Premier Wen Jiabao drinking the water in Wuxi after an algae bloom hit Lake Tai last March
After a tremendous algae outbreak this spring, China's third largest freshwater lake, the Tai, is getting a badly needed cleanup, to the tune of 108.5 billion yuan (14.4 billion USD), the most spent on such a project in China. It's a dramatic statement, but how the clean-up will actually go down is still unclear.
Famous as the center of China's ancient "land of rice and fish," and once known as one of the country's most beautiful sites, Lake Tai has suffered for decades from untreated sewage and the runoff of nearby factories. The country's second highest leader said that this year's cyanobacterial outbreak, which briefly cut drinking water for two million people, "sounded the alarm". Not long after, Wu Lihong, an activist who had won acclaim from the central government for his work protecting the lake was locked up by his local government for three years on what appear to be cooked-up charges. That kind of contradiction is symptomatic of troubles with China's massive government bureaucracy, which is often helpless to enforce national regulations on a local scale. Those problems could bedevil this extensive cleanup effort too, which is said to include the closing of more factories and stricter standards for emissions and water treatment. What hope there is for the project's success lies in the commitment of local officials, and continued surveillance of the lake and cleanup efforts by the press and citizens like Wu. A true cleanup of the lake might include protections for them too.
In March, the EPA sponsored a workshop on cyanobacterial outbreaks, with a focus on China.