Chinese state media reported Tuesday that seven people had been detained in connection with the contamination of a river in Guangxi, affecting drinking supplies for millions of people.
Seven people were detained in China on Tuesday in connection with an investigation into how the southern Longjiang River came to have excessive quantities of the metal cadmium, according to state media.
The pollution caused residents in China's southern city of Liuzhou to scramble for bottled water after they were advised not to drink water taken from the river. Toxicity levels were found to be as much as three times higher than the government’s accepted level, state media said last week.
Whilst the online edition of the state-run China Daily did not identify the seven people detained, news agency Agence France-Presse reported they were executives from the Jinhe Mining Company.
"The contamination was first detected on January 15 near a dam on the Longjiang River after dead fish had been found," water expert Ma Jun said, blaming authorities for not releasing the news of the contamination early enough.
Authorities took immediate measures by dumping special chemicals into the water to neutralize the cadmium.
Gu Jidong, professor of Environmental Science with the University of Hong Kong, told Deutsche Welle it is not something new that agricultural products are tainted by cadmium, as there is a large amount of cadmium in the environment. "It happened in Japan before, where rice contained cadmium exceeding the safety limit," said Gu, adding that agricultural products were more likely to be contaminated than water.
Cadmium has traditionally been used in the electronics industry. Old-fashioned batteries contain this element or mercury. Cadmium is carcinogenic and can seriously cause damage to kidneys, bones and respiratory system, according to information from the World Health Organization.
According to Gu, the lack of accountability and the lack of knowledge are the two main factors leading to frequent pollution. "First, it concerns the ownership of land. The land belongs to the country. So people might think they shouldn’t be responsible for the land because it is not theirs. And the local governments tend to give economic benefits a higher priority than environmental protection," said Gu. Furthermore, "most people are unaware how serious the environmental pollution is, especially farmers and villagers." Gu suggested that the media should cover more issues concerning the environment to raise public awareness.
Shelves carrying bottled water were almost vacated in one supermarket, as a picture of Xinhua news agency showed. Chinese state media also said authorities had dispatched officials to ensure there was an abundant supply of bottled water.
"Water pollution is rife, from city to village, from tributary to river," said Ma, pointing out that over 100 million rural dwellers are still drinking water below standard and around one in five water reserves in cities are not up to standard, "except in big cities like Beijing, where water reserves are under strict control."
Gu is not optimistic about the future of water pollution. "I think in the years to come, the environment will continue to deteriorate." Although this is not a problem which can be solved overnight, what the government can at least do, according to Gu, is to keep the public well-informed and educate on the importance of purifying water by means of filtering or boiling.
Author: Miriam Wong
Editor: Sarah Berning