In 2013, researchers from China Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CCDCP) confirmed a correlation between heavily polluted water and higher incidences of cancer in the Huai River watershed in eastern China . The Huai River is one of China’s major river systems with coverage of 274,700 square kilometres in Henan, Anhui and Jiangsu Provinces, watering much of China’s commercial grain crops (ibid). During the 1980s, polluting factories such as food processing factories, paper mills and tanneries were set up along the riverbank of both the Huai River and its tributaries, causing severe pollution to the nearby villages (ibid). Since 1990s, a large number of cancer villages have been found in the Huai River watershed, among which, the village of Huangengying is one of the first widely known cases (ibid).
Over the 15 years from 1990 to 2004, there were 105 deaths from cancer in Huangmengying, a village with a population of 2470 in Shenqiu County, Henan Province, accounting for 51.5% of the total deaths . Besides, villagers suffered high incidences of other diseases such as blindness, deafness and cardiopathy, which were suspected to be a consequence of local water pollution (ibid).
Huangmengying locates within the watershed of the Shaying River, the largest branch of the Huai River . As factories mushroomed along the riverbanks in the 1980s, the pollution of the Shaying River has become a nightmare for local residents . Receiving most of the careless sewage discharges from the factories in its upper reach, the water becomes black and stench, fish turning belly-up, trees along the riverbank withering and dying out. Serving as the source of water supply for the village, the Shaying River flows into the 5 ditches and 16 ponds in Huangmengying. As noted by Wang, villagers living around the ditches and ponds seem to be highly vulnerable to colonitis, rectum cancer or esophageal cancer (ibid).
However, Huangmengying is not uncommon in the Huai River watershed. According to Huo Daishan, the founder of the environmental NGO Huai River Guardians (Huaihe Weishi), more than twenty villages along the Shaying River experienced a sharp rise in cancer cases from 1994 to 2005 (ibid).
In 1994, the state council launched a cleaning campaign, aiming to enforce all the enterprises alongside the river to meet the waste discharge requirements by 1997 (ibid). A number of small factories were shut down and most polluted enterprises completed upgrading their sewage treatment facilities (ibid). Nevertheless, the pollution continues after the campaign . Huo pointed out that the state-launched campaign failed to eliminate the root cause of water pollution that governments were reluctant to impose discharge limitations on enterprises that greatly contribute to local economy (ibid).
Huo started his investigation into cancer villages along the Huai River in 1999. He photographed the river’s pollution in over twenty cities across Henan Province with over fifteen thousand images, and held seventy exhibitions in cities, universities and villages. In 2000, he founded “ The Huai River Guardians”, an NGO aimed at recruiting and training volunteers to help with protecting the river. Huo actively championed the cause of the river and its people in media and conferences, engaging in research and documentation and disclosing the illegal activities of local officials and factory owners (ibid). With the effort of Huo, China Central Television (CCTV) carried out an investigative report on the cancer village of Huangmenying in the June of 2004, followed by wide media coverage on the cancer villages along the Huai River watershed . In the summer of 2005, the research team of CCDCP led by Professor Yang Gonghuan was dispatched to investigate the potential link between pollution and cancer villages in the Huai River watershed . Besides, a series of activities have been taken by the government to improve the quality of drinking water and ensure the water supply in heavily polluted areas. At Huangmengying, the local government funded to dig a 400-meter deep well, expecting to provide clean water to villagers .
Despite some improvement in the condition of the Huai River, the problems caused by the pollution are far from resolved. The Huai River watershed is still suffering pollution. Although researchers had confirmed the correlation, the causal link between specific diseases and corresponding pollutants could hardly be proved in the court . As noted by Professor Yang, the impact of water pollution on health could be delayed, thus, high rates of cancer in the heavily polluted areas of the Huai River watershed can still be expected in the next ten years (ibid).