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 July 02, 2013
The day that the river turned black

 MORE than 200 villagers have died from cancer in the past 10 years in a village near a heavily polluted river in eastern Anhui Province.

The village, with a population of just 1,000, is one of a number of so-called "cancer villages" near the Huaihe River and its tributaries which have seen an increasing number of residents succumb to various cancers in the past decade, The Beijing News reported.

A report by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this week said water pollution has led to the higher risk of cancer. But experts said it would be another 10 years, even with water quality improvements, before the incidence of cancer dropped to normal levels.

In Xiawan Village, about 100 meters from the Shaying River, the longest tributary of the Huaihe, tombs line up along the river like a long dam, the newspaper reported.

Since 2003, lung, stomach, liver, esophagal and other cancers have claimed more than 200 lives and about a third of the inhabitants are suffering from hepatitis.

Liu Yongkai, a 69-year-old doctor in the village, told the newspaper that the villagers rarely went to local hospitals, but once they felt ill enough to go for health checks, many were told they had terminal cancer.

"Many patients were told that they have less than three months to live," said Liu.

Villagers told the newspaper that water in the river was crystal clear about 20 years ago, but it gradually became polluted, turning black and smelling foul.

Yuan Hongliang, 76, told the newspaper villagers would fetch water directly from the river using wooden barrels. At the time, rich families would paddle a boat into the center of the river to fetch the cleaner water there.

Today, he said, the river appears dark green and smells like rotten garbage.

Pollutants poured in river

River quality has deteriorated rapidly as the local government tried to develop the region's economy with the introduction of a number of factories making paper, glass and chemical fertilizers. Pollutants from the factories were poured directly into the river, an official with the local environment protection bureau said.

The river water turned black and plants near the banks gradually died off, villager Li Zhijun recalled.

In 1990, the doctor's brother died of liver cancer, and it was around then that the villagers began to realize there was a serious problem.

More and more villagers died of cancer in the following years, and questions were raised over whether the water was to blame.

Liu said the pollution was so bad villagers had to dig wells seven to eight meters deep to fetch water for daily use. Even so, the water appeared to be an abnormal color. "First the water appeared blue, and after leaving it still for one hour, it appeared to be yellow," Liu said.

The pollution didn't catch the local government's attention until July 1994, when floodgates were opened on the upstream Huaihe River due to heavy storms and about 200 million cubic meters of low-quality water was released to flow down the river course.

Villagers who drank the water had stomachaches and felt ill and the local tap water processing factory had to be closed for 54 days for urgent pollution treatment.

In 1996, the State Council issued a pollution prevention plan and asked four provinces, including Anhui, to ensure limited pollutants emission from industries along the Huaihe and to make the river clean by the year 2000.

As a result of the campaign, many factories along the river were shut but cancers were still spreading.

The center for disease control began an investigation in 2005 along the Huaihe River to gauge the relationship between river quality and high cancer rates. After eight years of research, experts concluded that "water pollution has some relationship with high incidence of malignant tumor in the areas," the newspaper said.

But a center official surnamed Yang said it would still take 10 years before the incidence of cancer in the area returned to normal.