Rapid industrialization has transformed China into one of the most powerful forces on the planet. But that transformation is not limited to stunning economic success. Lake Tai, once the center of a fertile agricultural region, is now host to almost 3,000 factories and subject to countless, unrecorded environmental violations.
Once rich in fish and surrounded by fertile soil, the 800 square mile lake is China’s third largest and one of its most beloved. It was the ideal setting for the flurry of industrial development that swept the nation during the 1990s. But the area was gradually destroyed by busy factories that neglected or outright ignored the country’s weak environmental regulations.
In those early days, the state of the lake became a source of growing concern for Wu Lihong, a local fishermen, who spent 16 years fighting for the government to do something about it. He organized an environmental monitoring group called Defenders of Tai Lake and, despite harassment from authorities, eventually succeeded in closing down 200 of the lakeside factories. It took years of water samples and endless campaigning, and it eventually landed him in prison.
Wu Lihong was sentenced on charges of extortion and blackmail in April of 2007. The next month, a toxic algae bloom turned Lake Tai green, just days after the MEP named Yixing, a bordering town, a “National Model City for Environmental Protection.” In 2006, there were 1,188 companies producing chemicals in Yixing.
Today, the government has not acknowledged the scale of its pollution problem. Gas, sludge and wastewater have been discharged into Lake Tai and its dozens of related waterways, poisoning the soil. Local farmers plant their seeds in soil known to be suffused with cadmium, lead, mercury and other heavy metals, but they have no recourse but to eat the crops that grow from it.
When Environment360 attempted to interview local farmers about the state of their land, most were too scared to speak or to give their names. Some acknowledged that cancer rates have climbed since the factories arrived, but even Professor Chen from Jiangsu’s Hohai University admits that proving a connection between cancer and pollution is very difficult.
What is known is that in February 2013, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) publicly admitted the existence of “cancer villages,” places where significant numbers of villagers had rapidly developed cancers. A list of villages affected (some estimate there are as many as 450 throughout the country) included those situated around Lake Tai. Over 30 million people draw their drinking water from the Lake Tai Basin.
Today, officials say that China is producing 12 million tons of contaminated grain every year. The Jiangsou Geological Survey published a report in April 2013 that showed heavy metal pollution in the Wuxi, Suzhou and Changzhou areas had increased continuously since 2004.
For more on China’s toxic soil and its effects on its citizens, read He Guangwei’s E360 Special Report, “China’s Dirty Pollution Secret: The Boom Poisoned Its Soil and Crops.”