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  When Sands Turn to Sludge

Global Times

Jan 23, 2013
By Yang Jinghao


Unprocessed sewage from chemical plants in the Tengger industrial park, Inner Mongolia, is directly discharged into the desert in September 2012. Photo: Shao Wenjie  

Bayar, a 32-year-old herdsman from the Tengger Desert area in Alxa League, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, was heartbroken to see the country's fourth largest desert being encroached upon by the local government's "industrial miracle" when he returned home in 2011 after 13 years away.

Fresh air, vast rolling dunes, clean underground springs and herds of camels and cattle - these were the memories he had grown up with. Unfortunately, such serenity has been torn apart following the invasion of modern industry. Towering chimneys, rivers of sewage from the factories and increasing power-operated wells have created a nightmare for locals.

"I had been looking forward to going back to the desert without pollution, but I found I was wrong," Bayar sighed.

Since early 2000, the local government has been bringing in enterprises to boost the area's economy. So far, more than 30 chemical enterprises have settled in the Tengger industrial park, close to Zhongwei city in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Official data from the industrial park management committee shows that the revenue generated by these enterprises amounted to over 52 million yuan ($8.4 million) in 2010, as compared to the 300,000 yuan the town of Tengger created in 2000.

But these glorious economic achievements mask the deteriorating living environment for local herdsmen, who can't help worrying about their future, considering that industrial expansion is not expected to stop anytime soon.

The issue, highlighting the contradiction between the country's economic growth model and environmental protection, appears pressing after the building of "ecological civilization" was stressed in the 18th CPC National Congress report.

Sewage invasion

A pool of unprocessed sewage from chemical plants in the Tengger industrial park, Inner Mongolia, reflects  the desert sky in September 2012. Photo: Shao Wenjie  

On May 23 2011, Bayar was on his way to Zhongwei when he suddenly smelled something offensive and saw several garbage trucks heading deep into the desert.

He followed them and found to his dismay that brackish dirty water from the trucks was being dumped directly into the sand. This unexpected discovery led to Bayar beginning to follow this matter closely. He later found two huge pools into which the sewage was being disgorged through pipes and without any processing.

The pools were crudely built without any treatment devices and were said to have cost 30 million yuan.

"The pungent odor of the sewage can soon cause sore throats and weeping eyes. Even the cattle refuse to get close to the area," Shao Wenjie, a researcher with Nature University, an environmental protection NGO, told the Global Times.

Actually, what concerns the herdsmen and environmentalists the most is that the sewage will permeate through the ground and pollute underground water supplies.

Kang Jianjun, deputy director of the industrial park, explained that the two "evaporation pools" were built to dispose of high-salinity and high-acid sewage that can be recycled after natural evaporation, the Guangzhou-based Time Weekly reported.

But the evaporation of high-concentration sewage only applies to domestic wastewater, while chemical wastewater has to be preconditioned since it is made up of complex components, according to Ma Jun, director with the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs.

What confuses locals even more is that a sewage processing factory costing 36 million yuan has been left idle since being established in October 2010. Both officials with the industrial park and the township said this was because of the low collection rate of the sewage, saying the factory would suffer losses if it ever started operation in these conditions.

After persistent efforts, the industrial park management committee issued a circular in October, urging factories to set up pollutant treatment facilities and process wastewater before discharging it.

"The situation is still grave. The sewage is directly released onto the sand when the pools are full or the pipes burst," Bayar told the Global Times, noting that the pools are less than 2 kilometers away from some families' drinking water wells. "What's worse, the distance from the industrial park to the Yellow River is only about 8 kilometers," he said.

Resources pillaged

Apart from increasingly serious pollution, the herdsmen are facing another threat - their underground water resources being plundered by enterprises with high water consumption.

The Qinghua Group Co. Ltd of Inner Mongolia has dug 40 motor-pumped wells in the desert for its fine chemical plant, just close to the desert's biggest oasis, each of which is 160 to 180 meters deep. The water will be sent to a nearby tower after being extracted and then delivered to the factory through pipes. "I have been worrying about this project recently," said Bayar, "Our insufficient water resources are expected to be further strained once the plant goes into operation."

Kang denied the development of these wells would affect the underground water levels, saying that according to an evaluation by the regional water authority, the annual water storage capacity of the evaluated area is 30 million cubic meters, and that the supply could be balanced as long as the exploitation didn't exceed set amounts.

It's not sure how much water the factory will consume when it starts operation. But it's estimated that it takes an average of 10 tons of water for the production of 1 ton of coal products, which could reach 30 tons in producing some other chemical products.

In the last decade, underground water resources in Inner Mongolia have decreased by about 7 percent while demand has grown by about 40 percent. Currently, the total water resource gap Inner Mongolia suffers has reached 1 billion cubic meters, and will reach 3 billion in the next 10 years, according to a regional conference on water conservation in 2011.

