From The Times
May 27, 2008
Daily updated Environmental news related to China
China’s biggest health disaster isn’t the terrible Sichuan earthquake this month. It’s the air.
The quake killed at least 60,000 people, generating a response that has been heartwarming and inspiring, with even schoolchildren in China donating to the victims. Yet with little notice, somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000 Chinese die prematurely every year from the effects of outdoor air pollution, according to studies by Chinese and international agencies alike.
In short, roughly as many Chinese die every two months from the air as were killed in the earthquake. And the problem is becoming international: just as Californians can find Chinese-made shoes in their stores, they can now find Chinese-made haze in their skies.
This summer’s Beijing Olympics will showcase the most remarkable economic explosion in history, and also some of the world’s thickest pollution in both air and water. So I’ve returned to the Yellow River in western China’s Gansu Province to an isolated village that has haunted me since I saw it a decade ago.
Badui is known locally as the “village of dunces.” That’s because of the large number of mentally retarded people here — as well as the profusion of birth defects, skin rashes and physical deformities. Residents are sure that the problems result from a nearby fertilizer factory dumping effluent that taints their drinking water.
“Even if you’re afraid, you have to drink,” said Zhou Genger, the mother of a 15-year-old girl who is mentally retarded and has a hunchback. The girl, Kong Dongmei, mumbled unintelligibly, and Ms. Zhou said she had never been able to speak clearly.
Ms. Zhou pulled up the back of her daughter’s shirt, revealing a twisted, disfiguring mass of bones.
A 10-year-old neighbor girl named Hong Xia watched, her eyes filled with wonder at my camera. The neighbors say she, too, is retarded.
None of this is surprising: rural China is full of “cancer villages” caused by pollution from factories. Beijing’s air sometimes has a particulate concentration that is four times the level considered safe by the World Health Organization.
Scientists have tracked clouds of Chinese pollution as they drift over the Pacific and descend on America’s West Coast. The impact on American health is uncertain.
In fairness, China has been better than most other countries in curbing pollution, paying attention to the environment at a much earlier stage of development than the United States, Europe or Japan. Most impressive, in 2004, China embraced tighter fuel economy standards than the Bush administration was willing to accept at the time.
The city of Shanghai charges up to $7,000 for a license plate, thus reducing the number of new vehicles, and China has planted millions of trees and hugely expanded the use of natural gas to reduce emissions. If you look at what China’s leaders are doing, you wish that President Bush were half as green.
But then you peer into the Chinese haze — and despair. The economic boom is raising living standards hugely in many ways, but the toll of the resulting pollution can be brutal. The filth is prompting public protests, but the government has tightly curbed the civil society organizations that could help monitor pollution and keep it in check.
An environmental activist named Wu Lihong warned for years that Lake Tai, China’s third-largest freshwater lake, was endangered by chemical factories along its banks. Mr. Wu was proved right when the lake filled with toxins last summer — shortly after the authorities had sentenced him to three years in prison.
Here in Badui, the picture is as complex as China’s development itself. The government has taken action since my previous visit: the factory supposedly is no longer dumping pollutants, and the villages have been supplied with water that, in theory, is pure. The villagers don’t entirely believe this, but they acknowledge that their health problems have diminished.
Moreover, economic development has reached Badui. It is still poor, with a per-capita income of $100 a year, but there is now a rough dirt road to the village. On my last visit, there was only a footpath.
The road has increased economic opportunities. Farmers have dug ponds to raise fish that are trucked to the markets, but the fish are raised in water taken from the Yellow River just below the fertilizer factory. When I looked in one pond, the first thing I saw was a dead fish.
“We eat the fish ourselves,” said the village leader, Li Yuntang. “We worry about the chemicals, but we have to eat.” He said that as far as he knew, the fish had never been inspected for safety.
Now those fish from this dubious water are sold to unsuspecting residents in the city of Lanzhou. And the complexities and ambiguities about that progress offer a window into the shadings of China’s economic boom.
Sciam.com Ban could save 37 million barrels of oil and alleviate "white pollution"
By David Biello
CHINA BANS PLASTIC BAGS: The Chinese government has imposed a ban on thin plastic bags such as the ones shown in these photos being used by street and food vendors in Shanghai.
SHANGHAI—Thin plastic bags are used for everything in China and the Chinese use up to three billion of them a day--an environmentally costly habit picked up by shopkeepers and consumers in the late 1980s for convenience over traditional cloth bags. Fruit mongers weigh produce in them, tailors stuff shirts into them, even street food vendors plunk their piping hot wares directly into see-through plastic bags that do nothing to protect one's hands from being burned or coated in hot grease. They even have a special name for the plastic bags found blowing, hanging and floating everywhere from trees to rivers: bai si wu le, or "white pollution," for the bags' most common color.
