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The tale of Tai Lake

Progress elusive

In a photo by environmental activist Wu Lihong, fishermen skim toxic algae from the surface of Tai Lake in Zhoutie, China.
In a photo by environmental activist Wu Lihong, fishermen skim toxic algae from the surface of Tai Lake in Zhoutie, China. (Courtesy Of Wu Lihong)

Just weeks after his arrest in 2007, everything Wu had warned about suddenly came true.

Pollutants in the lake produced record amounts of toxic algae. Local authorities were forced to declare the lake undrinkable, leaving more than 2 million people without potable water. The price of bottled water shot up sixfold.

As Tai Lake became a national scandal, hundreds of industrial plants were shut down, local officials were dismissed, and billions of dollars were committed to clean it up. It became part of the new nationwide push to tackle air quality, forest preservation and water pollution.

Progress since then, however, has proved elusive. By some standards, the lake has improved. The level of nitrogen and phosphorus - ingredients for algae growth - have decreased slightly. By others measures, such as overall water quality, the lake has gotten worse.

According to government statistics in July, 85 percent of the lake was put in the worst possible category for water quality, unsuitable for drinking, irrigation or even recreation.

Across the country, modest environmental progress in recent years has seen similar signs of worsening as environmental concerns have taken a back seat in the recent the economic recovery.

At Tai Lake, part of the problem is that the same industrial factories poisoning the water also transformed the region into an economic powerhouse. Shutting them down, local leaders say, would destroy the economy overnight. In fact, many of the factories shut down during the 2007 scandal have since reopened under different names, environmentalists say.

Meanwhile, plant executives argue they have already done their part by installing new discharge treatment machines. But water quality experts jokingly call the new equipment "on/off machines," because they say the machines are only turned on during inspections.

But the worst sign of all is the fact that almost every city on the lake has quietly begun finding other sources of drinking water. The projects, which are costly but seldom publicized, indicate that even as local authorities devote billions to repairing the lake, few believe it will recover.

"The fear is that once these cities no longer depend on the lake for drinking water, the urgency will disappear," said Ma Jun, director of the non-governmental Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs.

In the face of this bleak future, Wu now questions whether he sacrificed everything for nothing.

"Maybe I should have just focused on making a living, raising my family," he says in his living room, holding his wife's string of carved monkeys. "But this is where I live. A man cannot just run away to Shangri-La while his home is ruined."

Across the room, Wu's wife says little.

Because Wu can't find a job, she now works two - one at a wool factory and the second, ironically, at a chemical plant on Tai Lake.

It is, she later explains, the only place hiring these days.

Staff researcher Wang Juan contributed to this report.

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