Sunday, October 14, 2007

A Shocking Case of Pollution in China

More than 2 million people use this lake for their source of drinking water. Can you imagine what is going to happen to them, their children, and their children's children? From The New York Times October 13, 2007 In China, a Lake’s Champion Imperils Himself ZHOUTIE, China — Lake Tai, the center of China’s ancient “land of fish and rice,” succumbed this year to floods of industrial and agricultural waste. Toxic cyanobacteria, commonly referred to as pond scum, turned the big lake fluorescent green. The stench of decay choked anyone who came within a mile of its shores. At least two million people who live amid the canals, rice paddies and chemical plants around the lake had to stop drinking or cooking with their main source of water. The outbreak confirmed the claims of a crusading peasant, Wu Lihong, who protested for more than a decade that the region’s thriving chemical industry, and its powerful friends in the local government, were destroying one of China’s ecological treasures. Mr. Wu, however, bore silent witness. Shortly before the algae crisis erupted in May, the authorities here in his hometown arrested him. In mid-August, with a fetid smell still wafting off the lake, a local court sentenced him to three years on an alchemy of charges that smacked of official retribution. Pollution has reached epidemic proportions in China, in part because the ruling Communist Party still treats environmental advocates as bigger threats than the degradation of air, water and soil that prompts them to speak out. Senior officials have tried to address environmental woes mostly through pulling the traditional levers of China’s authoritarian system: issuing command quotas on energy efficiency and emissions reduction; punishing corrupt officials who shield polluters; planting billions of trees across the country to hold back deserts and absorb carbon dioxide. But they do not dare to unleash individuals who want to make China cleaner. Grass-roots environmentalists arguably do more to expose abuses than any edict emanating from Beijing. But they face a political climate that varies from lukewarm tolerance to icy suppression. Fixing the environment is, in other words, a political problem. Central party officials say they need people to report polluters and hold local governments to account. They granted legal status to private citizens’ groups in 1994 and have allowed environmentalism to emerge as an incipient social force. But local officials in China get ahead mainly by generating high rates of economic growth and ensuring social order. They have wide latitude to achieve those goals, including nearly complete control over the police and the courts in their domains. They have little enthusiasm for environmentalists who appeal over their heads to higher-ups in the capital. Rest of the story.

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