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In China, What You Don’t Know Can Kill You

This weekend, more than 3,000 dead pigs showed up in a river that bisects the megacity of Shanghai. The river is the primary water source for approximately 22 percent of Shanghai’s 23 million residents. And no one could say for sure who was responsible.

Events like this “pig soup” disaster have incited calls for increased government transparency about pollution. China has been slow to respond to these demands. The environment ministry recently denied an attorney’s request for soil pollution data because that data was a “state secret.” Reuters reports:

Microbloggers, state media and even delegates to this week’s session of the National People’s Congress, the largely rubber-stamp parliament, were already critical of the government for poor air and water quality. Now they are also expressing disquiet over the scarcity of information about the environment available to them.

Citing “state secrets”, the environment ministry last month denied a request from [attorney Dong Zhengwei] for information on data on soil samples that was collected in a national survey that started in 2006 and ended in 2010.

According to a 2007 World Bank report, China’s pollution costs the country 5.8 percent of its GDP in material damages, premature deaths (nearly 700,000 die every year from air pollution alone), and health care costs. China already has an economic incentive to look for ways to reduce pollution, but pressure from its massive population is adding fuel to the fire.

This fire has been building for years. In Beijing’s “airmageddon,” in which the city’s smog routinely exceeded U.S. EPA air quality limits, the large public outcry led the government to disclose daily air quality levels. And China’s Ministry for Water Resources has released figures showing roughly 40 percent of China’s rivers to be “seriously polluted.” But officials have remained tight-lipped over soil pollution—what Dong describes as the country’s “silent killer.”

But now social media sites like Weibo (China’s version of Twitter) are allowing Chinese activists to express their displeasure on a national stage. Frequently they do so at their own peril, but as more and more people begin to document their local environmental woes, it will become increasingly difficult for China to hide behind the excuse of “state secrets.” You can’t fish 3,000 dead pigs out of a river without somebody asking questions.

[Image of Chinese workers cleaning a Suzhou canal in Nov. 2012 courtesy of Gwoeii /]

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