A poisoned river

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Former farmer Liu Gui'an still can't hide his sadness three years after watching his once-vibrant daughter's health deteriorate and eventually die in his arms.

"She hadn't seen the world yet," said the 39-year-old from Xinma village in Hunan Province, his voice obviously burdened by grief.

Liu's 7-year-old daughter died two years after being diagnosed with cadmium poisoning. Liu Bingqing was buried just 100 meters from the Xiangjiang River, the suspected source of the heavy metal that contributed to her death.

Patient Liu Guisheng's kidney stones were caused by long-term exposure to heavy metals. The Hunan resident had surgery in 2009. [CFP]

Patient Liu Guisheng's kidney stones were caused by long-term exposure to heavy metals. The Hunan resident had surgery in 2009. [CFP] 

The girl was not alone. Some 150 villagers have been poisoned by cadmium and their story shocked the nation when it was exposed in 2006.

Flowing more than 850 kilometers, the Xiangjiang River is Hunan's longest, supporting 60 percent of the province's population and 70 percent of its industrial output.

At one time the banks and fertile plains along the Xiangjiang River helped feed the province. Now some of the land is too polluted to farm and the river water is laden with a variety of heavy metals, farm chemicals and human waste. It is known as one of the country's most polluted rivers.

Robbed of their livelihood

Five years have passed since their agonizing story became public but little has seemingly been done to ease the pain of Xinma's villagers.

Liu and his wife believe pollution from Longteng Electroplating Factory caused their daughter's death and the couple sued in early 2009.

A local court agreed the company's sewage might have contributed to the severity of the girl's illnesses, which apparently included lupus.

The parents were shocked when the court ordered the company to pay 6,000 yuan($922.9) in compensation, a ruling that was upheld on appeal last year.

The couple has refused to accept the ruling and is considering taking their case to Beijing.

"How can a life be worth 6,000 yuan?" the girl's mother Yi Xiaomao asked, adding she is still struggling to pay off her daughter's 60,000-yuan medical bill.

In another cruel twist of bureaucratic rulings, the couple said they were disqualified from compensation when the ban on farming came into affect. Only farmers whose land and homes were within 500 meters of the Xiangjiang River are eligible for an annual stipend of 500 yuan per mu (one 15th of a hectare).

A local government employee skims scum from a sewage treatment pond in Zhuzhou, Hunan Province in 2006. [CFP]

A local government employee skims scum from a sewage treatment pond in Zhuzhou, Hunan Province in 2006. [CFP] 

Research and interviews conducted by the Global Times show that not much has changed in Xinma village since the poisoning case hit the media half a decade ago.

The village's Party leader, Luo Xiongjie, twice told the Global Times he was too busy to be interviewed about current local conditions.

Farming continues despite ban

Some of the villagers who remain in the village are now defying the ban on farming in order to survive.

A villager surnamed Hu has planted rice on five mu of his formerly bountiful farmland. Hu consented to discuss his situation only if his full name was not used.

Hu worries about planting a crop in contaminated soil, but he has few other choices. "Being afraid is one thing, feeding my family is another." Hu said he doesn't sell the rice he grows but it is used as his extended family's main staple.

Not only does the land remain unusable, the village's water is undrinkable. In the first months after the Xinma scandal became national news, the local government provided free potable water. Now, it is salable commodity.

The local butcher, Guo Yuexiang, has gone into business trucking water from the nearby village of Majiahe to sell to his thirsty neighbors. He earns one yuan for every five liters of water he sells.

This has forced the village's accountant, Tan Dinghui, to spend 200 yuan a month on water. He earns 1,500 yuan a month and his family is only able to afford to buy water for drinking and cooking. Tan uses contaminated ground water for bathing.

"My body itches and I get a rash from the well water," Tan told the Global Times.

The always-frugal Tan says life in the village has left him with more than a literal bitter taste in his mouth. "The local government doesn't care about us at all. They've left us for dead," Tan complained, adding that in order to make ends meet he too has to plant rice and vegetables on land that has been declared unfit for cultivation.

