River water was contaminated with cadmium, and the locals are competing to buy up drinking water in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in southern China--reports to that effect ran across China in late January.
I hurried to the scene on Feb. 1, although I had just been assigned to the Guangzhou Bureau and hadn't even settled on a place to live.
It is an ironclad rule that you have to take your own food and water whenever you are entering a disaster-hit area. That maxim appeared truer than ever on that occasion, because water shortages were in the news.
I bought 1.5 liters of drinking water at the airport in Guangzhou. That precaution later turned out not to be necessary.
In the city of Liuzhou in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, about an hour's flight from Guangzhou and home to about 3.8 million people, there were mountains of boxes of drinking water in front of supermarkets and kiosks because of excessive orders.
"We were making a fuss until about a week ago," people said on the street. It was a letdown of sorts, especially because I had brought my own supply.
The pollution was, in its own right, a serious one, however.
It originated in the city of Hechi, about 130 kilometers from downtown Liuzhou. The scandal came to light on Jan. 15 when shoals of dead fish were found in the river.
The putative source of contamination is a metal materials manufacturing plant that faces the Longjiang river. More than 80 times the safety standard of cadmium was detected.
Cadmium is a heavy metal that is generated when zinc is refined and can have toxic effects on kidney functions if it is digested by humans.
In Japan, cadmium was the culprit of the Itai-Itai (ouch, ouch) disease that was identified along the Jinzu river in Toyama Prefecture in the 1950s.
Local governments of the surrounding areas told residents to use well water and tap water from other rivers. The citizens of Liuzhou, downstream of Hechi, fell into a panic for some time because tap water in the city comes from the Longjiang river.
The Liuzhou city government on Jan. 24 installed "defense lines" to block the onslaught of polluted water at five locations along the Longjiang river. The strategy was to use chemical agents to precipitate cadmium that had contaminated the river.
After making the rounds of city streets and the polluted river, I attended a news conference, which locals said had only started to be given from Jan. 30.
A professor of water environment at Tsinghua University in Beijing, an engineer at the municipal water affairs bureau of Shenzhen, Guangdong province, and other experts lined up at the press conference to present one remediation measure after another.
The city government's website published river water quality data updates every two hours. All those public relations efforts were more thorough than I had expected.
The authorities even organized a "media tour" of a water purification plant the next morning.
"The response to the media was nowhere like that initially," a local reporter for a national news media outlet told me during the excursion to the water plant. "It was terrible until some time ago."
The reporter said that no concrete facts or data were released to the public during the first week after the pollution came to light. When the reporter asked an official if that wasn't tantamount to a cover-up, the reply was as blunt as it could be.
"That's no problem, because a local newspaper has written about it," the official said.
The newspaper did print an article, but the coverage was minor and inconspicuous. The city government has control over local newspapers, the reporter said.
But the response soon changed drastically, when reporters from national news media and news media from other parts of China stampeded to the site on learning of the incident. National TV news reports criticized local governments for their reluctance to disclose information. And that attracted even more reporters.
"The reporters were furious, because many of them had had to give up their Lunar New Year holidays to be here," the local reporter said.
At the high point, reporters from more than 20 companies, including from as far as Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, assembled in Liuzhou. Their presence pressured the city government into changing the way it handled the matter.
Public interest in environmental problems is rising by the year in China, where the middle class is expanding. Opposition to the construction of chemical plants and calls for the release of air pollution data have emerged one after another across China. Localized incidents of pollution, such as the latest one, have grabbed national news headlines in the blink of an eye.
"The watchful eyes of the media across China, which are eager to live up to the interests of their readers, are putting pressure on local governments," the local reporter said.
Some companies accuse supervisory bodies of being responsible, whereas others question the reliability of data. Some reporters even make the rounds of hospitals to ask if they have any poisoned patients.
Each media company is under pressure to provide daily reports from unique angles that differ from their competitors. The synthesis naturally creates a pool of reports from multiple viewpoints.
On Feb. 1, the day I arrived at the site, the mayor of Hechi apologized for causing problems. Eight officials of the plant have so far been arrested on criminal charges, and 10 employees of the Hechi city government, including senior officials, have been dismissed or have received other forms of punishment.
"It would all have been swept under the carpet if it had not been for the media crush," said the local reporter. "What we did probably turned out for the best."
Back to the story about myself, I headed, following the tour to the water purification plant, for a power-generating dam along the Longjiang river, one of the posts constituting the "line of defense" at the forefront of the decontamination efforts. I hired a chauffeured car and headed for the dam, located 40 kilometers away, together with a French reporter who asked to share the ride.
We traveled along unmapped roads after exiting the expressway. I kept comparing the country dirt road in front of my eyes with the satellite images on my iPhone.
We drove past many ox carts amid sugar-cane fields in a mountainous terrain that you would typically see in traditional Chinese landscape paintings. One-and-a-half hours of the bumpy ride brought us to the entrance of the dam office that was guarded by police officers carrying rifles.
When I told them that we were reporters, a deputy mayor of the local county, wearing a white shirt and a jacket, turned up and said he was responsible for the site.
"Everything is going along fine with our work. Please come and visit." He let us in so easily.
Security squad members, completely clad in protective gear, were making a fresh yellow water solution of aluminum chloride in the courtyard of the dam office. The solution was to be mixed with the dam water to capture and precipitate cadmium, they said.
Seventy kilograms of the chemical agent were to be dissolved in water every minute around the clock. That required four large truckloads of the chemical every day.
Nine days after the decontamination work started, five similar posts had been installed temporarily along the length of the river.
The deputy county mayor said the worst had passed. And the cadmium reading of Liuzhou's tap water, the focus of much attention, never exceeded the safety standard afterward.
I asked the deputy county mayor if the incident had imparted any lessons.
"The foremost priority has been on economic development from the days of the reform and open door policy up to this day," he said. "But I think we have to change that from now on."
He then said this was his personal opinion and continued: "We are no longer in an age where only industrial development is to be pursued."
He said he wished to implement stronger regulations on plants, subsidies to eco-friendly equipment and other measures by looking to more developed examples, including in Japan.
The remark took me by surprise, because it came from a senior official of a local government that had been eager to attract businesses and industry to increase its tax revenues. My French colleague was also staring in disbelief at the deputy county mayor.
The episode seemed to indicate a rising awareness of the environment not only among the public but also among the administrators.
But the rumors are that pollution by heavy metals remains a serious problem in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Guizhou and Hunan provinces to the north and other regions that host a large number of metal mining and processing plants. I told myself that continued media coverage was necessary over those regions.
Editor's note: Being a foreign correspondent is not all it's cracked up to be. As Asahi Shimbun journalists--assigned to 34 offices around the world--can attest to, the challenges of getting the story in a foreign land are much greater than on the homefront. In the Correspondent's Notebook series, Asahi Shimbun journalists will write about their experiences on the road, including the difficulties, the frustrations, the long hours, the roadblocks, etc. They will take readers along with them and give them a glimpse into their lives.
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