Responsive government in China is a topic beyond the scope of this post. Suffice to say, being more attuned to those who raise legitimate environmental concerns could have saved the PRC a lot of grief had things not been allowed to reach catastrophic proportions:
China will spend more than $14 billion to clean up a famed lake inundated by so much pollution this year that it became a symbol of the country’s lax environmental regulation against polluting industries.
Officials in Jiangsu Province, in eastern China, posted a notice on Friday on a government Web site announcing plans to spend 108.5 billion yuan, or $14.4 billion, for a cleanup of Lake Tai, the country’s third-largest freshwater lake. The campaign would focus initially on eradicating the toxic algal bloom that choked the lake this spring and left more than two million people without drinking water.
“Jiangsu Province plans to effectively control the eutrophication of Lake Tai in five years, and greatly improve the water quality of the lake,” the notice declared.
Lake Tai, known as China’s ancient “land of rice and fish,” is a legendary setting, once famous for its bounty of white shrimp, whitebait and whitefish. But over time, an industrial buildup transformed the region. More than 2,800 chemical factories arose around the lake, and industrial dumping became a severe problem and, eventually, a crisis.
This spring, urban sewage and chemical dumping caused an explosion of bright green pond scum that coated much of the giant lake with a fetid algal coating. Panic quickly followed in Wuxi, a nearby city that depended on the lake to supply drinking water for its 2.3 million residents. Officials were forced to shut off the drinking water supply for several days.
Local officials initially dismissed the algal bloom as a natural phenomenon, but Chinese news media broadcast images of factories dumping directly into the lake. The scandal deepened until Prime Minister Wen Jiabao convened a meeting of the State Council, China’s cabinet, to discuss the problem.
“The pollution of Lake Tai has sounded the alarm for us,” Mr. Wen said, according to state news media. “The problem has never been tackled at its root.”
Several local officials have been fired or demoted, and state news media have reported that regulators have already closed as many as 1,000 factories in the area.
But the new crackdown has not helped Wu Lihong, a local environmentalist who has spent more than a decade trying to force official action. Mr. Wu, a feisty peasant, had repeatedly protested against the chemical factories and the local officials who protected them.
Mr. Wu was arrested shortly before the algae crisis and was later convicted in August on questionable charges. He is now serving three years in prison, even as his direst warnings about the lake have come to pass.
Details about the new cleanup campaign are somewhat sketchy, though state news media reports have hinted that more factories might be closed or forced to suspend operations. In general terms, the campaign includes stricter emissions standards for industry and tighter water treatment regulations.
Ultimately, though, the success or failure of the program will depend on the sustained commitment of local officials and regulators. In other major cleanup campaigns, including one of the Huai River, corruption and the pressure for economic development have undermined environmental protection efforts.