since there were no fish left in the river(they all already died), they took the river water and put a fish in it and it died, yes it died in two hours, yes it could have died because of some of the reasons you stated, but if you put that same fish into the river instead of the jar it still would have died maybe just not in two hours

pcseller001
pcseller001

@OU812IC  

IMO our governments failing is that they ban the pollution here via the EPA but let the same products or even more environmentally damaging ones be imported. This is why many jobs have been exported over the years. The US didn't lose its domestic hold on textiles and computer boards because other people would work cheaper, it was because its cheaper to build dirty.

Every time the EPA bans a dirty production process any imported goods of that type should be heavily tariffed. SO heavy that it is more economical to use the more expensive clean production procedures weather it is made domestically or not. 

sweetlacuna
sweetlacuna

@OU812IC Exactly, and they have money, like BP, to run commercials stating how "good they've been to clean up and all" while the suffering goes on without any way to broadcast their story.  Can't win against big co's with lots of money.

j.r.lakeside
j.r.lakeside

@Shellbean @paulrkerekes Do you realize how little fresh water there is in the world? 

Do you realize that for the past decade plus, our fresh water resources have been under attack both internally and from outside forces? Your ignorance is going to cost you and your children something that  you truly cannot live without. 

Try doing a little research instead of so readily displaying your ignorance to the world. 

OU812IC
OU812IC

@pcseller001 @OU812IC 

Agreed but see the corporations say consumers want cheap products, consumers will be the first to complain if the price is higher because said product is made more environmentally safe. Also what is happening in the green field is pretty much anytime a new product/patent comes out that is safer and better for the planet than the dirty ways, the corporations buy up the patents and stash them away or they buy up a portion of the whole process and close it down so they can keep doing business their way. They are also buying up all the green ideas/patents so if/when their whole way goes away they still will have control. It's really no different than say the auto industry, all the car manufactures fought for 20 years and kept it in court to not have to put seat belts in cars, because they believed the consumers would not want the added cost, when it was finally required that seat belts be in all cars, every manufacturer then came out stating how
THEY really care about their customers that is why they have seatbelts in their cars. Notice how all the commercials for cars are showing better gas mileage because they say they care about our planet BS, they do not it is because they are being required to make more fuel efficient cars and notice over the last few years the cars are getting say 3-5-7 more miles per gallon every couple of years like they are doing us such a big thing. The facts are is the technology is there to make cars right now that could get 200 miles per gallon, they have the patents hidden away. They do not want that to happen because then they could not come out every year or so with the new cars saying come on people be kind to your planet and buy this new car because it gets 5 more miles per gallon and then in 2-3 years buy the new car that gets 7 more miles per gallon. It is also why Electric cars are so expensive and how they act like they just don't have it all figured out yet it's all BS. If they had their way they would only make gas guzzler 12 miles to the gallon cars all day long, because it's cheaper to build dirty

OU812IC
OU812IC

@sweetlacuna @OU812IC 

Sure BP has paid a lot of money, but it was a slap on the wrist, what they paid out they make back in a month.

They paid millions to show America the commercials of how the Gulf has recovered, they even have the balls to claim it is better than it was(total BS). They are only showing you some of the good stuff, the people in the commercials were paid out/off to say what they say. The fact of the matter is running oil rigs the same old way they always have is cheaper and easier than being truly safe and the occasional spill is cheaper to pay off than doing it the right way with all their operations. They also know people have short memories and they can just pay some off and continue on the same way

TRUTHvGOP
TRUTHvGOP

@sweetlacuna @OU812IC Yes, you CAN win, but it takes a major effort that most people are unwilling to make. Corporations know that and they count on it. In my hometown we are fighting against the natural gas industry and winning because enough of us care enough to be involved. But, it does come with a price - we spend a lot of time, money and effort educating our fellow citizens and government officials and fighting City Hall in its own backyard.

You can talk about it, or you can get off your lazy butt and do something about it. The former does nothing in the end, while the latter MAY (or may not) accomplish the desired result depending upon how many citizens become involved and how well educated they become about the facts they need to win their fights.

OU812IC
OU812IC

@TRUTHvGOP @OU812IC @sweetlacuna 

Awesome job

Wish more towns had the sense and the fortitude to do what you guys have done. To many are willing to sell out to all the lies and $$ they promise, all for short term monetary gain and what the corps leave is much worse. The coporations usually know and win because they know there are going to be people just like them in pretty much every town who do not care about anything other than some quick $$. The thing is none of these corporate people who come in doing this are or nor would they ever live in the towns where they have been and done what they do and a lot of the people who are from the towns and who do cave in to make the quick buck also move away because deep down they know the turth and they don't want to stay there either

TRUTHvGOP
TRUTHvGOP

@OU812IC @TRUTHvGOP @sweetlacuna We are truly a grassroot organization. We are not funded by anybody, and all expenses come from our own pockets. But, what we lack in funding we have in spades in the form of factual information about every single aspect of the natural gas industry and the way it works.

We have fought this battle for over three years, and have won 100% of all individual fights so far. We made XTO (ExxonMobil) pull up its pants and go home. They walked away from an investment of nearly $15 Million becasue they realized they were not going to win and staying would only drive up their losses.

We have one more company (Trinity East Energy) to defeat, and so far we have been successful. We have hammered the very points you made about the false claims of jobs creation, the false claims of royalty checks, the false claims of long-term economic benefit and the false claims of not harming the environment or causing adverse human health effects.

The key to victory is arguing based upon legal and fiscalpoints rather than environmental points. As critically important as the environment is, no battle will be won on the merits of arguing environmental concerns when money to be made is a part of the equation. We are pointing out how Wall Street is fleeing the natural gas industry like rats from a sinking ship. If there is no money to be made off allowing fracing, then why allow it?

In the end, we argue money and law, but we win on the environment because it is not fiscally profitable to contaminate the environment and harm peoples' health. There are NO gas wells in the city where I live because we have fought them every step of the way!


OU812IC
OU812IC

@TRUTHvGOP @sweetlacuna @OU812IC 

Agreed. The problem is $$$$ they have lots of it to fight you guys, do you guys have it to fight back.

If you can actually find a politician or two who are not in the corporations pockets(hard to find) you may have a positive fight against them. If you are in a area of the country with high unemployment you have a harder battle, as they will go after that angle about how they are safe and how many jobs they will create(job numbers are always overblown and are usually short term) and many of the jobs are brought in from other areas not from the town itself. They come in hire less people than they advertised boost the local economy, build some stuff, build some house's and buildings and in a year or two they go away and so do the jobs and then business goes back to the way it was. Problem is some people thought yehaa I bought a new car, I bought a new house, I renovated my restaurant because we are a boomtown and then they are gone and the business is gone and the $$ is gone and then the cars are repossesed and the house goes into foreclosure and the restaurant does not have the business and they can't repay their construction loan. Then the only thing you have left is the crap they left, the polluted groundwater, and the damage. They are the ultimate locusts. The sad thing is they do this over and over all over the country and the people keep buying into it