The story of fishing villages in Jiangsu province, China

Bearing witness to the human cost of water pollution

Feature story - 27 September, 2010
As part of our work to witness and expose water pollution problems around China, Greenpeace campaigners and photographer Lu Guang visited several areas along the Yangtze River that have been severely affected by industrial water pollution.

07 March 2010 Fifty families of fishermen live in Yanglingang village.

Today the little fishing village is surrounded by power plants, paper-making factories and chemical plants.

© Lu Guang / Greenpeace

At the moment it would be hard to scientifically prove the links between the industrial water pollution and the incidence of cancer downstream. But examples like this one clearly call not only for in depth investigation, but also the precautionary action to protect these people.

Below is the story of Fuqiao community, part of Fuqiao township, Taicang, Jiangsu province. We visited this community several times between November 2009 and July 2010 to gather their story.

"We can’t drink the river anymore"

As dusk falls in the fishing village of Liujiagang, Xie Chunlin loads a one-meter-tall green plastic vat onto his boat, starts the motor and drives to the center of Yangtze River. There is no public water supply in the villages along the Liu River, and it has always been the task of the head of the family to fetch water from the river for drinking, eating, laundry and washing.

16 March 2010 Water fetched form the Yangzte River used as drinking water.

In the last few years, the river has been significantly polluted, and the fishermen noticed that the water has a strange flavor.

© Lu Guang / Greenpeace

However, starting from about 10 years ago, it became increasingly difficult to get water from the river. "Ten years ago, we got our water directly from the Liu river channel where the boats berthed. The water was usable after purifying the water with alum to precipitate the impurities. Now everytime we need water we have to take our boat out for 30 minutes to the center of Yangtze River.” Xie Chunlin skillfully handled the fishing boat, heading out of the estuary and southeast toward the vast breadth of the Yangtze. "The river water smells here – you cannot even use it for bathing, or else you’ll itch all over and break out in little red spots all over your body. Don’t even think about drinking this stuff."

The roar of the engine quickly drowned out Xie Chunlin’s concerned voice. However, the pollution of the Liu River is a topic never far from the mind and conversation of every fisherman in Liujiagang Village. The Liu River flows from west to east, past Liuhe town, Taicang. The fishing families have always docked their boats at the junction of the Liu and the Yangtze River. They take their fishing boats out to fish on the river before dawn, and the remaining time they spend in their house boats, resting, repairing their fishing gear and passing the time. Because every family eats and lives on their boats, the Liu River is their only source of water.

Around 10 years ago, the fishermen gradually noticed that the water quality was deteriorating, with a muddy turbid color. Even when the dirty particulates settled to the bottom after more than a half hour of alum treatment, the water remained a dirty yellow. It tasted like chemicals.

The villagers believe that the factories on both sides of the river and their discharge pipes are the leading cause of the deterioration in water quality.

17 March 2010 Life on the boats

The fifty families of fishermen of Yanglingang village live on board their boats.

© Lu Guang / Greenpeace

Built around the Liu River, the Taicang Port Economic Development Zone was established in 1991, but the local residents recall that the massive large-scale construction only really started in 2000. By the end of 2009, the Development Zone had attracted nearly 2,000 projects, with investments totalling nearly RMB 50 billion . On the south bank of the river, four towering smokestacks spewed white smoke and dust from a power plant all day long, while on the north bank, the Jiulong Paper Mill ploughed forward operating at full capacity. On any random walk along the south bank in the Development Zone, one can see a long string of industrial enterprises, indicating the density of industry. Greenpeace has witnessed more than 30 chemical, petrochemical, textile, pharmaceutical, and metal-processing plants closely clustered along Binjiang Road, which follows the river, Binhai Road, and the east-west running Dongfang Road. Many of these factories belong to well-known major companies such as Kunlun Lubricant, PetroChina, Jiangsu Yangtze Petrochemical, BP Oil China Industrial, Bright Pharmaceuticals, and Dashen Pharmaceutical & Chemical.

