Wei Dongying spreads a sheaf of handwritten papers across the living room floor of her simple home and sits back patiently in her chair as we read through them, page by page. These testimonies – some neat and concise, others brief and angry, others barely more than a scrawl – amount to an extraordinary chronicle of human suffering: a dossier of despair that charts the slow, agonising death of Wei’s once-thriving village.
For more than a decade, the 46-year-old has been tracking the abnormally high cancer rates in Wuli village, Zhejiang province, by collecting poignant written statements from the dying and from the shattered, grieving families they leave behind.
“I really feel as if my whole body is disintegrating,” one victim, a close neighbour, wrote. “I just wish my village could go back to the way it was when I was young. I want to taste fresh water and breathe fresh air again.”
Months after committing his thoughts to paper, Wang Jiangping, 49, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He died in July last year.
Mr Cao, whose young wife died of breast cancer, vented his anger in writing: “It’s all because of the factories. So many people are dying since the factories arrived. No one is listening. Why doesn’t someone stop this?”
A fisherman living in the village wrote: “These chemical factories dump their waste water directly into the river. The water used to be clear but now it’s murky and it stinks. There used to be so many fish and so many shrimp. Now, everything has died. The pollution is too much. It is affecting all of us and there is nothing we can do about it. We have nowhere to go and no one will help.”
Wuli is one of the so-called “cancer villages”, recognised at last by Beijing this year as having unusually high rates of the disease because of unregulated industrial development. That recognition came after years of campaigning by environmental groups and individual campaigners such as Wei.
Far from being a dirty secret tucked away in one of the country’s inland provinces, Wuli lies on an east coast estuary on the outskirts of one of the mainland’s most picturesque and prosperous cities, Hangzhou. While couples and families pose for pictures and stroll along the banks of Hangzhou’s famous West Lake, the environment in Wuli, just 30 kilometres away, is horrifically different. The earth and air in the centuries-old village have been so badly poisoned by a sprawl of chemical factories, which for years have pumped their waste water straight out into the river, that officials are considering relocating its 1,500 remaining residents.
In February, the government also promised a crackdown on factories that poison the environment in cancer villages. But for scores of grieving families in Wuli and thousands more in an estimated 250 black spots dotted across the mainland, the declaration means little and has come too late.
Once a thriving fishing village known throughout Zhejiang for its crystal-clear water, Wuli has been slowly choked to death by chemical factories set up in the 1990s to serve the global clothes industry. More than 300 textiles factories line the estuary – the area accounts for about one-third of the mainland’s fabric-dyeing industry – and two massive industrial zones, of 415 and 155 square kilometres, have been set up within a half hour’s drive of Wuli.
Environmental experts estimate that one million tonnes of toxic waste water a day is pumped into the Qiantang River, much of it washing back across village waterways as the tide rises.
The symptoms of pollution were quick to appear. Soon after the first factories began operating, crops started to die in the fields around Wuli and dead fish were found floating on the river. Next, tap water ran red and gave off a foul stench. Then, villagers began to succumb to cancer in unusually high numbers.
When the cancer cases spread, shocked residents called for the factories to be shut down but compensation payments of tens of thousands of yuan, allegedly including some to protest leaders, quelled the unrest. Only Wei and a handful of others fought on. With no official statistics available on cancer fatalities, it was impossible to know exactly how widespread they were. All that existed were worrying anecdotes and accounts passed from neighbour to neighbour about clusters of sudden illnesses and deaths.
Wei began to keep a diary detailing every case she heard of, and began going door to door to collect testimonies from the dying and bereaved. She estimates people have died at the rate of about 10 a year within just a three-kilometre radius of her home.
Carrying her diary of death, she has since harried and hassled local officials to take action. They have done their best to silence her.
Early on in her campaign, factory owners made an extraordinary appeal to Wei – asking her to back off for three years, to give them time to relocate to new sites away from Wuli. Her response was one of defiance and sheer exasperation.
“You’re killing people,” she told them. “If the police discovered a murderer, should they arrest him straight away or let him carry on murdering for three more years?”
