Life on the Qiantang River: flowers and pollution

Some parts of China have experienced comparative prosperity, but at what cost? Feng Yongfeng spoke to fishermen in the east of the country, where a local development zone has led to simmering discontent.

People sometimes say that because eastern China has a developed economy, its environment is well protected, but is this really the case? On a visit to the Nanyang chemical industry zone, near Hangzhou, I found that despite its veneer of beautiful flowers, the area has pollution problems that have not been dealt with effectively.

Nanyang was one of the first industrial parks at a township or village level in Zhejiang province. Years of heavy pollution in the area saw companies regularly targeted by the media. Local government repeated that they would clean things up: local firms undertook to meet environmental standards by the end of 2007, and factories were supposed to have been relocated by that time. However, on April 23, 2008, I saw no sign of anyone moving.

Since 1997, land in Wuli village has been taken from the locals and allocated to the zone for chemical, electrochemical, steel and power plants. Many villagers no longer have enough land to grow their own food. A family of three receives about 1,200 yuan (US$173) in compensation every year, which works out at around 1 yuan per person every day.

One villager, Shao Guantong, said he became very worried about the change in land use and the rampant pollution from small chemical factories. He could not read and did not have an “educated” way to resist, but his wife, Wei Dongying, decided to keep an “anti-pollution journal” to log photos of pollution by local firms. They used this to work with other villagers and try to uphold their rights. They demanded the factories clean up their act or relocate, and urged the government to move the factories or relocate the villagers.

Wei opened up a map of the local waterways. “We kept on complaining,” she said. “For a while we got some media attention, but the root problems were never solved. On the contrary, the area is now practically covered with chemical zones, industrial zones and development zones. The farmers have all lost their land, and the land has been badly polluted. Even if they got the land back, nobody would eat any of the crops.” Wei visited Beijing a number of times to discuss the issue with environmental groups.

As spring turned to summer, flowers had opened along the banks of the Qiantang River, also known as the Zhe River. There are more than 20 chemical plants in this area. Despite the chimneys and waste water outlets, the factories grow flowers out front; you could not see the heavily polluted water in Wei’s photos. The water is mostly clear, although there is a slight odour if you get close.

“They became sneaky,” said Shao. “They store [the pollution] in the factory and release it at night. The Qiantang River runs along here and they dump the water when the tide comes up. A reporter came here once – the reporter waited through the night and filmed them doing it.”

The Nanyang waste water collection centre sits beside the Qiantang River. It was built three years ago, but it is now only semi-functional. Waste water from factories is supposed to be collected there and processed at an urban sanitation facility 17 kilometres away before re-entering the river. In actual fact, half of the centre’s land has been used to build a chemical plant.

The local farmers take pride in building their own houses, and save their money to build large and beautiful homes. But the air inside still smells bad, as untreated fumes from the factories waft through the windows. By the end of my 10-hour trip to the village my throat felt sore. But the locals live here month after month, year after year. “Friends who have visited say this is no place to be living,” said Shao. “But it is where we live and we will stay regardless, as will our grandchildren.”


There are many different types of fruit trees in Shao and Wei’s front garden. Shao lit a cigarette. “See those pomegranates? They’re about to flower – red flowers, really beautiful. But in autumn, as the fruit ripen, you will find they are black and rotten inside.” He pointed out a loquat tree. “We used to get fruit as big as a hen’s egg from that. Now, they are more like pigeon eggs.”


Next to the trees is the family fish pond. Before the factories, they used to raise fish and feed them on leftovers from the dining table. The fish would grow to a foot or more in length. Crabs would thrive in the water. But now the pond is empty. “The fish would die after it rained. You can imagine what the rain was taking out of the air and putting into the water.”


Wei said that from 1997 to 2007, 70 villagers of all ages contracted a number of different cancers. The youngest victim was Gan Haifeng, who died at the age of 25, just months after marrying.


And yet the village remains silent. Several years ago, eight villagers did attempt to mount a protest, but since then nobody has persisted. Even Wei retreats from the idea. “My husband has always been a representative for the fishing industry. This year the authorities found someone else. Maybe one day we will even lose our fishing licence. Then how will we make a living?”


The Qiantang River flows into Hangzhou Bay, widening as it approaches the sea. Since 1950, the government has encouraged land reclamation. Wuli village and the Nanyang industrial zone were both built on land reclaimed from the river.


The government continues to promote land reclamation, and land has been reclaimed on both banks of the river. Consequently, the force of the tides is pushed into a narrow channel. Last year, people who had gathered to watch the tide were tragically swept away. Land reclamation for farming means that almost the total length of the river banks has been concreted; the shoals and wetlands are all gone. The loss of wetlands means they can no longer absorb the pollution that now flows out to sea, and pollution in the river is worsening.


Dai Jinhai, a fisherman who had just returned from a fishing trip, told me: “People say the pollution in the river gives our swordfish a strange taste. The price keeps dropping.” On his trip, Dai accidentally caught a green-winged teal, a type of duck. Its reproductive organs were exposed and there was no saliva in its beak. This indicated that it had not been poisoned by fishermen, but by pollution.


Surprisingly, when the environment authorities tested the water on March 25, 2008, they found it was Class I — the cleanest category. But Shao, who has fished in the river his entire life, did not agree. “There used to be lots of us fishermen,” he said. “Prices for fish were low, but I was still able to build my house. Now there are fewer fishermen and the fish cost more, but it is hard to make a living. The fish used to be big and easy to sell. Now there are fewer of them and they are smaller, with a strange flavour. They are hard to sell. Is that Class I water? We don’t know how to test it, but we know what we see. And it worries me.”


Feng Yongfeng is a science reporter for Guangming Daily

Homepage photo by Toby (Yang) Yu