The Development Zone’s wastewater treatment plant is 50 meters away from a sluice gate leading to the Liu River. All of the wastewater from the Development Zone discharges via pipes upriver of the Yanglin sluice gate into the Liu River. When the sluice gate opens, wastewater then flows via the Liu River into the Yangtze 200 meters away.

Walking along the Liu River in the direction of the Yangtze, one can see a riot of weeds and garbage on the bank. Surrounded by a forest of towering chimneys and smokestacks, in the shadow of factory buildings, the 10-meter wide river flows lifelessly along, emanating a foul odor. Its surface is covered with a layer of greasy black scum, while all kinds of garbage, styrofoam, plastic, and dead grass are scattered in the water. The roar from the factories never stops, going for 24 hours each day. The fishermen here say that they are already accustomed to seeing large numbers of dead fish floating in the river after the sluice gate opens.

Thirty years of life along the Liu River

17 March 2010 Single plank bridge.

© Lu Guang / Greenpeace

Located in southeastern Jiangsu province, the Liu River is one of the many tributaries of the Yangtze, flowing into the mighty river from the south, near the delta. Chongming Island, one of Shanghai’s three inhabited islands, is just across the river. Because of the lush vegetation, abundant fish and rice, and convenient river and sea access, this has historically been one of the most prosperous regions in China, known as the "land of fish and rice".

More than 50 families of fishermen dock their boats on the Liu River year round, and like their ancestors, they depend on the water for everything. They eat aboard their boats, sleep on their boats, and rely on Yangtze River fishing for their livelihoods. However, they differ from fishermen at other places in that the Liu River fishermen are not native to Taicang. More than 20 years ago, they rowed from Hongze Lake in northernern Jiangsu province, through the myriad meandering waterways, until after a week they arrived at the broad fertile lands watered by the southern Yangtze River. "When I first came here, green fields stretched out along both banks, with farmers working in the paddies," recalled Zhang Degui, the former village head and the first fisherman to arrive in Liuhe River. He clearly remembered the rich network of waterways filled with abundant fish and shrimp back then. "That’s why we rowed from our old home of Hongze, for the high quantity and variety of fish in the Yangtze. What’s more, the species of fish here were more valuable, so not only did our catch go up in quantity, but our income also significantly increased. "

Meal time on board.

Families live on their boats. Many of them have lived here for over 20 years.

© Lu Guang / Greenpeace

It was Zhang Degui who led more than fifty families to migrate the long distance from their old home to the Liu River between the 1980s and early 1990s. “In our first decade here, our life was getting better and better. Twenty years ago I could catch 15-20kg of fish in a day – I could earn RMB 100,000 in just a year. Within a few years, we all replaced our row boats for diesel-engine boats,” he reminisced. “The water everywhere was fine, easily drinkable – we didn’t need to go to the Yangtze for water. Of course, back then, there were no factories.”

In Zhang Degui’s recollection, the fishing village’s quality of life started to deteriorate around the beginning of this century when factories began to appear alongside the Liu River. Starting in 2000, a large number of chemical plants, textile mills and paper mills were built on both banks of the river. Under the regulations of the Taicang Industrial Zone, all the factories’ discharge pipes are required to go through the centralized pollution discharge pipes, which discharge their wastewater into an outlet under the Liu River’s sluice gate.

16 March 2010 Drawing water from the river.

The problem worsens in winter, when the water level of the Yangtze falls, but wastewater discharge does not decline and even increases.

© Lu Guang / Greenpeace

“The first year they started dumping wastewater, we all got poisoned. Everyone in the village had diarrhea,” recalled Xu Jiabao, the current village head, “The water quality has been declining since 2002, 2003, when factories began to be built on Yanglingang’s banks. There’s less and less fish, as well – sometimes we go out for a whole day and catch very little, just a few tiny fish and shrimp. Sometimes we catch a fish, cook it, and then throw it out because it tastes like artificial fragrances."