As the deaths continued, Wei began to realise her fight to shut down the factories, or at the very least force them to dispose of waste water safely, through treatment plants, was a futile one. Officials wavered between attempting to silence her and promising to force the factories to behave responsibly – while the pollution continued unabated.
Instead of setting up treatment plants to safely dispose of the waste water, factories were continuing to pump it straight out into the river, through hidden underground pipes, she says.
“If the factories paid what it costs to treat the waste water properly, they would probably go bankrupt,” Wei says. “Instead, they are making more profit than ever before. It is our village and our environment that is paying the price.
“When people began to die, the local government promised all the factories would be moved out, but they went back on their word. They said they would force the factories to use a waste-water treatment plant. But in the end, they were empty words. We were shunted from one bureau to another, only to be told there was nothing they could do and that we should complain to the central government instead.”
In February, Wei attended a national meeting of environmental campaigners in Shanghai, taking with her a simple but poignant message on behalf of the Wuli villagers: “Factories are dumping their waste water into the ground and into the Qiantang River. It happens year after year and day after day. We are so worried about the situation here. Our village is known as the Cancer Village. Lots of people here get ill and die. We want our national leaders to pay attention to this and to help us.”
Wei’s husband, Shao Guantong, 58, a fisherman who has supported his wife throughout her years of campaigning, has an especially personal reason for helping her battle. In 1996, he lost his elder brother to lung cancer that he believes was caused by the pollution.
“At the time, we didn’t know that cancer was connected to the pollution,” Shao says. “We didn’t know what the poisonous air and water were doing to us.
“When we played in the village as young boys, the water here was the best in eastern China. The area was fresh and everything was green. You could drink from the streams and from the river.
“Then, in 1992, they started building the chemical factories here. Suddenly the air wasn’t so clear. There was a pungent smell that choked you. After about three years, we started to find a lot of dead fish. The village committee warned us not to eat or sell the dead fish but they didn’t say why.
“In 1997, we started to tell the government to stop the pollution. They promised us it would stop. They said they would bring in new standards and that any factory that breached those standards would be closed down. But that never happened.
“When I was young, if seven men from this village wanted to serve in the army, seven men would pass their fitness tests and qualify. Last year, 17 men from the village wanted to serve in the army but only one of them qualified.”
The one youngster who did qualify was Wei and Shao’s son.
“My son is only in good health because of my care,” Shao says. “After what happened to my brother, I never let my son drink the water from the village. Now he has left to serve in the army and I am happy that he has left here.
“I am worried about my own health; of course I am. All of us are. Last year I fell ill with stomach trouble and I ended up in hospital. I was very relieved when I was given the all-clear for cancer.”
The people facing the greatest risks in Wuli are the factory workers, nearly all of whom are migrants from the poorest provinces. They emerge from work every day caked in bright red dye and are given health checks by the factories every six months.
“If we are well, we can stay on,” says a 34-year-old factory worker from Sichuan province. “If we are sick, we are given compensation and sent home. We get good money – about 4,000 yuan [HK$5,000] a month. But it is tough work and many people get sick. The longest anyone lasts here is about three years.”
Officials have repeatedly denied there is any link between the pollution and cancer deaths, and many fatalities go unrecorded by Wei because families fear speaking to her. She believes there is only one viable solution for the remaining villagers.
“The government promised to move the factories out but they went back on their word,” she says. “Now the situation is so bad the only solution is for the villagers to be moved out.”
It is a solution the local government appears to be contemplating. In her home at the centre of the village, where many houses are already deserted, Wuli primary school teacher Feng Xiaofei says officials have told her residents will soon be provided with homes in a new village, about 15 kilometres away. In what appears to be a cynical ploy to avoid any claims for compensation, they told her the villagers were being relocated to allow Wuli to be transformed into a tourist resort.
“They told us the water and the air in Wuli are perfectly safe but they said they want to turn Wuli into a resort for visitors to enjoy the beautiful scenery and trips along the river,” says Feng.
The deaths in Wuli are part of a broader trend. Cancer is now the biggest killer on the mainland, with an 80 per cent rise in mortality rates in the past 30 years, according to health ministry figures. Pressure group Greenpeace estimates 190 million people on the mainland – more than one in seven of its 1.3 billion souls – drink water that is severely contaminated with hazardous chemicals.
