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  Straits Times 11 Jun 07
Wuxi counts costs of algae crisis
Industry and tourism bear brunt of losses from tainted water supply
By Chua Chin Hon

WUXI (JIANGSU) - THE stench from the tap water is gone and the frenzied buying of bottled drinks has stopped. But beneath the facade of normalcy, this eastern Chinese city of about five million people is beginning to count the economic cost of the unprecedented pollution to their main water source, Lake Tai.

Last month, an algae bloom - caused largely by the dumping of untreated sewage and industrial waste into the water for years - blanketed the lake with a thick layer of green sludge that overwhelmed Wuxi's water processing plants.

Tap water supply to nearly half the population was shut off as the local government ordered a massive clean-up and experts tried to rid the fetid, yellowish tap water of its odour.

Water treatment experts like Mr Liu Guangzhao estimate that it could cost Wuxi up to 200 million yuan (S$40 million) to deal with the current crisis. And this figure is likely to be just a fraction of the full economic fallout.

Businesses were caught completely off- guard. Wuxi is a manufacturing boomtown with a large cluster of chemical plants and textile factories dependent on a steady supply of water. Industry executives were reluctant to discuss losses caused by the disruption to the water supply, but said their operating costs had risen.

A senior Singaporean executive with an electronics firm said his company spent 200,000 yuan on bottled water for drinking, cooking and washing in the staff canteen.

Tourism has been the second major casualty. Prior to the pollution of Lake Tai, Wuxi's reputation for natural beauty would draw tourists by the hordes each month. But now, tourists from Malaysia, Hong Kong, and neighbouring Zhejiang province are cancelling their visits.

'There was an immediate impact,'' said Mr Cao Zhangzao, who declined to name the downtown hotel he worked at as a manager. 'Occupancy rates fell by half, and costs went up as we had to assure customers that all the food was cooked and cleaned with purified water.''

Restaurants reported slower business while those selling seafood along Lake Tai were shut down indefinitely as a precaution. Local tourism officials likened the impact of the algae-crisis to that caused by the Sars outbreak in 2003, and expect the weeks ahead to be bleak.

'The effects are only beginning. We will continue to see a sharp fall in the number of tourists, not just in Wuxi, but in the east China area in general,'' Ms Jiang Yueqing, president of the Wuxi China International Travel Service, was quoted saying by the Xinhua news agency.

The Wuxi government declared last week that the tap water is now up to standard, after a team of experts used strong oxidising agents such as potassium permanganate to get rid of the odour in the water.

But residents are taking no chances. As a result, their expenses have crept up as they continue to rely on bottled water for drinking or cooking. Housewives are also loading up on additional bottles of anti-bacterial disinfectant, which they are adding liberally to their laundry.

'I don't dare bathe my baby or wash his clothes with the tap water even though the government says it is OK,'' said Ms Jin Cangxia.

But Wuxi is not the only Chinese city struggling with the economic fallout from worsening pollution. An official estimate released last year showed that air, water and soil pollution cost China 511.8 billion yuan in economic losses in 2004, or about 3 per cent of that year's total economic output.

However, businessmen and residents say the eventual bill for Wuxi could well extend beyond dollars and cents, given the damage to intangible assets such as its reputation and the people's faith in the local government.

IT consultant Wang Wei said he did not dare bathe for the three days that he was in Wuxi for a business trip and planned to take a shower only after getting home to his native Beijing.

'I wouldn't be here if I had a choice,'' complained Mr Wang. 'Who knows how much chemicals they dumped into the water in order to turn the situation around quickly. For me, it's safety first.''

Villagers have had to live with the pollution for years

WUXI residents who think they were hard done by during the recent algae crisis should visit the nearby villages for a reality check, say peasants living next to several chemical plants here.

Many of them practically live next door to factories whose waste discharge over the years turned the nearby rivers black and poisoned their wells. The choking fumes from factories producing paint solvent and fertilisers also gave them coughing fits and persistently sore throats.

A palpable sense of anger was in the air when The Straits Times visited villages like Mazhoutie, Fengjia, Nanxia Zhuan and Fenshui near the Zhoutie township, about an hour's drive west of Wuxi city in eastern China.

The villagers complained bitterly and loudly that plants like Jiangsu Yingyan Chemical and Jiangsu Tianyin Chemical were discharging waste water blatantly into streams and rivers connected to Lake Tai, which was hit by an algae bloom late last month. Lake Tai is China's third largest lake and the main source of water for Wuxi.

The algae bloom that covered the lake's surface overwhelmed Wuxi's water processing plants. The tap water supply for nearly half of the city's population of five million had to be shut off for days as the urbanites rushed to buy bottled water - a luxury that the thousands of peasants living near Zhoutie township do not enjoy.

'We want these chemical plants to be shut down right away,' said an elderly woman who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisal. 'If you city folk are so concerned about Lake Tai, then you should be paying attention to these chemical plants in the villages as their waste discharge all leads to the lake.'

Algae blooms typically occur in waters rich in nutrients from industrial and agricultural waste, as well as untreated sewage.

To prove the point, one woman in Fengjia village scooped up a handful of brackish sediment from a small river next to her house, and said: 'This is what we've been living with for years. 'The waste water from these chemical factories has poisoned our land and our rivers. Our complaints all fell on deaf ears.'

The local government has pledged on many occasions that they will cut down the number of polluting plants in the villages. But the villagers said that due to corruption, no action was ever taken against the factories.

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