pollution in China

The Economist published a fairly detailed article on the state of the environment in China, the levels of continuing degradation and pollution, and the various measures that trying to deal with it. One case study is in Guangdong Province, where the extremes go from murderous to state-of-the art.

Plugging a cigarette into his mouth, He Shouming runs a nicotine-stained fingernail down a list of registered deaths in Shangba, dubbed ‘cancer village’ by the locals. The Communist Party official in this cluster of tiny hamlets of 3,300 people in northern Guangdong province, he concludes that almost half the 11 deaths among his neighbours this year, and 14 of the 31 last year, were due to cancer.

Mr He blames Dabaoshan, a nearby mineral mine owned by the Guangdong provincial government, and a host of smaller private mines for spewing toxic waste into the local rivers, raising lead levels to 44 times permitted rates. Walking around the village, the water in the streams is indeed an alarming rust-red. A rice farmer complains of itchy legs from the paddies, and his wife needs a new kettle each month because the water corrodes metal. “Put a duck in this water and it would die in two days,” declares Mr He.
Poisons from the mines are also killing the village’s economy, which depends on clean water to irrigate its crops, says Mr He. Rice yields are one-third of the national average and nobody wants to buy the crop. Annual incomes here have been stuck at less than 1,500 yuan ($180) per person for a decade, almost three times lower than the average in Guangdong province. The solution to Shangba’s nightmare would be a local reservoir, but that idea was abandoned after various tiers of government squabbled over the 8.4m yuan cost.

Some 200km (124 miles) farther south and several decades into the future sits the Taihe landfill plant. Built for 540m yuan by Onyx, a waste-management company that is part of Veolia, a French utility, it has handled all of Guangzhou city’s solid waste for the past two years. Each hour 140 trucks snake into the site, bringing 7,000 tonnes of rubbish a day from the 9.9m inhabitants of Guangdong’s capital. In October delegates from 300 other municipalities will visit Taihe, promoted by central government as a role model of technology.

Smart cards record each truck’s load, since Onyx charges by weight. Unrippable German fabric lines the crater into which the waste is dumped, stopping leachate, a toxic black liquid, from leaking into the groundwater, as it does at almost all Chinese-run sites. Most landfill in China is wet (solid rubbish, such as old TVs, is scavenged), and the Taihe plant collects a full 1,300 tonnes of the black liquid daily. Chemical and filtration systems to neutralise it are its biggest cost. Expensive too is the extraction equipment to gather another by-product, methane gas, which Onyx plans to feed into generators that will supply electricity to the local grid. Finally, the waste is topped off with plastic caps, deodorised and landscaped, while a crystal-clear fountain at the entrance tinkles with the cleaned-up leachate.

The extremes represented by Shangba and Taihe explain why it is difficult to get an accurate picture of China’s pollution. In a country where data are untrustworthy, corruption rife and the business climate for foreigners unpredictable, neither the cause of Shangba’s problems nor the smooth efficiency of Taihe are necessarily what they seem. As with many other aspects of China’s economic development, rapid progress and bold experiments in some areas are balanced by bureaucratic rigidity and stagnation in others.