It was impossible for He Yongbao to enjoy this year's Spring Festival because his elder brother, in the prime of life, died of cancer a fortnight ago.
He's brother is one of several hundred people who have died in the village in Wengyuan, a rural county in south China's Guangdong Province, in recent years.
Locals believe the deaths are related to pollution in the village.
Provincial officials admit that more than 40 percent of the province's rural people do not have access to safe drinking water.
They also received 80,000 complaints about pollution last year.
"Opencast mining, which began about 20 years ago, has seriously polluted the water and soil in my hometown. Well water is hardly drinkable, and rice and vegetables are badly contaminated with heavy metals," He said.
"About 260 residents in my area have died of cancer in the past 18 years and others have contracted the illness."
He Yongbao's complaint was recently reiterated by Liang Lianluan, an environmental science professor at the Guangzhou-based South China University of Technology.
"Pollution, especially water pollution, has become increasingly serious in rural areas in the province; it can no longer be neglected," the professor told China Daily.
The authorities have been keeping a close eye on pollution in urban areas, but there has been very little attention given to rural areas, Liang said.
"Water pollution in rural areas might not be as bad as in urban areas, but it surely is more extensive," he said.
According to the professor, the abuse of agricultural chemicals, including fertilizers, pesticides and weed killers; the lack of sewage disposal facilities; the cultivation of poultry; and untreated waste from small township enterprises are all responsible for water pollution in rural areas in the province.
Sources say that about 2.5 million tons of pollutants are poured into the Pearl River, the most important river in the province, every year.
There are hardly any drainage systems or rubbish treatment plants in rural areas in the province, with waste and sewage simply discarded, making pollution inevitable.
The professor said that provincial authorities should quickly establish an integrated environmental supervision mechanism.
They should also introduce technology to deal with pollution problems in rural areas.
According to Chen Guangrong, deputy director of Guangdong Provincial Environmental Protection Administration, the authorities have realized the urgency of this issue.
Regulations are being developed to protect drinking water. This will soon be submitted to deputies of the provincial people's congress for examination and approval, he said.
The official said that environmental protection authorities received about 80,000 complaints related to pollution in the province last year, most of which were related to water pollution.
Chen said that his administration will keep a closer eye on enterprises liable to pollute water in the province's rural areas.
At a recent work conference, Zhou Rifang, head of the provincial water resources department, said that 22.08 million rural people do not yet have access to safe drinking water, making up 40 percent of the province's total rural population.
Of them, 14.36 million have access only to substandard drinking water, with the remaining 7.72 million suffering from inconvenient access to drinkable water.
The province will set aside 7.2 billion yuan (US$900 million) to solve these problems in the 11th Five-Year Plan Period (2006-10), Zhou said.
(China Daily February 13, 2006)