14 September 2007

Linfen China

This past week I had one of those jaw-dropping, “no way… come on… it can’t be true” experiences. I was randomly browsing the Internet during my lunch hour when I just happened to see a report about the 10 most polluted places in the world. I clicked on it and flipped through some initial pictures and reports until I stopped dead in my tracks. You see, one of these underprivileged places just happens to be the very city I spent a month in last year: Linfen, China.

Racing through my memories gradually brought back images of darkened noon-time skies, masked faces bustling around town and billowing smoke stacks littering the countryside like post-modern trees. I also recall how an American couple residing there spoke of their plans to move to another city, alarmed at their young daughter’s deteriorating health due to the oppresive air pollution.

Little did I know when I was there that the Blacksmith Institute’s initial report (2006) was being prepared. It states that “when asked to comment on the environmental conditions of Linfen, one environmental expert quipped, ‘If you have a grudge against someone, let this guy become a permanent citizen of Linfen! Why? For punishment!’"

It goes on to say that “Living in a town with serious pollution is like living under a death sentence. If the damage does not come from immediate poisoning, then cancers, lung infections and mental retardation are likely outcomes. Often insidious and unseen, and usually in places with deficient and exhausted health systems, pollution is an unacknowledged burden on the poor and marginalized in the developing world. It is a major factor impairing economic growth, and a significant strain on the lives of already impoverished people.” The 2007 report goes even further: “The World Health Organization, in conjunction with the World Bank, estimates that 20 percent of deaths in the developing world are directly attributed to environmental factors from pollution.”

The Blacksmith Institute “attempts to objectively expose sites that have the most extreme effects on human health … to indicate that there are potential remedies for these sites.” Criteria it uses to identify the worst perpetrators are “toxicity and scale of the pollution sources and … the numbers of people at risk.”

Here is a summary of the section about Linfen.

Linfen, China
Potentially affected people:
Type of pollutant:
Fly-ash, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, PM-2.5, PM-10,
sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds, arsenic, lead.

Source of pollution:
Automobile and industrial emissions

The Problem:
Province is at the heart of China’s enormous and expanding coal industry, providing about two thirds of the nation’s energy. Within this highly polluted region, Linfen has been identified as one of its most polluted cities with residents claiming that they literally choke on coal dust in the evenings. … [T]he State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) has branded Linfen as having the worst air quality in the country.

Rapid development and unequivocal faith in industry has led to the development of hundreds of unregulated coal mines, steel factories and refineries which have not only polluted indiscriminately but have also diverted agricultural water sources. Water is so tightly rationed that even the provincial capital receives water for only a few hours each day.

Health Impacts:
The high levels of pollution are taking a serious toll on the health of Linfen’s inhabitants. Local clinics are seeing growing cases of bronchitis, pneumonia, and lung cancer. The children of Shanxi Province also have high rates of lead poisoning.

A growing number of local deaths in recent years have been linked to these overwhelming pollution levels. Arsenicosis, a disease caused by drinking elevated concentrations of arsenic found in water is at epidemic levels in the area. Chronic exposure to this toxic chemical results in skin lesions, peripheral vascular disease, hypertension, blackfoot disease, and high cancer incidence rates. A study of Shanxi’s well water published in Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology found the rate of unsafe well water in the province to be at an alarming 52%.

Status of Clean-Up Activity:
By the end of this year, the city of Linfen plans to shut down 160 of 196 of its iron foundries and 57 of 153 of its coal producing plants. Small, highly polluting plants will be replaced with larger, cleaner, more regulated facilities."

One thing is to read these words on a screen, another is to drink that water and breathe that air. I did that for a month but many of the friends I left behind there have done it all of their lives, and continue to do so.

I can’t end this blog on such a note. You see, I had an incredibly beautiful experience there and I’d like to share some of that with those of you who may be thinking “those poor people” right about now.

I spent a month training English teachers at the invitation of a Baha’i inspired NGO that specializes in education for development. I had lived in Chinese culture as an adolescent, but I hadn’t remembered the warmth and brightness of the people that I experienced during this visit. I made a lot of special friends, very astute and sincere people. As you can imagine, I also experienced a lot of culture shock, especially with the toiletless bathrooms and the general absence of children. Aside from these, most of the culture shock I experienced was the good kind that made me reflect on my own culture, and question it.

For example, I never saw any alcohol during my entire visit there, except in a couple of nice restaurants, and even then in very moderate quantities. Scenes of groups of men that “install” themselves on street corners to drink until dawn, man and wife screaming at each other through alcohol-laden lips, crashes on highways littered with bottles and drunkards sleeping in the streets flashed through my mind as I thought of my beloved Ecuador. The extent of human destruction caused by the culture of alcohol here in which people cannot feel any strong emotion, either joy or sadness, without its help cannot be overstated.

Nor did I witness anything resembling the vast and shocking gulf that separates rich from poor as I do here every day. Only in Beijing did I see opulence, and I never saw squalor or misery. No ubiquitous walls separating those who can get in from those who must stay out, no bars on the windows or sick and helpless dogs running the streets. I felt keenly reminded of my hometown in the United States.

Also, I spent a blissful month away from everything processed. No Coke, food-like substances, corn syrup or deep-fried flour and sugar-based junk food. There were a huge variety of meat products, that is for sure, but alongside the most amazing diversity of nuts, fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices imaginable. Everybody drinks real tea with every meal.

My friends also told me that, although it has been on the rise lately especially in the cities, there is still a very low level of sexual promiscuity. Discipline, courage, honor and family loyalty still reign among the youth. Learning science and technology is a high priority for youth as well, even in the most rural areas. The streets were clean and well-taken care of. The doctor we visited to cure my friend’s fairly severe cold treated her with such care with ancient herbal remedies that cleansed her whole organism. Ornate architecture, beautiful decorations, colors everywhere.

All of these memories make it harder for me to swallow that this admirable culture flowers under such oppressive air contamination. The current economic growth imperative, increasingly driven by western influence, needs to be rethought to include and celebrate all of the cultural aspects that make these people so unique and wonderful. Otherwise, they will soon clash, and the growth imperative, at least as it is currently conceived and practiced, doesn’t stand to lose.


Vahid said...

I liked this post, the contrast between your memories and the current facts is really grasping. When did you live there? Was there no pollution back then?

iguana said...

Yeah, that is what motivated me to write this. It is easy for people to form judgement about people who live in such polluted places, especially if they don't know those people or if the culture is very different from their own.

I lived in Taiwan quite a few years ago now, so my stay in Linfen was my first visit to the mainland. I don't recall much pollution in Taiwan at that time.

cryptic_philosopher said...

Thanks for the insight--my comment about hippies was perhaps too flippant for such a serious problem. I tend to do that, sorry.

child_of_africa said...

a post about linfen...one of the most precious spots on this dear earth to me. i was there this past May for a grand wedding that perhaps you heard about and it is true that at night the air was so bad that i literally felt i could not breathe and I was unable to sleep. it has definitely gotten worse since i lived there in 1993-1995. physically one suffocates in linfen and spiritually one breathes the purest and most vivifying breaths of fresh air.

Anonymous said...

Your account is surprising. My experience in China was completely different.

Fallout Earth said...

I can't even imagine how people can live there daily... specially little children; it's like you're doomed to die young the day you're born.

Anonymous said...

Can someone update on the state of pollution in Linfen. I believe there has been a dramatic turn around, but quietly ignored.

Anonymous said...

Can someone update on the state of pollution in Linfen. I believe there has been a dramatic turn around, but quietly ignored.