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China's Algae War | The Nation

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The Notion

Unfiltered takes on politics, ideas and culture from Nation editors and contributors.

China's Algae War

When Olympic sailing competitors complete their races this week, they won't be slipping over the sides of their boats to celebrate with a refreshing swim.

That's because Fushan Bay, on whose shore sits the Olympic sailing center at Qingdao, is home to a persistent growth of algae as green and dense as a golf course fairway.

The algae were so thick that 20,000 Chinese went out in a thousand small boats in July to clear the water of hundreds of thousands of pounds of the stuff. Otherwise the boats would have been stuck in the scum unable to sail, their keels and center- or dagger-boards snared in it. And because algae is such a champion grower, the cleaning iscontinuing every morning at dawn.

The algae, like the air over Beijing, expose China's disregard for the environmental impact of unbridled growth, often referred to as a "miracle" that supposedly lifted 400 million Chinese out of poverty. I say supposedly because I wonder if anyone can really verify that claim in a country that isn't even sure if its population is 1.3 billion or some other number.

Chinese leaders recognize all too well that their environmental sins don't play well with the rest of the world, so they've incorporated all kinds of advanced energy and water systems into the Olympic facilities, built for the staggering cost of $43 billion. The sailing center itself features a solar system for heating, cooling and hot water. But the green water is like an underarm sweat stain on someone trying to act cool: it reveals that untreated sewage is being dumped into rivers and coastal waters also polluted by contaminated run-off from farms and factories, according toThe New York Times.

Not that China is alone with this problem. International sailors who post comments at Sailing Anarchy refer to Port Klang, Malaysia, as having "the nastiest water on earth." One wrote about "sailing in sludge" when he raced at the New York Maritime Academy, located at the narrow end of Long Island Sound under the Whitestone Bridge between Long Island and the Bronx. It's also a fact that during the years that I've been living on Long Island, limited areas of the bays in western Long Island Sound have themselves had masses of growth during some summers that suffocated fish.

But here's the difference: activists on both sides of the Sound have been working for years to force both local governments and federal law makers to clean things up, and that's happening, if more slowly than it should be. There have been no low-oxygen episodes of any consequence in years now.

In China, official sources can say with a straight face that the algae growth is not the result of pollution but of increased rainfall and warmer water temperatures. No Chinese would dare contradict them, publicly at least, and certainly not now when we're all supposed to act like polite guests careful not to insult our hosts.

Well, ethically speaking, telling the truth trumps being polite when what's at stake is not only world opinion about the Chinese form of government, but also the exposure of its people to horrible pollution. So here's the truth about the algae bloom: it is present not just in the 19.3 square miles dedicated to the sailing competition, but also in a 5,000 square mile area of the Yellow Sea. That big an area would take in all of Long Island Sound and then some. As I sit at my desk on Long Island, I try to imagine that scene and recoil with horror.

Read more commentary by Frances Cerra Whittelsey on her blog, The Equalizer.

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