When the Yellow River Runs Red

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In a country changing as rapidly as China is, people often take comfort from things that remain the same. That may explain the alarm felt by residents of the western city of Lanzhou on Sunday afternoon, when they noticed that a stretch of the 3,400-mile Yellow River was not yellow — not even tan — but a color closer to magenta. By the next day China's official news agency, Xinhua, had published photographs of the Biblically hued slick and reported that an unknown substance spilling out of a local sewer had caused the river to "turn red and smelly."

Chemicals spill into Chinese rivers nearly every day, and have left nearly all of the nation's surface water unfit for human consumption. Lanzhou's red tide, though dramatic, has so far has not been reported to have poisoned drinking water. The spill occurred during repairs at a steam-heating station, when water containing a pink dye to distinguish it from drinking water was discharged into a local septic system, and then flushed into the river. Lanzhou's environmental officials said Tuesday they were still assessing the impact of the spill, and that those responsible would be punished.

China has long referred to the Yellow River — which runs a silted (hence "yellow") course from the plains of Qinghai near Tibet to the Bohai Bay, opposite the Korean Peninsula — as "China's Sorrow." The name refers to the floods that have plagued people along its banks for millennia, but it has resonated painfully in recent years as the river has fallen victim to excessive damming, frequent pollution and misguided diversion schemes.

In 1972, for the first time in China's recorded history, the Yellow dried up in patches and failed to reach the sea. Since then it has run dry so long and so often that some scientists have suggested it ought to be a considered an inland body of water, or even a seasonal phenomenon.

The Yellow's sorrows reflect the situation of China's other waterways. Rivers in other parts of the country have run black and occasionally turned other unnatural colors from an overloading with effluents from paper mills and dye factories. According to recent government figures some 320 million Chinese still lack access to clean drinking water. Lead and arsenic have been among the contaminants reported in recent pollution scandals.

Last November, the Songhua River (in the northeast of the country) absorbed 100 metric tons of toxic benzene after an explosion at a chemical plant. The extent of the danger was made public only after household taps for 9 million people in the city of Harbin had been shut off, and just days before the slick crossed the border into Russia. The botched response led to the dismissal of China's top environmental official and to renewed calls for transparency and stricter enforcement of environmental standards. But little has changed. Recently Pan Yue, deputy director of China's State Environmental Protection Administration, admitted the Songhua had seen some 130 "pollution accidents" in the past 11 months.

Though China's central government has prioritized cleaning up its polluted rivers and has pledged vast sums for the purpose — one plan is to flush the Yellow with water diverted from the cleaner Yangtze — enforcement of environmental laws at the local level remains spotty at best. Local government officials often have a stake in the very factories responsible for the pollution. Typically, officials from Beijing announce a plan to visit, and their local counterparts scramble like frat boys preparing for a parental visit after a keg party. The mess is temporarily tidied and offending factories closed for a few days, but when the Beijing officials depart, the party resumes.

On the Tangbai River in central China, for example, officials from Beijing visited earlier this year and promised a clean-up after a campaign by local activists drew national media attention to the cocktail of pollutants including chromium, benzene and volatilized phenol that had poisoned wells and, in at least one village, caused rice to stop growing and cancer rates to spike. But just last month, a tributary of the Tangbai was so polluted that when a TIME reporter drove by, hundreds of people stood along the banks of a stream with a powerful chemical stench, pulling out dead and dying fish. According to the fishermen, the same thing happened every month when paper mills and fertilizer factories upstream discharged their wastewater tanks. Stripped to their underwear and wading into the foul water with nets and baskets, the locals regarded the situation as predictable, even humdrum — an aid to fishing.

But when pollution strong enough to kill fish by the bucket-load becomes commonplace, it's more than the water that's tainted. The Yellow River's turning red may be another warning to Beijing of the perils that lurk in its waterways.