Yet, the Chinese government is set to ban the manufacture and force shopkeepers to charge for the distribution of bags thinner than .025 millimeters thick as of June 1—and no one seems prepared. "I don't know what we'll do," Zhang Gui Lin, a tailor at Shanghai's famous fabric market, tells me through a translator. "I guess our shopping complex will figure it out and tell us what to buy to use as bags."
His wife adds: "Maybe it will be like this," tugging a thicker mesh orange plastic bag she is using to carry some shoes. Such thicker bags may prove one replacement for the ubiquitous thinner versions.
The clothes makers are not alone. "I don't know actually," says a vendor of Chinese tamales, known as zong si, who declined to give her name. "I'm sure the government will come up with a solution. Maybe people will just eat it [the zong si directly.]"
The Chinese government is banning production and distribution of the thinnest plastic bags in a bid to curb the white pollution that is taking over the countryside. The bags are also banned from all forms of public transportation and "scenic locations." The move may save as much as 37 million barrels of oil currently used to produce the plastic totes, according to China Trade News. Already, the nation's largest producer of such thin plastic bags, Huaqiang, has shut down its operations.
The effort comes amid growing environmental awareness among the Chinese people and mimics similar efforts in countries like Bangladesh and Ireland as well as the city of San Francisco, though efforts to replicate that ban in other U.S. municipalities have foundered in the face of opposition from plastic manufacturers.
More than one million reusable cloth bags have already been sold on various Chinese merchandising Web sites, according to Taobao.com, and local environmental groups, such as Shanghai Roots & Shoots, are promoting and giving away cloth bags in schools.
"Too many plastic bags is a great waste of natural resources," retired Communist Party cadre Liu Zhidong says through a translator. "When burnt, they produce poisoning smoke, and if buried underneath the ground they need more than 300 years to be degraded."
But it remains to be seen how strong enforcement will be. Specific penalties have not been set but will include fines. Other environmental efforts—such as a similar ban on disposable wooden chopsticks (a waster of trees) and so-called "green GDP," or gross domestic product, an effort to account for environmental costs when calculating overall economic development— fell by the wayside because they proved too difficult to implement and created significant opposition at the local level. It also remains to be seen whether some of the possible replacements—thicker or biodegradable plastic bags—will be any better.
"This is a very good measure to protect the environment. However, whether it can last long is still very doubting," chemistry graduate student Oliver says. "And another problem is [that] the so-called biodegradable plastic bags, it seems, cannot be totally degraded. Whether or not they are really good for environment protection in the long run remains unknown."
Yet, the ban enjoys enthusiastic support from many residents here, particularly students, who may not even recall the more traditional practice of cloth bags or baskets. "I will just carry the things by my hands," one young man told me on the campus of Shanghai International Studies University. "I will never use the plastic bags supplied in supermarkets and I'll ask my friends not to use them, too."
May 20th, 2008 by Julian
The Green Leap Forward joins the people of China and the rest of the world in these few days of mourning over the victims of the Sichuan earthquake (see all the coverage on China Daily here). We also join arms with our brothers and sisters in Myanmar who are dealing a horrific natural catastrophe of their own.
For those of you who would like to donate to the China quake relief efforts, CNReviews provides a pretty comprehensive relief and donation guide. Google has also set up a useful interactive earthquake relief site.
The claim on human lives in China, some 35,000 by now, in addition to the 225,000 injured and more missing, has shook the nation and comes in the wake of a tumultuous year so far—the ice storms in the southern provinces earlier this year and the clashes in Tibet in March.
The economic effects of the quake, so far, seem to be slight. The energy impact, on the other hand, may be a little more far-reaching.
According to a BusinessWeek article:
Sichuan is a major onshore gas producer and the country’s largest hydropower generating region. The quake’s destruction has affected natural-gas exploration and production and has hit hydropower operations hard. Sichuan’s electricity grid is running at 76% of pre-earthquake levels, with 27 power stations shuttered, China’s State Power Grip announced on its Web site on May 19.
China can ill-afford severe disruptions to the gas and hydro industries, which are vital to fueling the country’s double-digit GDP growth. Sichuan supplied some 27% of the country’s national gas production in 2007. While natural gas still only accounts for 3% of the national energy mix, Beijing plans to raise that proportion to 10% by 2020, with Sichuan’s rich reserves playing a key role in that expansion.