Li Yifang, a Greenpeace investigator who spent three years researching textile industry pollution in China, says Wuli and surrounding villages have been particularly badly hit.
“One woman worker in a dyeing factory near Wuli told us her husband, mother-in-law and father-in-law had all died of cancer,” Li says. “In another village near the factories, everyone we met told us that at least one or two of their relatives had died from cancer.”
Greenpeace has tested the waste water discharged from factories in the Wuli area and found alarmingly high levels of cancer-causing chemicals and ones that cause infertility, Li says. It found stretches of the Qiantang River where toxic waste being discharged by factories was creating “a black sprawl 50 metres wide”, Li says.
“There is really visible water pollution in the area. You can even see the discharge on Google Earth.”
In its first acknowledgement of the issue, the Ministry of Environmental Protection in February confirmed that chemical pollution had led to “severe health and social problems such as cancer villages”. It outlined a clampdown on 58 types of toxic chemicals – an announcement Li describes as a “baby step” towards addressing decades of environmental degradation.
“In the past, the local authorities always said the discharged water met China’s standards,” she says. “Now, at least, they acknowledge the problem because they tell us and say publically that there is a loophole with the regulations.”
WEI IS CLEARLY EXHAUSTED by her fight for justice and admits to being intimidated by local officials who keep telling her to stop speaking out.
“Sometimes I regret doing all of this because things are still bad and I see no hope for the future,” she says, shaking her head sadly. “Six windows were broken at our house recently. I worry all the time about the safety of my family.”
Scooping up the papers from her living room floor, she says: “It is so difficult for a Chinese person to protest about problems like these. Some people I know in other parts of China are followed by the police day and night and sent to jail for doing what I am doing.
“Officials say to me, ‘Don’t ask journalists to come.’ I tell them, ‘I don’t ask them to come. They come because of the pollution, so you are inviting them yourselves.’ On one occasion they called me into their offices and asked me to stop.
“They said to me, ‘How much do you want? We can negotiate.’ But I told them I am doing this for the children of the village and for the generations who come after us. You can’t count people’s lives in money.”
Red Door News Hong Kong
Wuli is just one village paying the price for soaring global demand for cheap clothes, and consumers and governments worldwide must act to stop the pollution, environmental activists say.
According to a 2012 Greenpeace report titled “Toxic Threads”, the pressure group found traces of potentially cancer-causing chemicals in scores of brand-name items sold in high-street stores worldwide. The report argued that big brands were making consumers “unwitting accomplices in the toxic water cycle” and called for manufacturers to commit to a deadline of zero discharge of hazardous chemicals by 2020.
A survey of 141 items of clothing bought in 29 countries in April last year as part of the report’s research found high levels of toxic phthalates in four of the garments and cancer-causing amines from the use of dyes in two. NPEs (nonylphenol ethoxylates) were found in 89 garments while a variety of potentially hazardous industrial chemicals were found in a number of other tested items.
“Around 80 billion garments are produced worldwide, the equivalent of just over 11 garments a year for every person on the planet,” the report states. “The increased volume of clothing being made, sold and thrown away magnifies the human and environmental costs of our clothes at every stage of their life cycle.
“While these brands continue to use our public waterways like their own private sewers, threatening people’s livelihoods and health, we have a right to know which chemicals they are releasing.”
Brands, governments and consumers all need to act to stop the toxic cycle, the report says.
“People at either end of the fashion chain require more transparency about the hazardous chemicals used to make their clothes, and how much of these get released into the environment,” it says. “In particular, communities living near production facilities have the right to know what is coming out of those factories.
“As global players, clothing brands have the opportunity to work on global solutions to eliminate the use of hazardous substances throughout their product lines, and to drive a change in practice throughout their supply chains.
“The use of hazardous chemicals by suppliers needs to be subject to much greater scrutiny, through the creation of mechanisms to ensure transparency so that local populations can verify that discharges are indeed being eliminated.”
Consumers, it said, should buy fewer new clothes and buy second-hand clothes where possible. They should also put pressure on brands to act responsibly and demand that governments act to restrict sales and imports of products containing hazardous chemicals.