April 22, 2014
Rivers Of Dead Pigs In China
As China’s relentless growth and economic resurgence continues, it seems the environment is paying a heavy price. Some manifestations of the harmful effects of industry and development are predictable. Air pollution in the country’s cities, for example, has been much in the news. But sometimes the devastation caused by industrialization takes on a strange and more symbolic form. The sudden appearance of lots of dead pigs floating in China’s rivers, and the disturbing image of officials in full protective clothing collecting the bodies, is a good example. This is not a single occurrence. There have been several cases recently. Where do these animals come from and what does this all mean?
In the latest incident, around 170 pig carcasses were discovered in a river in northwest China. The river in question, the Hangshui in China’s Qinghai province, feeds into the Yellow River, the country’s second longest. As yet, the authorities have no idea what caused the pigs’ deaths. The state news agency Xinhua reported that infectious disease has been ruled out by forensic tests. More tests are under way in an attempt to discover any other cause. The Huangshui supplies vast amounts of water to irrigate farmland in Qinghai.
Last month, 157 dead pigs were found in the Gan River in Jiangxi province. The Gan is a major source of drinking water for the provincial capital of Nanchang. In an even more dramatic incident, again only last month, more than 16,000 pigs were found dead in the HuangpuRriver and its tributaries. This river system is a main supplier of drinking water for the megacity of Shanghai. In all these cases, the authorities have struggled to deliver any real explanation of how and why the animals got there.
Hog farming is huge in rural China, with millions of pigs being produced each year to feed the increasing demand from a rapidly growing population. The infrastructure needed to meet the demands of this industrial scale meat production has not kept pace. As a result, many cities have woefully inadequate facilities for the disposal of dead pigs and other food animals, leading to wide-scale problems of disposal of unwanted carcasses. There has been a big problem with dead diseased pigs entering the food chain illegally. Police have tried to combat this by cracking down on the merchants buying up such animals. In 2013, three men were reported to have been jailed for life for their part in an operation that involved more than 70,000 pigs over a period of two years. No wonder then, with illegal buyers under pressure from police activity and a lack of legal ways to dispose of dead animals, that dumping is on the increase. Could this be the explanation for these repeated incidents?
The scale of this problem is highlighted by reports that in a reservoir in Qionglai in Sichuan province, up to 500 dead pigs are fished out every month, having been washed into the reservoir from rivers upstream. There are two permanent employees to fish out and dispose of the pigs. This particular river system supplies water for an incredible 300,000 pig breeders. Multiplied on a national scale, this indicates the size of the problem.
One explanation, perhaps the most plausible one, is that, with high pig disease and mortality rates, insurance for pig farmers has become more expensive and harder to find. Legal, safe, and convenient disposal is at a premium if available at all. So in the end thousands of farmers resort to illegal dumping. But with no obvious signs of disease in the dead pigs found so far, there is no real idea of why they died in the first place. The implications for the safety of water supplies and public health in general are enormous. For now, what the South China Morning Post describes as a “nightmare of dead-pig dumping” looks set to continue.
Image Credit: EPA