China's central government was moved to action when the plight of the people of Xinma came to light. This year the State Council vowed to allocate 59.5 billion yuan over the next 10 years to tackle pollution along the Xiangjiang River, initiating the first state-level comprehensive plan to control and manage heavy metal pollution in China.

Vast track affected

Experts believe the poisoning of Xinma villagers and the degradation of their land by pollutants is just one example of a widespread problem affecting vast tracks of land, especially in southern China.

"Pollution has been around for a long time but a lot of it has been concealed," said Chen Tongbin, the director of Research Center of Environment Restoration in the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CASS).

Chen said heavy metal pollution is more acute in southern China where mining is booming. "Heavy metals not only pollute the soil, they also poison rice paddies, especially in Hunan and Jiangxi provinces," Chen said.

A study carried out by Nanjing Agricultural University in February showed as much as 10 percent of China's rice may be tainted by cadmium.

China is the world's largest consumer of rice and produces nearly 200 million tons annually. Rice is a staple for 65 percent of the population.

Although China's environmental protection agency has vowed to curb heavy metal pollution, officials are still felt by many to be putting economic development ahead of environmental protection.

Reports of rice laced with heavy metals passing inspection and turning up on people's dining tables have left people worried about the safety of the main carbohydrate they consume.

Ministry of Land and Resources said in February that toxic metals have contaminated millions of acres of agricultural land and over 12 million tons of grain every year.

The International Herald Tribune reported that some experts believe 90 percent of the soil in China is polluted with heavy metals.

Much of the blame lies with China's mining industry and its less-than-cautious development during the 1980s. Turning a blind eye to the environmental consequences the industry's rapid exploitation of recourses has left some of China's provinces in a mess.

Hunan, Yunnan, Guangxi, Sichuan, and Guizhou provinces have seen mineral resources depleted and many mines have now been abandoned, leaving behind heavily polluted ground water and soil that had served the region for centuries.

Southern media outlets have reported several examples of poor communities that have been left in environmental tatters.

According to China Economy Weekly, local farmers in Huanjiang Maonan Autonomous County in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region were hit by a triple environmental threat when a coalmine began operating in their midst. Some hilltop farmland was covered over by a poorly constructed slag heap. When it rains, the runoff turns the mining waste into a slurry that pours down on to other farms. The saturated tailings pond also allows the contaminated rainwater to seep underground and has polluted the area's ground water.

In Gejiu, a county-level city in Yunnan Province, 100,000 tons of arsenic-laced slag has been left virtually unattended for decades.

Locals took it upon themselves to build an earthen berm around the slag heap, but arsenic has filtered into the city's ground water and nearby crops have been contaminated.

Raw sewage from factories, which has been allowed to flow into waterways, is also a source of chemical pollution.

The central government conducted a nationwide survey of heavy metal pollution of farmland last year, but detailed figures have yet to be released.

"The ministries fear the results might horrify the people," an expert who spoke on condition his name wouldn't be revealed told China Youth Daily.

Luo Zhongwei, a researcher of the Institute of Industrial Economy at the CASS told the Global Times the lack of information from the government has caused great concern.

"The government should be more transparent and release the figures to the public and let them know how severe the pollution problem really is. After that, the central and local governments can tackle the problem," said Luo, adding that tougher laws are required.

"It's an emergency. There is an urgent need for a specific law on the prevention and treatment of polluted soil and to increase enforcement," said the CASS researcher.

Efforts are under way to reclaim contaminated soil using special grass crops that absorb metals and are later destroyed. "The reclamation programs are very expensive, but we must make the investment to control pollutants and clean up the soil and ground water," said Luo.

"Money is one of the main obstacles, as local governments continue to put GDP growth ahead of environmental protection," said Luo.

Back in the village of Xinma, which literally means New Horse, Liu Gui'anand his wife Yi are contemplating their next move in their quest for justice. "My daughter's death and the unfair court judgment have left a dark shadow in our hearts. We've thought about going to Beijing to file a petition, but where can we get the money for that?" The heart-broken mother said.

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