Sunday, April 06, 2014


BEIJING — Over the past few years, trips back to my home village, Huaihua Di, on the Lanxi River in Hunan Province, have been clouded by news of deaths — deaths of people I knew well. Some were still young, only in their 30s or 40s. When I returned to the village early last year, two people had just died, and a few others were dying.

My father conducted an informal survey last year of deaths in our village, which has about 1,000 people, to learn why they died and the ages of the deceased. After visiting every household over the course of two weeks, he and two village elders came up with these numbers: Over 10 years, there were 86 cases of cancer. Of these, 65 resulted in death; the rest are terminally ill. Most of their cancers are of the digestive system. In addition, there were 261 cases of snail fever, a parasitic disease, that led to two deaths.

The Lanxi is lined with factories, from mineral processing plants to cement and chemical manufacturers. For years, industrial and agricultural waste has been dumped into the water untreated. I have learned that the grim situation along our river is far from uncommon in China.
The nation has more than 200 “cancer villages,” small towns like mine blanketed with factories where cancer rates have risen far above the national average. (Some researchers say there are more than 400 such villages.) Last year the Ministry of Environmental Protection acknowledged the problem of “cancer villages” for the first time, but this is of little comfort to my parents’ neighbors and millions like them around the country.

More than 50 percent of China’s rivers have disappeared altogether, and few of the surviving waterways are not completely polluted. Some 280 million Chinese people drink unsafe water, according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection. Nearly half of the country’s rivers and lakes carry water that is unfit even for human contact.

And China’s cancer mortality rate has soared, climbing 80 percent in the last 30 years. About 3.5 million people are diagnosed with cancer each year, 2.5 million of whom die. Rural residents are more likely than urban residents to die of stomach and intestinal cancers, presumably because of polluted water. State media reported on one government inquiry that found 110 million people across the country reside less than a mile from a hazardous industrial site.

I have lived away from my hometown for years and only return for brief visits, usually during the Chinese New Year. I am becoming more and more a stranger there. And yet my journey as a fiction writer started from this humble place. It has been a literary gold mine for me, giving me endless inspiration. The once sweet and sparkling water of the Lanxi frequently appears in my work.
People used to bathe in the river, wash their clothes beside it, and cook with water from it. People would celebrate the dragon-boat festival and the lantern festival on its banks. The generations who’ve lived by the Lanxi have all experienced their own heartaches and moments of happiness, yet in the past, no matter how poor our village was, people were healthy and the river was pristine.

Now there is not a single lotus leaf left in our village. Most of the ponds have been filled in to build houses or given over to farmland. Buildings sprout up next to malodorous ditches; trash is scattered everywhere. The remaining ponds have shrunk to puddles of black water that attract swarms of flies. Swine fever broke out in the village in 2010, killing several thousand pigs. For a time, the Lanxi was covered with sun-bleached pig carcasses.

The Lanxi was dammed up years ago. All along this section, factories discharge tons of untreated industrial waste into the water every day. Animal waste from hundreds of livestock and fish farms is also discarded in the river.

It is too much for the Lanxi to bear. After years of constant degradation, the river has lost its spirit. It has become a lifeless toxic expanse that most people try to avoid.
Its water is no longer suitable for fishing, irrigation or swimming. One villager who took a dip in it emerged with itchy red pimples all over his body.

As the river became unfit to drink, people began to dig wells. Most distressing to me is that test results show the ground water is also contaminated: Levels of ammonia, iron, manganese and zinc significantly exceed levels safe for drinking. Even so, people have been consuming the water for years: They have had no choice. A few well-off families began buying bottled water, which is produced mainly for city dwellers. This sounds like a sick joke.

Most of the village’s young people have left for the city to make a living. For them, the fate of the Lanxi is no longer a pressing concern. The elderly residents who remain are too weak to make their voices heard. The future of the handful of younger people who have yet to leave is under threat.

I posted a message about the cancer problem in Huaihua Di on Weibo, China’s popular microblogging platform, hoping to alert the authorities. The message went viral. Journalists went to my village to investigate and confirmed my findings. The government also sent medical professionals to investigate. Some villagers opposed the publicity, fearing their children would not be able to find spouses. At the same time, villagers who had lost loved ones pleaded with the journalists, hoping the government would do something. The villagers are still waiting for the situation to change — or improve at all.

My hometown’s terminal illness and the death of Lanxi River have been heartbreaking for me.
I know the illness does not just affect my village and my river. The entire country is sick, and cancer has spread to every organ of this nation. In our society, profit and G.D.P. count more than anything else. A glittering facade is the new face of China. Behind it, well-off people emigrate, people in power send their families to countries with clean water, while they themselves consume quality food and clean water through the networks that serve the privileged. Yet many ordinary people still refuse to wake up, as if they were busy digging at the soil beneath their own feet while standing on a precipice.

After my visit home last year, I started to paint. I try to capture from memory the pristine river and my beautiful village. Now that the river has died, I hope it finds its paradise in my paintings. But what about the people who lost their clean water? Where is their paradise?

(Translated for the NYT April 6 2014)

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

This honestly just makes me cringe. It's disgusting how people, even with the world knowledge we have today, still decide that dumping tons of toxic waste into our waterways is a good idea. However, since China is still developing, I feel like if they want to make a change, now is the time to do it. Developing countries need to look around at what the developed countries have done an learn from their mistakes, not repeat them over. The industrial world has led to the Earth's distress--but it doesn't have to again in other countries if we can help it. If we can fix or regulate these problems now, while the country is in its developing stages, then they will be able to be a "developed" country, yet in a more sustainable manner.

Leanna Molnar

Leah DeEgidio said...

