Efforts To Clean The Huai Fail Again | September 3, 2007 Issue - Vol. 85 Issue 36 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 85 Issue 36 | p. 28
Issue Date: September 3, 2007

Efforts To Clean The Huai Fail Again

Running through poor regions of China, the river suffers as short-term economic concerns take precedence
Department: Business, Government & Policy
News Channels: Environmental SCENE
Toxic Flow
The Huai River as it flowed through the town of Shenqiu, Henan, in February.
Credit: Huo Daishan
Toxic Flow
The Huai River as it flowed through the town of Shenqiu, Henan, in February.
Credit: Huo Daishan

For the second time in three years, Chinese authorities have admitted that their all-out efforts to improve water quality in the Huai River, China's third largest, are a failure.

In the summer of 2004, China's State Environmental Protection Administration declared that 60% of the water in the Huai was unsuitable for drinking, irrigation, or even industrial use. At the time, China already had been trying to clean up the Huai for 10 years and had invested $2.4 billion in the effort.

Last month, China's state media reported that the Huai River Commission had informed the National People's Congress, China's parliament, that water quality in the Huai had yet to improve appreciably. The commission said chemical oxygen demand, a key indicator of water pollution, was 30% above its target.

"It was common knowledge that the government's efforts were failing," says environmental activist Huo Daishan in an e-mail to C&EN. In February, Huo photographed the Huai as it flowed brown and foamy through the small city of Shenqiu, in Henan province. Huo's Henan-based group, the Huai River Protectors, lobbies for the cleanup of the Huai and for better care for people affected by its contamination.

But Huo adds that he is encouraged by the government's candor. "From now on, authorities will try harder," he predicts. The government has learned from its failures, he notes optimistically.

Spanning about 680 miles, the Huai flows between the Yellow River and the Yangtze River through the provinces of Henan, Anhui, Jiangsu, and Shandong. It plays a key irrigation role, particularly in Henan and Anhui, which are landlocked and economically depressed. Environmentalist Ma Jun wrote in his 2004 book, "China's Water Crisis," that about 150 million people live in the Huai River basin.

In the book, Ma describes the history of the Huai as an unhappy one. The Huai once flowed into the Yellow River, but damming on the Yellow some 700 years ago caused the Yellow to change course, preventing the Huai from flowing into it. The Huai now flows into the Yangtze, a change that crippled the Huai's ability to handle water surges. Since then, the river has been the cause of many of China's most catastrophic floods. Hundreds of people were killed in such floods just two months ago, according to China's state media.

Ma's research indicates that the biggest polluters of the Huai river basin are producers of paper, fertilizers, and food ingredients. He and his staff at the Institute for Public & Environmental Affairs, in Beijing, collected documents from the Henan provincial government last year singling out Lianhua Group, a large producer of monosodium glutamate, as a major polluter of the Shaying River, a tributary of the Huai. The provincial government fined Lianhua $1.2 million in 2003 for exceeding emission standards despite being majority-owned by the government of the city of Xiangcheng (C&EN, Sept. 26, 2005, page 21).

In the many poor towns and villages along the Huai and its tributaries, officials face the stark choice of either allowing polluting industries to operate or letting their constituents go without jobs. A China-based environmentalist familiar with the situation says such officials typically give priority to short-term economic considerations. The environmentalist, who asked for anonymity because he said it was not a good time for him to speak to the foreign media, says the problem of poor drinking-water quality is normally resolved by digging deep wells.

Yet the pollution has affected thousands of people near the river and its tributaries who still drink surface water or water drawn from shallow aquifers. China's state media has been reporting for several years that cancer rates along the Huai are abnormally high.

Earlier this year, Huo asserted in a paper in a Chinese-language book on China's environmental problems that the way to improve water quality in the Huai and its tributaries is to cap hundreds of clearly visible wastewater outlets.

The failure of local officials to tackle such a clear pollution problem, he added, is an economic failure. Whereas factories, even if they pollute, contribute to the economy by producing a measurable income, the loss that peasants suffer when their rivers no longer provide fish or drinking water is not similarly reflected in numbers measuring economic growth.

The Huai River Commission says its priority in the coming years will be to ensure that industrial polluters reduce their emissions to acceptable standards. But the commission admits that it will be difficult to achieve the target of cutting major water pollutants in half by 2010.

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