The International Business Times substantiates the BusinessWeek report:
The area subjected to the quake produces about 22 percent of China’s natural gas supplies and contains many coal mines and hydro-electric dams which generated about 62 percent of the provinces total electricity production. Many of the 396 power stations on the river system and their dams were damaged. Several major reservoirs are being drained to prevent their dams from failing. Beijing ordered coal mines, oil and gas wells, and chemical plants affected by the quake to shut down until the situation could be assessed. Twenty-two coal mines in Sichuan, Chongqing and Gansu provinces were affected by the quake.
Loss of significant amounts of natural gas, coal, and electricity production for an indefinite period suggests that China will have to step up imports of coal and oil products. Already some 700,000 barrels of emergency fuel supplies have been dispatched to the area.
The IBT report goes on to suggest that world energy prices will be under pressure during the summer as China imports more oil to prepare for the Olympics and the support recovery from the earthquake. Already, the state-owned oil company PetroChina is halting petroleum exports based on “robust domestic demand” and the central government has acted to release oil from its state reserves.
This other report tells of a spike in nonferrous metal prices, especially zinc, after the quake.
Dongfang Turbine Badly Hit
The operations of Dongfang Turbine, China’s largest steam turbine producer, were virtually wiped out. According to BusinessWeek, Dongfang, which produces 30% of China’s locally made turbines, estimates direct losses from the earthquake will reach $1 billion. Its parent company, Dongfang Electric Corp., has seen its stock price plummet as the steam turbine business accounted for 20% of its operating revenues in 2007.
Incidentally, Dongfang Turbine is also the third largest domestic manufacturer of wind turbines. Although some reports suggest that facilities for its wind turbine business was unaffected (e.g. South China Morning Post:”The company said the earthquake had little impact on other production facilities, including those that made hydroelectric turbine generators, steam-power generators, power station boilers, wind power and nuclear power equipment and engine generators.”), an industry source has told me that most of their wind business’ senior engineers have unfortunately perished and one their a wind components factory was badly damaged. The quantifiable impact to its overall business, or wind industry in general, is unknown at this time.
Assessing the Dam-age
The impact on the region’s dams and hydropower are potentially even more serious. According to BusinessWeek:
On May 14, the Water Resources Ministry announced that 391 dams were believed badly damaged. “There are major safety issues right now with the reservoirs, hydropower stations, and lakes in the earthquake zone,” Minister Chen Lei said in a statement released on the ministry’s Web site. “The area has numerous reservoirs and lots of damage, and the extent of the danger is unknown.”
Unlisted SinoHydro, China’s largest hydro company, has announced that close to 100 of its employees have died, 500 have been injured, and 10,000 made homeless following the quake. Estimated property damage: almost $250 million, with $330 million needed for reconstruction, the company says.
Even more alarming is the possibility of one of China’s earthquake-weakened dams or reservoirs bursting…Even before the quake, Beijing had admitted there are major flaws in many of the country’s 87,000 dams. “Roughly 37,000 dams across the country are in a dangerous state,” [Ministry of] Water Resources deputy minister Jiao Yong said earlier this year, noting that many had been built decades ago.
In the wake of the earthquake, the New York Times reports that the military has been dispatched to shore up weakened infrastructure, such as the almost 400 dams damaged or weakened in the region that pose a public safety threat. One such dam is Zipingpu Dam, up the river from the earthquake-hit city of Dujiangyan, is featured in this video:
This piece by TreeHugger, while recognizing that the Sichuan quake was a result of natural geologic forces, calls for a careful look at the ability of large dam projects, such as the Three Gorges Dam, to trigger earthquakes of their own. See also this this piece by China Economic Review.
Nuclear Facilities Unaffected?
There are reportedly a few nuclear facilities in the quake zone, including two nuclear fuel production sites and two atomic weapons sites in Sichuan province, where the quake struck, between 40 and 90 miles from the epicentre. The official word, according to a senior military official, is that all nuclear facilities are safe…but western experts are monitoring the situation closely.
Regardless, the quake does put a dent on Sichuan’s nuclear ambitions.
In terms of the carbon markets, it is feared that some 5% of the country’s carbon credits supply could be reduced as a result of the quake, as clean development mechanism projects totaling some 15 million tons worth of carbon lie within a 150 km radius of the epicenter.
However, this reduction in supply may be more than offset by an impending fall in demand for carbon credits, as the World Bank warns.
It is an understatement that to say that China’s building codes are not always followed. The large number of school buildings that collapsed have attracted attention to the systemic failure of meeting prescribed building codes, prompting the promise of governmental action. But it should come as no surprise that the need to “build things faster and cheaper”, especially in the rural areas, have come at the sacrifice of a few things, such as regulatory compliance.
