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Keeping clean in quake-hit areas
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More than one month after the Wenchuan earthquake in China's Sichuan province, the cleanup and reconstruction continue amid public fears of disease, chemical and radioactive contamination and unsafe food and drinking water.

Not only have people's lives, homes, schools and other facilities been destroyed, the ecological environment has also been severely challenged.

Collapsed chemical plants have become potential polluters for fear of toxic leaks.

Mountains of ruins, corpses and electronic and chemical debris need immediate disposal to stem water and air contamination as well as the spread of infectious diseases.

And, one of the environmental problems of most concern to people inside and outside China is the condition of the nuclear power facilities and radioactive sources in Sichuan.

They were confirmed as "safe and controllable" after the May 12 quake by China's top environment official.

Zhou Shengxian, minister of Environmental Protection, says 32 unspecified "radioactive sources" were buried under debris during the 8-magnitude earthquake. To date, 30 have been recovered.

According to a report by Xinhua News Agency, authorities have detected the locations of the remaining two radioactive sources, and have limited public access to the areas during the excavations.

The two radioactive sources will be transported to safe areas "soon', says Zhou.

Officials also have attached great importance to water safety at the quake-struck regions. The Ministry of Health (MOH) and the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) are continuously monitoring water quality throughout the commodity chain, from water sources to distribution venues, according to Mao Qun'an, spokesman of MOH.

The MEP has allocated 5 million yuan for the prevention and control of pollution-related accidents. Monitoring equipment worth 10 million yuan has been sent to the worst hit areas, and will be used to treat drinking water and provide protection from pollution caused by pesticide, fertilizer and chemical leakages and damaged nuclear facilities.

All water inspection stations across the region have been doing daily reports and regularly providing analysis, Mao says.

The MEP has completed water quality tests at 13 drinking water sources in 11 areas and found all of them meet safe drinking water standards.

The MOH says it is working around the clock to supervise and guide sanitation work at venues for food and water distribution to prevent food poisoning, intestinal infections and epidemic outbreaks.

The MEP also says that there is no significant change in the water and air quality in the quake-prone regions.

If water is polluted, immediate treatment is required and emergency drinking water treatment will be utilized using activated carbon and advanced oxidation processes, according to Zhou.

Trash disposal

As for garbage treatment, which is one of great environmental challenges in the resettlement areas, the MEP has outlined measures for the proper disposal of trash, including open rubbish burning a safe distance away from people and settlements.

However the ministry has said that open air burning should be a last resort if existing facilities such as industrial incinerators are not available. Medical waste should be disinfected promptly and burned or buried as required.

The Ministry of Agriculture has said that farmland should be tested for chemical pollutants and that polluted fields be abandoned if they are found to be unsuitable for planting.

Plantations and crop fields near industrial enterprises and garbage disposal venues should be replanted if they are found to be safe after tests, the agricultural ministry says.

Pan Yue, vice-minister of environmental protection, says that reconstruction in the disaster-hit areas should not simply mean restoring what the quake razed.

Environmentally friendly rebuilding solutions should be taken into consideration throughout the whole process of reconstruction, Pan says.

Many environmentalist and academics advocate a "green" reconstruction that was likely ignored in the past.

Experts advocate constructing stronger buildings with a maximum ability to recycle their sources.

China will build 1.5 million temporary houses in Sichuan Povince that are expected to last at least three years, according to Jiang Weixin, minister of Housing and Urban-Rural Development.

The houses, 20 sq m each on average, should be as quake resistant as possible and also made from eco-friendly materials, Jiang says.

However, there is still no answer on how to deal with the disposal of the temporary houses after they are no longer useable, says Liu Wenkui, administrative vice general secretary of China Foundation of Poverty Alleviation.

"But we expect plans to deal with the current ruins in a safe and environmentally friendly way," he says.

(China Daily June 24, 2008)

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