Aware of this looming threat, the regional government issued a water conservation regulation in September, forbidding new high-water consumption projects to use underground water.

The Party secretary of Tengger township also claimed it was impossible for the water to dry up given the millions of cubic meters' of exploitation available. He added that water from hundreds of miles away would flow to Tengger thanks to its low-lying terrain.

Zhao Lianshi, deputy general secretary of the rare species branch of the China Association for Scientific Expedition, who has several visits to the desert, is skeptical about this defense. "The water in the desert is very mysterious and nobody has ever figured out its sources. Rushed exploration would lead to some negative consequences such as the salinization of wetlands and shrinking of green areas," Zhao told the Global Times.

Meanwhile, unscientific and illegal mining are also plaguing the locals, and has badly destroyed the grasslands the cattle graze on. According to Bayar, of the mineral resources available, few have valuable deposits for exploitation. Furthermore, the big holes left behind by former mining operations have scarred the desert and regularly kill cattle who fall in.

"We herdsmen have been blamed for destroying vegetation by excessive grazing. It's these factories that are occupying our meadows and wrecking the vegetation," said Bayar. Keeping more than 100 camels as his main source of income, he said he will have to seek a way out for his animals as well as his family if the incursion continues. 

Persistent efforts

"Leaders, the pollution is serious" read a sign put up by herdsmen near the factories. In recent years, villagers have repeatedly appealed to local authorities, but little progress has been seen.

"Every time I brought the issue to officials at the industrial park or the township, they would dodge it under the pretext that they are working on a solution or the development of the local economy is important," said Bayar. "The government is supposed to serve us, but it only fixes its attention on these enterprises."

Covering an area of 85 square kilometers, the industrial park is still expanding and is aiming to develop into a "green ecological" park with annual revenues exceeding 10 billion yuan within several years, Time Weekly quoted the management committee officials as saying.

Environmentalists from different NGOs nationwide have also looked into the matter. In November, Shao reported the matter to the regional environmental protection department but no response has been received so far. 

"We will have another on-site inspection after the Spring Festival and may lodge environmental public-interest litigation against the government or enterprises if the problem persists," said Shao.

He told the Global Times that the industrial pollution problem is also rampant in other areas of Inner Mongolia. The sewage from an industrial park in Tuoketuo county has seriously polluted the water resources of local villages, resulted in a large number of deaths among livestock and harmed villagers.

In 2007, Liu Jinyin, a 36-year-old villager was poisoned to death in a pipeline where he was trying to figure out what was causing the irrigation water, which was badly polluted, to diminish. His wife and elderly son followed him, ending up with the same tragedy, according to a Phoenix Weekly report.

The surging problems have reflected the dilemma that started with the nation's western development strategy back in 2000, under which a large number of enterprises swarmed to western regions due to preferential policies, especially high-consuming and high-polluting industries.

Both local herdsmen and environmentalists familiar with the matter told the Global Times that the enterprises in the Tengger industrial park are mainly lured from eastern and coastal cities, with tax breaks and fewer pollution treatment restrictions.

Ma said in the short term, such enterprises can certainly stimulate the development of local economies, but if authorities overlook potential risks and negative impacts, it will be difficult for the western regions to achieve the anticipated achievements.

Between March and October 2010, Ma Yong, director of the legal service center with the All-China Environment Federation, together with his colleagues conducted an investigation toward 18 industrial parks in eight provinces, which found all the parks were involved in water pollution and 13 of them discharge the wastewater to rivers and lakes directly.

A report following the survey pointed out that environmental impact assessments for these enterprises were lacking, pollution treatment facilities in the parks were basically of no use and the law enforcement was too lax.

"It's time to rethink what kind of development we need and how we should push it forward," said Zhao. "From the equator to the poles, mountains to plains and forests to oceans, desert is the last pure place for the humanity. We cannot afford to lose it."

Agencies contributed to this story


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Close to Eden (Urga): France, Soviet Union, directed by Nikita Mikhilkov

Beyond Great WallsBeyond Great Walls: Environment, Identity, and Development on the Chinese Grasslands of Inner Mongolia

The Mongols at China's EdgeThe Mongols at China's Edge: History and the Politics of National Unity

China's Pastoral RegionChina's Pastoral Region: Sheep and Wool, Minority Nationalities, Rangeland Degradation and Sustainable Development

Changing Inner MongoliaChanging Inner Mongolia: Pastoral Mongolian Society and the Chinese State (Oxford Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology)

Grasslands and Grassland Science in Northern ChinaGrasslands and Grassland Science in Northern China: A Report of the Committee on Scholarly Communication With the People's Republic of China

The Ordos Plateau of ChinaThe Ordos Plateau of China: An Endangered Environment (Unu Studies on Critical Environmental Regions)
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