A fisherman fetches water affected by blue-green algae in Lake Tai, in China's Jiangsu province. Pic: AP.

A fisherman fetches water affected by blue-green algae in Lake Tai, in China’s Jiangsu province. Pic: AP.

So says Wu Lihong, the unofficial guardian of China’s Lake Tai, a polluted body of water in Jiansu province. Long stigmatized due its algae-induced green hue, Lake Tai (or Taihu), is a testament to the government not delivering on promises of environmental clean-up. Seven years ago a toxic algal bloom forced residents to find alternatives to their tap water for drinking and prompted the government to undertake an expensive cleaning of the lake. However, the sources of pollution, such as chemical plants and textile factories, have seemingly continued virtually unabated, shining a stark light on local government’s inefficacy at tackling such problems at their source.

Normally, Taihu’s algae-choked waters clear up after the summer heat subsides, but plastic waste now chokes the lake, with dead fish and algal blooms creating a foul smell that plagues China’s third-largest body of ‘fresh’ water.

While the national government of China has come down hard on pollution and has written relatively strict regulations for industry, local government often circumvents or blocks the environmental efforts of the ruling Communist Party. The National People’s Congress named Wu Lihong an “environmental warrior” back in 2005, but Wu’s confrontations with local polluters have earned him some powerful local enemies. Local officials have routinely harassed and followed Wu, even going so far as to detain and torture the clean water activist.

A dead fish is seen next to the blue-green algae bloom affecting Lake Tai. Pic: AP.

A dead fish is seen next to the blue-green algae bloom affecting Lake Tai. Pic: AP.

Wu’s experience exemplifies the problem of China’s national government, which is often depicted as having deep pockets and acting efficiently autocratic, but in reality struggles to enforce rule of law, especially on a local level.

If with all their wealth, the Communist Party can’t clean up this lake, it tells you the problem is much bigger. I’ve come to realize the root of the problem is the system itself.

—Wu Lihong (via the New York Times)

A 2011 piece from Yale Environment 360 confirms the commitment of China’s national government to cleaning up Taihu, a symbol of the ecological consequences of the country’s rapid economic and industrial growth. The report states that in order to save the lake, many polluting factories were forced to close.

Restoring Taihu to a truly healthy state, however, will be a steeper challenge. Money is not an issue:

The central government, through its Ministry of Environmental Protection, plans to allot $155 million over the next 5 years to clean up Taihu. The ministry is now drafting a work plan. But the challenge, says Qin, will be to pinpoint sources of nitrogen and phosphorous to better stem their flow into the lake.

—Yale Environment 360

The kinds of algal blooms that plague Lake Tai are by no means limited to the People’s Republic of China. Lakes on all continents have experienced similar crises, from Japan’s major lakes to Africa’s famed Lake Victoria. According to University of North Carolina marine biologist Hans Paerl, cyanobacteria cause $2bn in water pollution-related damages per year in the United States alone.

Other efforts to clean up Taihu have included the reintroduction of marcophytes such as water chesnuts and lotus plants, which inhibit algal growth, but do not grow well in polluted water. Furthermore, back in 2010, 10 million green and silver algae-eating green and silver carp were also released into the water, although some forms of algae, such as Mycrocystis, are not hindered by silver carp.

Fortunately, there are dedicated activists like Wu Lihong to continue the fight for clean water in China, which millions depend upon for their health and livelihoods.