An op-ed in the China Daily urges governments to see the massive rebuilding needs in the wake of the earthquake as an opportunity to incorporate higher levels of energy efficiency and environmental standards, in the wake of an impending construction boom that could otherwise have derailing environmental consequences.
It is hard to imagine that amidst the chaotic frenzy to restore a sense of normalcy across the region, that such far sighted considerations will be given much weight over the immediate needs of those affected. When the dust settles, however, there will be an opportunity to consider, and not without international cooperation, what it means to rebuild a more sustainable set of infrastructure.
Pop quiz: Who's the volume dealer in alternative-energy hardware? If you said choking, smoking, coal-toking China, give yourself a carbon credit.
Consider solar cells, the least carbon-intensive option after nuclear, wind, and biomass, according to an analysis by the International Atomic Energy Agency. In 2007, photovoltaic factories in the People's Republic tripled production, grabbing 35 percent of the global market and making China the world's number one producer. How about rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, critical for superefficient electric vehicles? Chinese manufacturers will soon rule that world, too. Windmills? "Prepare for the onslaught of relatively inexpensive Chinese turbines," says Steve Sawyer, head of the Global Wind Energy Council. His forecast: China will produce enough gear to generate 10 gigawatts of power annually by 2010 — more than half the capacity that the whole world installed in 2007.
China has three big reasons for jumping feetfirst into the carbon fight. Obviously, there's the threat of climate change — flooding in China's coastal cities, drought in the country's interior. Second, there's political instability: Air and water pollution is already a flash point for public protests. And then there's the burgeoning export market for green products stamped made in china.
Will renovating the planet spur the first wave of homegrown Chinese tech innovation? Jeff Immelt, CEO of General Electric, thinks so. "China has as much or more at stake than anyone," he said at a recent corporate summit. "Solar energy, carbon sequestration — we're going to be blown away by China's progress over the next couple of decades." If only they could clean up Beijing's air in time for the summer Olympics.
Like a lot of Americans, Taylor Francis can trace his global warming conversion back to the day he walked into a movie theater and watched An Inconvenient Truth. Before he saw the documentary, Francis says, he knew climate change was a problem, but not something that could end civilization. "I was stunned," he says now. "I came away from the theater determined to do something about this."
For most of us, that might have meant switching to more efficient light bulbs, or maybe if we were particularly motivated, buying a hybrid car. Francis went a bit further. In December 2006, along with 200 other people, Francis traveled to Al Gore's home city of Nashville — otherwise known as the new Mecca of environmentalism — to be taught as a global warming educator by Al Gore himself, as part of the Climate Project, a nonprofit that promotes public awareness. Fourteen years old at the time, Francis was the youngest person ever trained by Gore. Back home in San Francisco he delivered a customized version of the most famous PowerPoint presentation ever developed, and since, he's given his talk to nearly 10,000 people, mostly high school students. Francis persuades his teenage peers to realize that global warming, far from being a threat of the distant future, will directly affect them. "This problem is my problem," says Francis, who speaks with a precision that reminds me of, well, Gore, without the Tennessee twang. "It's not abstract for us. The effects will be felt in our lifetime."
OK, so, after doing the hard work of educating apathetic high schoolers about the dangers of climate change, Francis has done his part, right? Not quite. As he researched global warming further, Francis came to the same realization that many climate experts have: while the United States is by far the world's biggest carbon emitter historically, it's China that truly holds the key to slowing climate change. China, which just passed the U.S. as the world's top greenhouse-gas emitter on an annual basis, will be putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than any other nation for the foreseeable future. Fail to convince the Chinese of Gore's inconvenient truth, and the game will be lost. The best targets, Francis knew, would be Chinese his own age. "Working with China is so important," he says. "The young are a source of possibility."
So it was off to China — first, in a test trip last summer, where Francis taught Chinese fifth graders about global warming for an hour a day for three days. "They had more questions than I had answers," he says. Once he got back to the U.S., Francis — who at 16 seems to possess a level of enthusiasm and organization those twice his age would envy — began setting up a more substantial journey to China. Next month, he'll be embarking on a tour of the country that will take him to Shanghai and Beijing, where he'll be addressing students at high schools, universities and international schools in China's most important cities. He'll also be meeting with some of the country's more prominent greens, like Zheng Shigrong, the billionaire founder of the solar panel manufacturer Suntech. It's all being arranged by members of China's Minister of Environmental Protection (Francis's teacher in San Francisco has impressive contacts).
