“A decade off our lives”

An environmental crisis is unfolding in the cradle of Chinese civilisation, the Yellow River. Chen Yu travelled to the river's upper reaches and found industrial pollution destroying the health of many locals.

Pollution along the middle and upper reaches of north China’s Yellow River has steadily worsened in recent years. Power-hungry and polluting industrial zones have sprung up along the river; factory chimneys tower over what used to be villages. Thick smoke fills the sky and contaminated water flows into the Yellow River. Industrial sludge is dumped on the grasslands. Many of the locals live in the midst of this, and often suffer disease as a result.

Statistics show that waste discharge into the Yellow River has doubled over the last two decades; more than 10 tributaries have become little more than sewers. Forty percent of the Yellow River itself has lost its capacity for life.

According to targets set in China’s 11th Five Year Plan, emissions of major pollutants in 2010 will be 10% below 2005 levels. This means that from 2006, annual emissions reductions of 2% are necessary.

But can the Yellow River be saved? Or will it go the way of China’s Huai River?

“Living here takes a decade off our lives,” sighs our taxi driver, looking into the black smog ahead. We are in the town of Gongwusu, where Ningxia province meets Inner Mongolia. The driver often takes motorway 108 or 109 to destinations on either side of the border. “Everywhere the sky is full of black fumes, like storm clouds. You can’t see the sun; even in the daytime you need to put your headlights on.”

In recent years, factories producing limestone, coke and taconite have set up shop here. And the resulting waste has changed the locals’ lives.

Yuan Guangshen, a local village head, looks over the ruins of his village. Says Yuan: “They built an industrial zone here, and the villagers all left.” The village housed most of the agricultural operations in the area and its grain and vegetables fed surrounding factories and mines. The Ordos grasslands lie not far to the east, and over the Yellow River to the west is the vast Alashan desert.

Since 2001, almost 20,000 mu (around 13 square kilometres) of village land was appropriated for the industrial zone. As it grew, chimneys sprouted, belching black fumes that covered the village. The most obvious effect was on the local produce. Black spots and rot appeared on aubergines and tomatoes. Sales plummeted, but Yuan says: “We didn’t get any compensation at the time. Only recently, when we reached a deal with the local government.” The villagers have since moved away, but without the land they farmed for generations, they have no work.

In the past this village, sandwiched between desert and grassland, had no major health problems. But since 2003, cancer and other diseases have killed many. “It’s not so bad on a windy day,” says Yuan. “Otherwise the stench really irritates your nose.” He shakes his head at the nearby factories. “Now we’ve all got respiratory illnesses.” And this is only one of the many industrial zones crammed into the region. Since 2000, the three local governments in the region have been competing to attract heavy industry.

One of these industrial zones is built on pastureland famous in the past for the quality of its cashmere, made from its native Alpas goats. One of the Mongolian herders tells us: “Since 2004, each household has had a dozen or more goats die every year. Even the cashmere is blackened.” Two hundred sheep graze in the shadow of 20 fuming chimneys. A kilometre-long black line runs towards us beside the motorway. “That used to be a riverbed. Then last year the limestone factory started dumping their waste here,” he says. Only two kilometres to the east is a fenced-off nature reserve. This herder is one of the few to remain here. Most have given up their flocks to try and make a living in the town. “In future, there might not be any of us left,” he sighs.

A small town 10 kilometres southwest of Gongwusu grew up around a chemical factory now sold to a Guangdong businessman, who also installed a power plant. The factory effluent filters out through a series of ponds into a creek which flows into the Yellow River. Solid waste is dumped by truck into a deep hollow not far from the river. The factory has its own rail line; the carriages waiting to be loaded are clearly marked: “Danger! Poison!” Further to the southwest lies another industrial zone, with chimneys spewing black smoke that rolls towards the Yellow River. You do not get many clear days there either. A worker in a local orchard tells me: “Whole batches of trees die off every year.” Sixty of the trees he is responsible for have died in four years. The factory’s steaming, muddy effluent is fed straight into the Yellow River, which the orchard draws on for water to irrigate its trees.

In the second half of 2006, China’s State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) responded to petitions from the area and ordered the local authorities to force improvements in a number of factories. They shut a number of small coking and sodium silicate operations. But a local environmental official admits: “A lot of the factories we closed here just opened up somewhere else.” There is little scope for optimism on the Yellow River.

Yu Chen is a reporter for the Guangdong-based daily newspaper, Southern Metropolitan News.

Homepage photo by Hal