Not just the fishing was affected. Starting about ten years ago, the number of cancer patients began to rise, with a markedly sharp rise since 2002 and 2003, according to the records kept by several village officials. “According to our rough calculations, in the last ten years there have been 13 cancer patients in 11 families. Most of them have stomach, esophageal and breast cancer,” said Xu Jiabao, counting on his fingers. “Two out of the 13 are still alive today, and both suffered from esophageal cancer.”

One of the two survivors is Xu Changlian, Xu Jiabao’s father. He was diagnosed with esophageal cancer 10 years ago and underwent surgery in a hospital in Suzhou. His wife passed away in April 2010 from breast cancer. Xu, 70 years old, misses his wife very much. "We first found her cancer In 2004, and she had surery at the Taicang Municipal Hospital to remove her left breast. But last year, at the end of 2009, the cancer reappeared in her right breast. The doctor said that there was no hope since the cancer was in the advanced stages. We brought her back to the boat, where she lived for several months. When she passed away, she was in such pain." Xu is still bereft from his wife’s death.

09 March 2010 Xu Changlian and his wife Wang Jinnan both have cancer.

Doctor Chen Dawei, from a small local clinic, pays a vist. Wang’s cancer has worsened; she has given up treatment and is no longer able to speak. The couple takes care of each other at home.

© Lu Guang / Greenpeace

Two doors down from Xu Jiabao lives 54-year-old Li Shuzhong, another surviving cancer patient. He was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in December 2008. “At the beginning, I didn’t feel like eating, I’d throw up after eating. I lost a lot of weight quickly.” In 2009, just after Chinese New Year, he went ashore to have surgery, which cost nearly RMB 30,000 and almost led to his family’s economic collapse. He could not afford chemotherapy and now maintains his health through medication. "One pill costs RMB 1.56, not a small sum for us, but I have to take it. Without the medicine, my stomach would be filled with acid and I wouldn’t be able to keep any food down.” Li Shuzhong is generally too feeble for manual labor. “We’ve never had this disease in our family history. We were very healthy!" Now, the burden of supporting the family has fallen onto the shoulders of his 27-year-old son and daughter-in-law. They go out to fish, while Li Shuzhong and his wife take care of their granddaughter on the boat. Li Shuzhong now enjoys the same special treatment as does his granddaughter, of drinking bottled purified water, bought from stores on shore. "Now I must drink purified water, I don’t dare to drink river water anymore. The kids can’t drink river water either, or else they’ll get diarrhea." This impoverished family cannot bear the attack of another disease.

What makes the fishermen angry and helpless is not only the industrial wastewater discharged by the treatment plant. Two hundred meters upriver from the confluence of the Liu and Yangtze rivers, in the center of the Yangtze, a violent yellow whirlpool churns up a rapid boil of muddy water up from the deep river bottom, foaming white and emitting a strong pungent odor. “This is the drain outlet of the Jiulong Paper Mill. Nearby villagers all know that it discharges wastewater into the river year-round. Who wouldn’t get sick from drinking water like this?” asked Xie Chunlin indignantly, steering his boat around the yellow spray. He sailed more than 500 meters downstream from the drain outlet before stopping to fill his plastic water vat, bucket by bucket.

07 March 2010 Fishermen pulling in their nets.

The water that flows beneath the fishing boats is the same wastewater discharged from the factories.

© Lu Guang / Greenpeace

For his entire life Xie has drunken Yangtze River water; more than half his life he has spent fishing here. He is not ready to leave this river, however dangerous. “We were born in our boats and grew up in the boat, but now we can’t drink the water here. Where would we live, if we left the boats?”

The information above is provided by Greenpeace China. Greenpeace is not trying to provide scientific proof of the links between the industrial water pollution and the incidence of cancer downstream. But examples like this one show the urgent need not only for in depth investigation of such cases but also the precautionary action eliminating releases of hazardous chemicals.