Presenting in China will be a challenge, and not just because Francis will have to make use of a translator. The Chinese view the politics of climate change in a fundamentally different way than much of the developed world. We've had our time to grow rapidly, pollute and clean up, but China is just starting. We think of greenhouse gas emissions as something perhaps easy to limit — just get those better lights and better cars. But for China, those vastly accelerating greenhouse gas emissions are just another measurement of how life is getting better for more and more Chinese in the cities: more cars, more electricity, more gadgets, more stuff, all of which carry a greenhouse gas cost. Asking China to limit greenhouse gas emissions even as its GDP continues to grow at nearly double-digit rates is like asking them to give up the good life they're just beginning to taste. It's not going to happen — and yet to avert dangerous climate change, it has to happen. That's the paradox of global warming politics.
It's a bit much to ask Taylor Francis to untie that Gordian knot, but he's trying his best. Francis says he'll make the pocketbook argument that China's astonishing levels of pollution are already damaging the country's bottom line. "There's an estimation that China's environmental problems are already costing their economy 10% of GDP a year," he says. "The economic costs are immense and they will only get bigger." That much is known in China, and although the country gets a deservedly bad rap for its pollution — all those Beijing Olympics jokes — the truth is that there is a serious movement going on today to green China. "China stunned the world with its economic growth," says Francis. "Now there's a chance for China to show the world another model of development — green growth." It needs help, and it needs young people who are enthusiastic about saving the Earth — like Taylor Francis.
Source: Worldwatch Institute Published May 13, 2008
In recent years, scarcity and pollution of water have become the paramount environmental woe in China. Numerous reports and books have exposed China's water crisis, depicting a nation suffering in the face of black-running rivers and dried-up waterways. Nationwide, the per capita availability of fresh water is only one-quarter of the world average. But a new regulation from the nation's water authority may hold the key to achieving water sustainability in this thirsty country. The Interim Measure for Water Quantity Allocation, which came into effect on February 1, provides a framework for allocating water rights across provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities that are under the direct jurisdiction of the central government. The ruling's 17 stipulations lay out the principles, mechanisms, and practices for water allocation, potentially opening Chinese markets for water trading and enabling the use of market tools to promote conservation.
The need for better delineation of water rights in China has become increasingly urgent. Water demands within shared river basins are frequently at conflict due to industrial expansion and urbanization. During a drought in 2006, Chongqing municipality in western China saw a dramatic decline in flows from the Jialing River, the city's main water source, despite the fact that the river's upper reaches had received plenty of rain. The shortage was triggered by the more than 50 dams upstream from the city, which had retained the water for power generation. Such competing claims are prevalent in nearly all of China's major river basins.
As water demands keep rising, water waste remains pervasive due to the current 'open-access' nature of China's water resources. According to statistics, in 2003 China's utilization coefficient for agricultural irrigation water was only 0.4-0.5, compared to 0.7-0.8 in industrial countries. Water use per unit of gross domestic product was as high as 413 cubic meters, four times the world average, while water use per value added of industry was 218 cubic meters, 5 to 10 times the level in industrial countries. China's industrial water-recycling rate was only 50 percent，compared to 85 percent in industrial countries.
The traditional practices of promoting conservation through education, moral suasion, and technological innovation are no longer able to keep up with China's rising water demand. By allocating water rights and introducing market-based tools, the new regulation may accelerate progress toward water saving, protection, and pollution control.
The regulation is a response to several successful trial efforts over the past eight years. In 2000, China saw its first case of water trading between Dongyang City and Yiwu City in Zhejiang province, with the latter buying some 50 million cubic meters of water annually from the former at a price of 4 RMB (US$0.57) per cubic meter. The pact resulted in a win-win situation in early 2005, following a serious drought in Yiwu City. Yiwu avoided the significant cost of having to build its own reservoirs, while Dongyang received funds for maintaining its existing reservoirs and water infrastructure.
Since then, China has launched trial projects in several regions, including Ningxia, Inner Mongolia, and Ganxu in the northwest; Jiangxi and Chongqing in the west; Shanxi in the middle region; and watersheds covering Beijing and Hebei. The projects are either local initiatives spurred by acute water crises, or efforts by the central government to promote water savings.
The success of these projects has given policymakers confidence to explore bolder national schemes, resulting in the recent water-rights regulation. If effectively enforced, the ruling could be as significant as China's widespread land reforms in the 1950s, which freed up rural labor and made it possible to feed the nation's 1.3 billion people. Although much implementation work remains to be done, the regulation is a bold first step toward sound water management in China.
By Mr. Hiranyalal Shrestha Via telegraphnepal.com
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Hundreds of people marched in a western provincial capital over the weekend to protest environmental risks they say are associated with the construction of a petrochemical factory and oil refinery, witnesses said Monday.