You always hear about the terrible things pollution is doing to the overpopulated Asian cities. This article is just another reminder that people shouldn't have to live like this. It is the job of developed nations to help in aiding these highly polluted places. Solutions to these issues are far from cheap and it is really a shame if this becomes a pattern among highly populated areas and surrounding rural areas. If the amount of deaths isn't enough for people to realize this shouldn't be happening, then I don't know what will be.

Nick Sollogub said...

This reminds me of my deployment to Iraq in 2003-2004. Seeing the Euphrates river was an exciting thought to me until i saw it and it was a color very similar to anti-freeze. It is all because of the same things that were being dealt with in this article. Years and years of abuse of the environment has caused the river in this article to become so polluted that peoples health are deteriorating. If we do not change our ways we are going to be facing similar problems in due time.

Cynthia Romero said...

Just the photo alone put a knot in my stomach. The fact that most of the 86 people suffered cancer to the digestive system should say something. Later in the article it mentions how 280 million Chinese people drink unsafe water. Well, yes obviously. It is so sad to see that about half of the rivers and lakes are not even clean enough for human CONTACT. This is truly sickening. I don't doubt we will be there soon, unfortunately. I don't know how people can read about this and still either deny a problem or carry on with their lives and think "it's not my problem".

Apoorva said...

This article made me think of the ignorance caused by industrialization. I come from a country that is developing as well and there are a lot of factories polluting the environment, however, the factories are not ruining the environment on a national scale. People see a problem and they attempt to fix and change the situation as soon as possible because no one can afford to lose the amount of human lives. 2.5 million people dying due to cancer caused by highly degraded water bodies is completely unacceptable. The government should help the people living in rural areas by providing each household with a supply of water every week or so.
They should also attempt to evacuate towns like Lanxi, which seems more like a ghost town with a lot of sick people. If China cares about profit and GDP, they should try making their assets, i.e, their people in getting healthy and more available to work. China's population mainly consists of old people at this point of time. With the one child law in use, it will take a mighty long time to replace the entire generation of people who contribute to the economy.

Anonymous said...

This article is a perfect example of what industrialization is doing to our environment. Not only is industrialization completely destroying our homes but also making people ignorant and heartless. I am fortunate enough to live in a nice home and have food and water available in an abundant supply. However, this is a right that everyone deserves. The Lanxi River is home to these people and should be able to live safe and health lives in their home. But because of industries that have no care in the world about how their actions effect others, these people are suffering. We can not wait any longer to help those like the people living along the Lanxi river because soon there will be no one left to help. Governments and corporations need to step up to the plate and start making dramatic chances. Having a health in environment is a human right and who are we to take that away from someone?

-Kaylee Looper

Gina May said...


“The entire country is sick, and cancer has spread to every organ of this nation.”

What a powerful, yet heart wrenching metaphor.

As frustrating as it was to read how China’s concern for profit and GDP has destroyed and polluted the Lanxi river, causing all of the people living in the surrounding area to suffer tremendously, the author was able to artfully explain how in her opinion her entire country has now become sick and she was able to bring awareness of these horrors to other parts of the world. Even though awareness of a problem unfortunately does not always mean a solution is on the way, as I have just read first-hand, I respect the author’s efforts and admire how she now tries to capture the moments and time when her village and river were once pure through her passion for art.

It's a shame that stories like this one don't encourage developing countries to take a step back and look at the damage they are causing verse the profits they are making.

Anonymous said...

This shows how real the enviornmental crisis is. The Lanxi River has been damaged beyond words, within a single lifetime. The contamination from the surrounding factories are directly responsible for the river's degradation as well as the negative health effects of those dependent on this waterway. People used to bathe and play in a river that now has caused their loved ones to pass away. The health of the people who use this river needs to take precedent over the economy. The factories located along the river should be held responsible, and the river needs to be rehabilitated. Water is much too scarce and valuable to be continuously polluted and mistreated.

-Haylei P.

Kira Knight said...

This article demonstrates a powerful depiction of what industrialization has done to our environment in just a short period of time. The damage is evident in every aspect of our environment and not near enough is being done to stop it. Our natural and "sustainable" resources are degrading at very alarming rates. Buildings as well as people are now feeling the wrath that our environment has been feeling fof many years. This crisis doesn't just effect nature, it effects all of us. The pollution and neglection of the world around us is definitely a sickness that needs some serious healing. Our survival depends on it.

Dylan Hirsch said...

As the world developed, its resulted in the pollution of many of the water ways that industry based itself upon. Since then, the developed world has passed legislation to protect these waterways. We see these same problems that the developed world faced now reappearing in those nations who are still developing.Quiet frankly, with larger populations, some countries like China have their people living in horrible conditions. Air pollution can lead to various diseases and sicknesses, and it is the responsibility of these developing nations to curb their pollution habits.

Melis Temelli said...


What we are witnessing China through the blog post made me remember the Charles Dickens novels I read when I was at high school that talked about the poverty of the workers along with the early deaths caused by very hard working conditions in the UK in the 19th century. China is paying the price of industrialization sacrificing the health of many of its citizens, most of whom are poor. This is a very unfortunate case for 21st century, and yet everyone, including the Chinese government, the Western politicians or consumers from all parts of the world choose to ignore the issue. Because we all know that Chinese are paying for us, we are paying less for our DVD players, mobile phones or high-technology televisions as Chinese people die to make things cheaper. I do not think that these people would prefer to live in such unhealthy conditions if they were given the chance to make real choice, other than choosing between starving or working & living in a terribly polluted environment. On the other hand, the possibilities for China to become an industrialized country and get rid of environmental pollution might not be as high as had been the case for European countries in the 19th century. Because population of China is too high compared to Europe, while the resources are too scarce comparatively.