Desert wastelands

Source:Global Times Published: 2014-9-10 21:23:01

Industrial pollution taking its toll on Western China’s arid regions

A massive sewage pool containing polluted water is left to evaporate in Alashan, Tengger Desert, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Photo: IC

"I  want to escape from my polluted hometown and stay in cities," said Bateer, a resident of the Elisi township, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region deep in the Tengger Desert, which is also home to some industry parks.

"The air is not clean any more. Groundwater levels have dropped every year due to the frantic groundwater extraction of the enlarging park," said the college freshman, who had returned home from studying in the regional capital of Hohhot for the summer to help his parents graze sheep and camels.

Two industrial parks have been set up in the heart of the Tengger, bordered by Alxa Left Banner, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and Zhongwei, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.

Near the parks, several drainage ponds as large as football fields containing black, maroon and yellow slurry give off a pungent and suffocating odor, the Beijing News reported on Saturday.

"The sewage is pumped straight in the desert from those plants," said a nearby store owner, pointing at the industrial park, which is home to a large number of chemical and industrial product companies.

Despite extensive media coverage of similar pollution violations in recent years, the plants continue to discharging sewage.

The public is now beginning to question the local governments charged with regulating them.

Persistent pollution

The industrial discharge is left to evaporate in the pools, leaving behind a sticky sediment to be buried in the desert, said a local herdsman.

The plants not only dump waste water into the desert, but consume a large amount of groundwater.

Local groundwater levels have fallen at least 40 meters deeper than they were 10 years ago, said Bateer, whose home is located at the upper reaches of an important water source in the Tengger Desert.

More than 40 wells were dug 180 meters deep in the heart of the desert, all of which are now used by the industrial park, The Beijing Times quoted an anonymous source as saying.

The source added that more and deeper wells are drilled each year.

"It used to be a beautiful desert grassland of mainly shrubs, but the environment began getting worse in 2007 when industrial development was stimulated," said an environmental activist focused on the pollution of Tengger Desert.

Liu Shurun, a geologist at Inner Mongolia Normal University, pointed out that improper drainage may contaminate groundwater of the desert, which is home to herdsmen and farmers, as well as protected species of plants.

"It will be almost impossible to clean the groundwater once it is polluted," Liu said.

Mabayier, head of the protection and work safety bureau in the economic development zone, denied any discharge of sewage has occurred since March 22, 2013, when 18 out of a total 22 plants moved away or were shut down, according to China National Radio on Sunday.

He admitted the evaporation and air-drying of the sewage had been allowed, but "I can guarantee on my honor that we haven't buried the waste in the sand."

Nevertheless in May, the Ministry of Environmental Protection revealed major cases of environmental pollution for the first quarter.

Among them were companies in the Tengger economic development zone dumping sewage without authorization.

The All-China Environment Federation found last August that  drinking water collected only two kilometers from the industrial park, contained levels of phenol, a carcinogenic substance, 410 times higher than the national standard.

Cause and effect

The director of the management committee of the economic development zone, surnamed Chen, said local authorities had closed 15 factories in 2012 after State television unveiled a similar case.

He said the pungent smells may be a result of the inadequate supervision of companies discharging waste water or sewage.

The Zhongwei Environmental Protection in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region admitted that it seldom fines the plants for dumping sewage.

The environmental agency said that the only practical solution is relocation, as regulation usually prove ineffective.

However, environmental authorities do not have the authority to close or relocate companies for waste disposal infractions.

In a scathing commentary, The Beijing News questioned why the bureau did not exercise its power granted by law to suspend the plants' production. The article accused the bureau of nonfeasance and eyeing GDP rather than the environment.

GDP was previously the only criteria by which government officials were evaluated, particularly in underdeveloped areas that have a reputation for tolerating pollution.

The GDP rankings of Inner Mongolia, Ningxia and Shaanxi have increased by 10 in the past 10 years, from which we can see the impetus for discharging pollutants into the desert, a editorial on Shandong-based noted.

Courting disaster

Some western provinces have passed policies favorable to chemical plants that have been pushed out of eastern regions, as well as lenient environmental impact assessment and relaxed supervision, a commentary of Xinhua Daily Telegraph pointed out.

"Some governments even offer special incentives to attract business and investment, including dropping environmental impact assessment, low rent for land use and exemption from taxation and pollution discharge fees for years, allowing sewage to be dumped straight in the sand,"Beijing-based China Environment News reported in 2005.

Local authorities often turn a blind eye to the illegal discharge of sewage and even help companies cover up their wrongdoings, the commentary noted, adding that in the past, local government may open an investigation into any resident who tips off media.

Many of the local herdsmen who had previously spoken to trusted sources of the Beijing News refused to give details, saying the local government began hassling them after they led reporters to the polluted pools.

"Everyone here knows it, but none dare to take you there," a local driver told The Beijing News when asked about the location of the pools.

The Tengger Desert situation is the very epitome of moving highly polluting companies westward. Authorities should not indulge companies that could exert a detrimental effect on the environment as the economy develops, the commentary of Xinhua Daily Telegraph noted.

The Third Plenary Session of 18th Communist Party of China Central Committee vowed in 2013 that officials would take lifelong accountability for the environmental pollution of projects launched during their administration.

"We hope the measures can be fully implemented, "The Beijing News commented.

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