It was the latest in a series of rare but increasingly ambitious grass-roots movements in Chinese cities aimed at derailing government-backed industrial projects that could damage the environment and people's health.
The protest Sunday, like its predecessors, was organized through Web sites, blogs and cellphone text messages, showing how some Chinese are using digital technology, despite government attempts to control the Internet, to spur on the kind of civic movements that are usually disapproved of by officials.
The protesters in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, walked peacefully through the center of the city for several hours Sunday afternoon to criticize the building of an ethylene plant and oil refinery in Pengzhou, a few minutes' drive outside the city. Some protesters wore white face masks to highlight the dangers of pollution.
About 400 to 500 protesters took part in the march, which was watched by dozens of police officers, witnesses said.
Organizers circumvented a law that requires protesters to apply for a permit by saying they were only out for a "stroll."
Critics of the project said in interviews Monday that the government had not done proper environmental reviews of the projects, which they said could pollute the air and water and lead to health hazards.
"We're not dissidents; we're just people who care about our homeland," said Wen Di, an independent blogger and former journalist living in Chengdu. "What we're saying is that if you want to have this project, you need to follow certain procedures: for example, a public hearing and independent environmental assessment. We want a fair and open process."
Fan Xiao, a geologist and environmental advocate based in Chengdu, sent out a mass cellphone text message Monday morning that had been written by one of the leaders of the protest movement and was being widely circulated across the country. "Protect our Chengdu, safeguard our homeland," it read. "Stay away from the threat of pollution. Restore the clear water and green mountains of Sichuan."
In an interview, Fan said, "People have been hoping this issue would get more attention."
The chemical plant and oil refinery is a joint venture of the Sichuan provincial government and PetroChina, a publicly traded oil company that is the listed arm of China National Petroleum Corp., the state-owned concern that is the country's largest oil producer.
The project, approved last year, is expected to produce 800,000 tons of ethylene per year and to refine 10 million tons of crude oil per year, according to the joint venture's Web site.
Repeated calls to the company set up by the joint venture, PetroChina Sichuan Petrochem Industry, went unanswered Monday. The official view of the project was represented by a brief front-page article that appeared Monday in a state-controlled newspaper, The Chengdu Business News.
"The Sichuan refinery project will install advanced equipment, apply new techniques and improve environment protection facilities with strict pollution prevention and risk control schemes," the article read. "The project passed an assessment by the relevant national departments after several hearings and revisions by many distinguished experts in the oil-refining industry and environment protection."
The protest movement in Chengdu is at least the third such groundswell to emerge in recent years.
Last year, construction of a chemical plant outside Xiamen, in Fujian Province, was halted after residents held a series of street protests.
More recently, residents in Shanghai protested construction of a high-speed rail line designed to link a suburb with the airport, forcing officials to announce that the project was being delayed.
In both cases, residents complained that the projects would bring significant environmental and health risks.
Zhang Jing and Huang Yuanxi contributed research.
CHAOHU LAKE, China: This sprawling, jade-hued lake in eastern China is pleasant enough on a cool spring day. But when spring warms into sultry summer, Chaohu turns slimy and stinky as algae fed by sewage, farm and factory runoff bloom, leaving it toxic and undrinkable.
China's pollution busters, banking on a rather unorthodox approach, are hoping this summer might be different.
Across the country, officials desperate to meet a national goal of restoring China's severely polluted lakes by 2030 are dumping tons of voracious fish into lakes in hopes they will gobble up the algae infestations.
Other countries have tried this in sewage treatment pools or drinking water reservoirs with mixed success but nowhere else has it been attempted on such a large scale.
Workers dumped 1.6 million silver carp fry into Chaohu Lake in February in the largest such project in China. They expect each fish to eat as much as 100 pounds (about 45 kilograms) of algae as they grow, helping to ensure clean drinking water for more than a million people.
"We're trying to restore the ecological balance. That's the main principle," Che Jiahu, a local fisheries official, said in his chilly office in Zhongmiao, a small temple town on Chaohu's north shore. The village is a tourist attraction when the algae is not in full bloom.
Officials also hope the carp will revive a local fishing industry nearly wiped out by pollution. They shrug off questions about the wisdom of consuming fish that feed on pollutant-laden algae.
"We've never heard of anyone getting sick from eating Chaohu's fish or aquatic products," Che said. The fish are not as tasty as when he was a child, he concedes, but "still, I believe fish that eat the algae are safe."
About 125 miles (200 kilometers) east of Chaohu, fisheries workers released 100 million whitebait fry in Taihu Lake in March, hoping they will eat up the nitrogen and phosphorous that feed algae blooms that forced the cutoff of water to millions of residents last summer.
