Pollution in China's Tai Lake worse despite national push for environmentalism

The government in the town of Zhoutie, China, now pays former fishermen to scoop toxic algae blooms out of a polluted lake.
By William Wan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 29, 2010; 12:14 AM

ZHOUTIE, CHINA -- You smell the lake before you see it, an overwhelming stench like rotten eggs mixed with manure.

The visuals are just as bad, the shore caked with toxic blue-green algae. Out further, where the algae is more diluted but equally fueled by pollution, it swirls with the currents, a vast network of green tendrils across the surface of Tai Lake.

Such pollution problems are now widespread in China after three decades of unbridled economic growth. But what's surprising about Tai Lake is the money and attention that's been spent on the problem and how little either has accomplished. Some of the country's highest-ranking leaders, including Premier Wen Jiaobao, have declared it a national priority. Millions of dollars have been poured into the cleanup.

And yet, the lake is still a mess. The water remains undrinkable, the fish nearly gone, the fetid smell lingering over villages.

Tai Lake is the embodiment of China's losing fight against pollution. This summer, the government said that, despite stricter rules, pollution is rising again across the country in key categories such as emissions of sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain. And just months before, the government had revealed that water pollution was more than twice as severe as previous official figures had shown.

The story of Tai Lake is a story of high-level promises and lower-level reneging, of economic interests superceding environmental ones. And it is an illustration of China's awkward relationship with environmental activists, who challenge the government's authority but are often the loudest force pushing its new environmental priorities on the local level.

No one knows this story better than Wu Lihong.

For almost two decades, Wu - a peasant living along the lake, a three-hour drive west of Shanghai - waged a one-man campaign to clean it up. He kept track of the thousands of factories springing up along its shores and took pictures of the untreated waste they discharged into the lake. He mailed water samples to inspectors, called TV stations and spoke out in the face of threats from factory bosses and local leaders.

His actions cost him his job, threatened his marriage and landed him in prison for three years. He returned home this spring to find the lake virtually unchanged. Now, with no job prospects and few friends willing to risk a visit, he spends much of his time alone at home, mulling over what he has sacrificed - whether it was worth it, and whether he should continue.

'He was the only one left'

To hear Wu's story firsthand is to witness the paranoia he now lives in.

A short, baby-faced man, Wu, 42, assumes his cellphone is tapped and prefers meeting strangers in obscure spots outside town. After agreeing to take a reporter to his home, Wu pulls up his shorts to reveal a two-inch scar on his inner thigh. He said he got it a few weeks ago by the lake when two thugs attacked him with a knife. He points to rounder scars along his arm and his hands - cigarette burns, he said, from police interrogations.

While he was in prison, authorities put his wife and daughter under 24-hour surveillance. Shortly before Wu's release, the guards in front of his house were replaced by three traffic cameras erected on the single-lane road leading to his farmhouse.

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