By Yang Guang
Published: 2008-05-01

From Nation, Page 9,  issue no. 365, April 28, 2008
Translated by Ren Yujie
Original article:

In years past, blue-green algae usually bloomed over Taihu Lake in July or August. But over the past few years its annual proliferation has come earlier and earlier; in May last year, and this year, as early as April.

As the weather gets warmer, the advancement of algae in Taihu gets more prominent, affecting both drinking water supplies and those whose livelihoods are directly intertwined with the lake.

As it thickens, it hampers upstream Yixing City's fishing and shipping industries. An old fish farmer Chen said when the algae covered the lake surface, it blocked boats from crossing and led oxygen levels to plummet, killing off fish populations.

Even more worrisome is that the nearby Wuxi City draws most of its potable water comes from the lake.

Sun Liefeng, an environmental official from Yixing, said the algae had populated Taihu since the beginning of the last century, though its peak coverage of the lake expanded in recent years as pollution, especially residential, became more serious.

Now, with abundant nitrogen and phosphorus present, there is an annual bloom.

Located upstream of the Lake, Yixing is blamed for much of Taihu's pollution, though it sources its own potable water from a mountain range.

Meanwhile, with several rivers flowing into Taihu through Yixing, different kinds of agricultural, industrial and biological waste and pollutants enter the water and finally flow into the Lake.

"All cities surrounding Taihu Lake were worried about the blue-green algae," said Sun. According to him, every government department in Yixing City was focused on the same task -- reducing pollution and protecting the Lake. Last year, five officials in Yixing were punished after they failed to curb businesses' illegal sewage disposal during a blue-green algae crisis.

Sun said last year, at the height of the algae crisis, workers at Yixing's Environmental Protection Agency were working from 8am to 11pm and only resting on Sundays. They spent most of their days inspecting businesses and assessing effluent.

Yixing bore the brunt of a recent environmental dragnet initiated by China's top environmental watchdog agency. The sweep shut down many chemical firms - a pillar industry in Yixing.

According to Yixing's trade bureau chief Lu Hongyuan, 274 chemical plants had been closed by the end of 2007. The economic base of Zhoutie Town, once called "hometown of chemical plants", has transitioned into the electronics, life science, and new energy resources industries.

Chemical-based products used to made up 80% of the town's gross production value in 1995, but only 40% presently. Sun said the biggest move occurred in 2003 - more than half chemical enterprises were clamped down in that year. He added no chemical businesses had been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency in recent years.

The main job of the Agency is to control pollution sources and to supervise the operation of pollution treatment facilities. It also monitors approved businesses for five years, and enforces supervision and analysis of the water of the Lake.

The task of cleaning the lake and the city does not just fall on the shoulders of the Agency. Now, all of Yixing's government departments take part—public security officers enforce proper sewage disposal, finance bureaus ensure capital for environment protection projects, and the discipline and inspection committee investigates whether departments are living up to their environmental responsibilities.

Despite the stepped-up efforts, Sun said that even if human and animal waste was taken out of the equation, there was still 79% nitrogen in the atmosphere. According to Japanese experts, at least 30 years would be needed to kill such cyanobacterium even if the whole Lake was sealed. Sun said all that the Environment Protection departments could do was to enforce supervision and to reduce the disposal of pollutions.

Both Liu and Sun believed that it was impossible to remove blue-green algae in the short term. Sun said, the major pollution source was living sewage. If contamination standards of cities' fundamental facilities did not improve, preventing nitrogen and phosphorus would be impossible.