Another 50 tons of whitebait and carp fry were dumped into Taihu last week to counter an unusually early algae bloom, said Fan Xiao, an official with the Taihu Fishery Administration.
"We didn't really expect the first attempt to work right away," he explained. "This algae bloom makes us even more determined to carry on."
It's not the first time China has resorted to novel strategies to combat stubborn problems.
In the 1950s leader Mao Zedong ordered farmers to bang pots and pans to scare sparrows away from grain fields. The experiment backfired. All sorts of birds too frightened to alight dropped dead from exhaustion, allowing an explosion of crop-devouring pests that they might otherwise have eaten.
In America, the use of carp to control algae in sewage treatment pools created problems when the nonnative fish escaped into waterways.
In China, that's less of a problem, because carp are an indigenous species that have been fished for centuries.
The tricky part is figuring out how many carp to put in a lake. Too few, and the algae will still prevail. Too many, and the waste from the fish themselves may simply feed more algae blooms, experts warn.
The silver carp thrive on blue-green algae, which lurk in microscopic form until rising temperatures trigger a foul-smelling, often toxic bloom that saps the water of oxygen, killing fish and making it unhealthy to drink.
From the United States to Australia, such blooms are flourishing across the globe, fueled by warming temperatures and pollution.
In Israel, the use of silver carp and other filter-feeding fish in drinking water reservoirs has worked in some cases, and failed in others, says Ana Milstein, an aquaculture expert there.
Others are more skeptical.
China's undertaking "sounds like a big, artificial fix, which from my experience doesn't often work and often leads to more unplanned problems," says Paul Csagoly, an expert who worked on a project to clear fish that had been introduced to eat grass in the Danube River.
History is replete with examples of the dangers of messing with Mother Nature.
Toxic cane toads imported for beetle eradication on sugar cane plantations are a threat to Australia's indigenous wildlife. Mongooses introduced to the Hawaiian islands in the 19th century ended up doing more harm to native birds than to the rats they were meant to kill.
Still, the folks in Chaohu seem to figure they have little to lose.
A decade ago, the lake was already rated dangerously polluted. Loans from the Asian Development Bank helped pay for upgrading some heavily polluting factories and building sewage treatment plants.
All to little avail. Two industrial cities of 5 million Chaohu to the northeast and Hefei to the northwest flank the lake, providing a steady diet of nitrogen, phosphorous and other nutrients to algae that last summer turned wide swaths of the lake a brilliant algae green, and then putrid black.
"Economic development has had a negative impact on the lake. We're just finding ways to counteract that," Che says.
The cleanup involves more than just stocking the lake with carp fry, says Ding Zhisong, deputy director of Chaohu's environmental bureau. He shows off a grove of trees planted in contaminated silt dredged from the lake.
Dozens of fishing boats are moored nearby, their occupants busy mending nets and painting, since the lake is closed to fishing until mid-June.
The water's edge is a soapy froth mixed with trash; the only sign of aquatic life, a tiny freshwater shrimp meandering through thick green fronds of algae.
Most environmental experts warn against consuming carp and other bottom feeders from lakes such as Chaohu that are contaminated not just with algae but also with toxins such as lead, cadmium, mercury and arsenic.
Though the official government line is that the fish are fine, Yvonne Sadovy, a Hong Kong University professor who sometimes meets with fisheries experts in China, said some of them have expressed concern.
While silver carp sometimes can consume toxic algae without becoming poisonous themselves, they also may absorb other contaminants, says Celia Chen, a Dartmouth College professor who has researched how pollution affects the food chain.
"I would ask myself as a scientist and as a consumer, 'What would make me comfortable eating the fish?' and that would be knowing the fish tissue did not have contaminants in it," she said in an e-mailed response to an inquiry.
She noted that most fish in China are never tested because of the expense involved.
"I wouldn't eat them on a regular basis," she said.
THE plain-clothes police are always there, watching Xu Jiehua. When she goes out, two of them follow by motorcycle. Sometimes an unmarked car joins them, tailing her closely on the narrow road winding past the factories and wheat fields around her village.
Ms Xu is used to the attention. Her husband, Wu Lihong, was arrested in April last year and sentenced four months later to three years in prison for fraud and blackmail. For her, the police harassment is proof that the charges were false, and that Mr Wu's only crime was to anger local officials with his tireless campaigning against pollution around nearby Tai Lake, China's third-biggest freshwater body. It is also a warning that she too should keep quiet.Last year nature appeared to vindicate Mr Wu. Soon after his arrest, the lake was choked by toxic algae fed by the phosphates from the human and industrial waste that had been poured into the water and its tributaries. For more than a week, the stinking growth disrupted the water supply of 2m people living on its shores. It was one of China's biggest environmental scandals since the Communist Party came to power. In Wuxi, the city closest to Mr Wu's home in Fenshui village, residents queued to buy bottled water. The Yangzi River was diverted to flush the algae out.
