6 December 2019
Zhejiang province is holding local officials physically responsible for cleaning up its rivers and water supply. Photo
Zhejiang province is holding local officials physically responsible for cleaning up its rivers and water supply. Photo

Zhejiang officials draw straws for water pollution ‘swim test’

In a twisted new initiative, Zhejiang province is conducting swim tests for local officials as part of an effort to battle water pollution.

The Communist Party standing committee of the province says that by July 12, local governments in the province must nominate rivers that are clean enough to swim in. Once the nominations are approved, the officials must swim in those rivers, Xinhua reported.

Which means the hapless civil servants on the losing end of rock-paper-scissors will get down to their Speedos and endure what is sure to be the most disgusting task of their careers… and maybe their last.

“The public doesn’t get to know what water standards are from data, but from using it. Swimming can be used to judge this, [and] leading officials should do the test,” Zhejiang People’s Congress deputy director Mao Linsheng said at a recent meeting, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The rivers of Zhejiang province are notoriously polluted. How bad? So bad that furious residents can’t use water for drinking, watering their crops or washing their clothes.

So bad that most rivers smell worse than a blocked drain.

So bad that most are inky black and covered in lime green algae. Or milky white — from a lovely combination of quarry runoff and latex. Or orange from excessive iron ions in the water.

So bad that instead of trying to catch what few fish remain in its polluted waters, Zhejiang fisherman make more money removing dead pigs from local rivers.

So bad that a river actually burst into flames in March after a lit cigarette triggered flames more than 16 feet high, setting fire to a wooden railing at the water’s edge and destroying several cars.

Last year, Jin Zengmin, a Zhejiang entrepreneur offered a US$32,000 reward to the chief of the province’s environmental protection department if he dared to swim in a nearby river for a mere 20 minutes, Time magazine reported at the time.

Jin’s wager, which was announced on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like social media service in China, went viral on the internet. The environmental cadre, unsurprisingly, declined to swim in the polluted water.

Now, however, the Zhejiang government appears eager to hold local officials physically responsible for clean-up, according to WSJ. That means it’s not a good time to be mayor of Hangzhou, Ningbo, Wenzhou, Shaoxing or any other city in Zhejiang with a river running through it.

“It doesn’t count just to say [the water is] swimmable, we should jump in the river [and] show the public — [that’s] the only way to convince them,” said Mao. (For the record, I’m pretty sure Mao isn’t including himself when he says “we”.)

WSJ said Chinese media isn’t buying any of this.

One report labeled the test as “absurd” and unscientific. An online editorial echoed that sentiment, saying, “we don’t want to see brave cadres test the water, while ordinary citizens watch from afar, in fear of going in the water.” It added that the real aim should be for data to speak for itself and for citizens to swim of their own accord while the leaders watch on the shore.

The pollution of Zhejiang’s toxic rivers comes from many manufacturing sources, among them electromechanical, textile and chemical factories.

Textile mills, for example, often bypass wastewater treatment plants, dumping industrial runoff containing a wide range of hazardous substances directly into rivers, Global Times reported. Shaoxing county in Zhejiang, alone, is home to more than 9,000 textile mills which produce more than one-third of China’s dyed fabrics.

Zhejiang’s toxic water problems, unfortunately, go beyond its rivers. According to an official with the China Geological Survey, the groundwater of 90 percent of Chinese cities is polluted, with two-thirds of those cities having “severely polluted” water.

In Zhejiang, most groundwater wells were closed in 2010.

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A strategist and marketing consultant on China business