Bloggers Map China’s Pollution

Prize-winning photos document the pace—and the price—of China’s economic growth.
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A worker shows blue algae caused by untreated sewage in Donghu Lake in Wuhan, Aug. 17, 2009.
A worker shows blue algae caused by untreated sewage in Donghu Lake in Wuhan, Aug. 17, 2009.

HONG KONG—A map pinpointing the exact location of some of the worst-polluted parts of China is making the rounds on the Chinese Internet, as a prize-winning photo exhibit causes many well-heeled urbanites to confront the environmental devastation caused by three decades of breakneck growth.

Inspired by the recent publication online of a series of photos by prize-winning Chinese photographer Lu Guang detailing horrific scenes of industrial pollution around the country, online activists have compiled a Google map of the worst-polluted areas in China.

“I saw the photos by Lu Guang and they had a big impact on me. Those photos won the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography, and they really shocked me,” Fujian-based netizen and map compiler Peter Guo Baofeng said.

“So I had the idea to compile all of those photos in a way that reflected their location, their actual location on a map, so you could see it,” said Guo, who is known on the microblogging platform Twitter as “amoiist,” and who was detained by police for his online activism earlier this year.

Cancer incidence

He said his map was partly inspired by a similar map showing the areas of China with the highest incidence of reported cancer, compiled by a netizen known as Shuang Ye.

“When I superimposed one on top of the other, a lot of the locations in the photos were very close to China’s cancer villages. There were clusters of cancer in these locations, where there was also a lot of pollution,” Guo added.

Among the places Guo and friends plotted on the map were the Taixing Chemical Park in eastern Jiangsu province on the banks of the Yangtze river, a village next door to the Fanjiazhuang Steel Works in Henan’s Anyang city, and the Xiaoshan Chemical Park in eastern Zhejiang province, where waste water is pumped directly into the Qiantang river.

Also mapped were Lu’s photos of the Anyang Steel Factory in Henan where waste effluent pollutes the Anyang River, the polluted fish farms of Guiyu township in southern Guangdong province, the Ma’anshan Chemical Industrial District which pumps polluting waste into the Yangtze River, and the Laseng Temple Industrial Park in Inner Mongolia which dumps effluent into the Yellow River.

Some of the poorest regions of China have been hit by waves of demonstrations in recent months by angry parents outside zinc and manganese smelting plants near their homes after hundreds of children were diagnosed with lead poisoning.

Poor enforcement

China has an impressive body of environmental protection laws, but the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) has little clout to enforce it in the face of rampant official corruption and the need to boost economic growth in poorer regions.

Environmental activists said that most people believed that the environmental devastation brought by economic growth was inevitable.

“The official explanation for all this, which they have got into the habit of employing, is that you have to put up with a certain amount of damage if you want to have economic development,” said blogger and environmental activist Tiger Sprout.

“A lot of ordinary people wrongly believe this as well. The reality is actually very different,” he said.

‘Arrogance’ alleged

Sichuan online writer Ran Yunfei blamed “arrogant” local officials.

“[They] are only really concerned with getting local GDP figures up, with a feather in their own caps, and with their chances of advancement,” he said.

“So this situation has been caused by their arrogance.”

Freelance photojournalist Lu Guang won the U.S. $30,000 W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography earlier this month for his documentary project “Pollution in China.”

Lu, 45, was announced as the winner by the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund in New York during an event marking the group’s 30th anniversary.

China’s leaders have admitted that they may have a hard time meeting energy efficiency and emissions targets for 2010, in spite of a nationwide plan to slow massive environmental damage.

In his work report to the annual session of the National People’s Congress in March, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said China had cut its energy consumption per unit of gross domestic product by 4.59 percent in 2008.

In 2006, Wen set a goal of slashing energy waste by 20 percent during the 11th Five-Year Plan, running through 2010, as part of a campaign to address the consequences of China’s building boom and runaway industrialization during the past decade.

Original reporting in Mandarin by Xin Yu. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.





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