Amid an internet-fuelled uproar, officials promised to close down polluting factories and clean up an area once legendary for its beauty. But in late March blue-green blooms were again found along the southern shore. Such growths are rare so early in the year. Officials admit that despite their clean-up efforts the water remains at the lowest grade in China's water-quality scale, unfit for human contact, and that another “big bloom” is possible this year.
A repeat of the algae catastrophe on Tai Lake would be a huge embarrassment to both local officials and the central government. As they look nervously at protests around the country fuelled by an upsurge of anti-Western nationalism, the authorities are ever mindful that the anger could readily turn upon them too. Nationalist fervour may be helping to divert public attention away from the party's mishandling of Tibet—a remote problem in the minds of many Chinese. But it will do little to pacify citizens angered by official corruption, incompetence and negligence.
There are many such people. Officials rarely give figures, but they have said that the number of “mass incidents”—an ill-defined term—rose from 10,000 in 1994 to 74,000 in 2004. Suspiciously, the government reported a 22% decrease in the first nine months of 2006, but from a much lower base than previously announced figures had suggested. This may reflect underreporting by officials under pressure to show that their departments are achieving the goal of establishing a “harmonious society”, which the party has vowed to build by 2020.
The same internet and mobile-telephone technology that is helping China's angry young nationalists organise protests and boycotts is also helping other aggrieved citizens to unite. The past year has seen the first large-scale, middle-class protests in China over environmental issues: in the southern coastal city of Xiamen in June over the construction of a chemical factory, and in January this year in Shanghai over plans to extend a magnetic levitation train line.
For all the central government's green talk, a complex web of local interests sometimes linked with powerful figures in Beijing often frustrates efforts to deal with the problems that lead to such unrest. Wu Lihong's campaigning around Tai Lake threatened factories, the governments that depend on them for revenues and the jobs the factories provide. The anger of laid-off workers has long been one of officialdom's biggest worries. A factory where Ms Xu worked was among those Mr Wu helped force to stop production.
In 2002, after peasants blocked a road in protest over pollution in their fields, Mr Wu was jailed for 15 days for allegedly inciting them. He tried to launch an environmental NGO but officials turned down his request to register it (Wuxi already had one, they said, and that was enough). The police summoned him several times to warn him to cease his activities. But Mr Wu, ignoring his wife's remonstrations, persisted. He spent the family's savings on work such as gathering pollution data and lobbying the domestic and foreign press.
The official press—at least organs beyond the control of the local bureaucracy—reported on his efforts glowingly. His living-room is adorned with tributes: an award in 2005 from the central government naming him one of the year's ten “outstanding environmental-protection personalities”; a photograph of him receiving an honour for his environmental work in 2006 from the Ford Motor company.
But local officials were not impressed. One evening in April last year, when Mr Wu and his wife were watching television in their bedroom upstairs, police climbed up a ladder, through a window and took him away. They then smashed into his study and seized papers. Ms Xu still has the pile of cigarette stubs they left on the floor.
Mr Wu, who is 40, was found guilty in August of extorting money from an environmental-equipment manufacturer by threatening to inform the authorities that products supplied to a steel company were substandard. The court also ruled that he had cheated the company by claiming to represent the equipment-maker and seeking payment for the sale. The amount involved was 45,000 yuan ($5,940). Mr Wu denied the charges and told the court that his confession had been extracted by torture. Ms Xu says journalists were barred from the proceedings and no witnesses were produced for cross-examination.
A higher municipal court rejected Mr Wu's appeal last November. Last month Ms Xu submitted an appeal to a court in Nanjing, the capital of their province, Jiangsu. But she says she has no hope of success. The polluting companies her husband campaigned against remain open and the authorities have closed only unprofitable ones, she says. She shows visitors one alleged offender, a new lakeside resort complex. Since last year's disaster, the then Jiangsu party chief, Li Yuanchao, has been promoted to the ruling Politburo.
Ms Xu believes the national media have been quietly ordered to avoid mention of her husband. The police stopped an attempt by relatives to circulate a petition for his release (more than 100 people signed it before the police seized it, she says). Officials have warned Ms Xu not to talk to the press. A senior environmental-protection official said this month that the battle against Tai Lake's algae problem would be a protracted one. So too will efforts to silence whistle-blowers.