China’s water cleanup brings mixed blessings

Published on
March 8, 2012

China’s freshwater fish farmers may be relieved this week to find that water quality is a top priority for 2012 in the premier Wen Jiabao’s state-of-the-union style work report to the annual National People’s Congress. Government has marked RMB 1.8 trillion for “water conservation” — largely plugging leaks and building wastewater treatment plants — through 2015, reiterated Wen, who also promised to raise urban and industrial water fees to promote conservation.

The central government’s promises follow a string of calamitous pollution incidents threatening fresh water supplies in China where only 27 percent of fresh water resources are fit for drinking. China’s freshwater fish production appears doomed as the latest industrial pollution has renewed calls from locally based environmental groups for government to publish regular data on factories polluting the country’s rivers.

Authorities in southern China this week are still working to clean up toxic spills from smelters and factories in Heichi city, Guangxi province, which have ruined the stocks of fish farmers on the Longjiang River. Fishermen have been barred from selling fish locally and many have seen stocks wiped out by the 20-ton cadium spill. Local government directed farmers to scoop stinking dead fish on the river and bury them in two-meter deep pits on the river banks, according to the local media. The Nanning Evening News, a daily in the provincial capital Nanning, printed comments from local fish farmer Huang Yuping, who reported loss of 5,000 fish, having spent RMB 40,000 on expanding a plot on the river in the past year to cash in on increased local demand.

JinHe Mining, a state-owned firm, is one of several blamed for the pollution by environmental activists who say water quality is being impacted by a rush of manufacturing inward from the southern and southeast coastal provinces like Guangdong where the bulk of manufacturing has been concentrated. As poorer, agricultural provinces like Guangxi, Guizhou and Anhui compete for new manufacturing jobs, fishermen and environmentalists both say water quality is threatened.

Water scarcity and pollution are threatening both aquaculture and fisheries in China, said Han Han, program manager at the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership office in China.

“I think in most cases in China people just use natural, untreated water from whatever water resource they can access for fish farming,” said Han. “For freshwater, these areas used to be concentrated in Hubei, Anhui, Jiangsu, Hunan [and] Zhejiang, where natural water resource was plentiful. Due to the pollution and scarcity mainly caused by heavy industry development, the aquaculture has now partially moved to places like Sichuan, Chongqing and Yunnan, which traditionally did not have aquaculture.”

Ambitions among local governments to entice new industries and protect state-owned industries are conflicting with efforts to protect waterways. While the villains are often rusting state-owned enterprises, a less-blamed bane of the inland fisheries sector is China’s keenness to compete in new industries like polysilicon. Listed on the New York stock exchange, Zheijiang Jinke (Jinko Solar) has been blamed for a fluoride spill from its solar panel factory, which wiped out fishermen in Hongxiao village in Zheijiang province, south of Shanghai. A private firm with international investors, Jinko has made much of its supposedly green credentials but was the focus of a furious protest by Hongxiao fishermen who also blame a high incidence of cancer and leukemia on run off from Jinko’s manufacturing facility into local rivers.

Ultimately freshwater fish farming itself may also be targeted by government attempts to improve water quality. “It’s hard to say whether or not the government supports more fish farming,” said Han. “In some provinces, aquaculture has been encouraged. But on other cases, this industry has been squeezed to give space to other industries, such as tourism and manufacturing.”

Stricter central government enforcement of pollution has crimped production in provinces that were once key clusters of freshwater fish farming. In Jiangsu province, for instance, monitoring the water quality in Tai Lake has forced local officials to shut down most of fish farms and “restricted the fish farming to a very limited level,” explained Han. Meanwhile, in the southerly island province of Hainan, provincial government (which markets the island as “China’s Hawaii”) “wants to reduce or at least limit the acreage of fish farms, to prioritize tourism development especially along the coast where aquaculture used to be a prominent industry for local people,” said Han.

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