Crying Lands: China’s Polluted Waterscape

By Lu Guang 9 April, 2014

Award-winning photographer Lu Guang shares his journey in documenting environmental pollution in China

Lu's documentary work started with AIDS villages; Enviro work started with coal mines in 2005
Cancer villagers have tried to fight pollution but to no avail; Factories continue to pollute upstream waters
Farmers are irrigating with polluted water; Some industries now hiding their illegal wastewater discharge
Lu Guang
Author: Lu Guang
Lu Guang is an award-winning photographer from China, who investigates the impact of rapid industrialization on environment and people’s everyday lives. Since 1993, he has developed major documentary projects in China, all at his own initiative, focusing on some of the most significant social, health, and environmental issues facing his country today. His photographic work includes stories on gold diggers, local coal miners, the SARS epidemic, drug addiction along the Sino-Burmese border, Aids villages in Henan Province, the environmental impact of the Qinghai-Tibet railway, industrial pollution and the medical effects of schistosomiasis (bilharzia). With its potent use of composition and colour, his work is both expressive and intensely engaging, drawing us in so powerfully that it creates personal involvement and response. Over the years, he has won many prestigious awards & honors, such as the World Press Photo contest (First Prize in 2004 & Third Prize in 2011), visiting scholarship to the US Department of State (2005), Henri Nannan Prize in Photography (2008), W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund (2009), National Geographic Photography Grant (2010) and Prince Claus Fund (2013).
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Lu Guang’s heart-rending and insightful photographs left the audience in shocked silence during his presentation at the Water Philanthropy Forum we co-hosted on 19 March 2014. His powerful and often time apocalyptic images captured the tangible links between industrial pollution and sensitive social issues.

China’s rapid industrialization has provided great social and economic benefits at the cost of significant industrial pollution, which has severely impacted the environment and people’s daily lives. Heavy metals discharged without proper treatment has contaminated groundwater and farmlands threatening food safety & security and people’s health.

Thanks to Lu Guang’s series of works on pollution over the past years, these environmental & social issues have garnered significant public attention. After many years as a taboo subject, water pollution has now been officially recognized as a likely link for life-threatening diseases in some rural areas. Just last month, China officially declared war on pollution.

Rural environmental pollution & its impact on health have reached a critical stage and yet illegal industrial discharge into China’s waterways continues unchecked as clearly seen in Lu’s photographs below. During our interview with him, we were certainly impressed by his persistence and courage in documenting China’s polluted waterscape – we hope you will find his journey into China’s Crying Lands  equally inspiring. 

All photographs published in this article are courtesy of Lu Guang. All images © Lu Guang, all rights reserved.


China Water Risk (CWR): Can you tell us why you started using photography to document stories in China?

Lu Guang (LG): I’ve been doing documentary photography for about twenty years. I went to Beijing to study photography in 1993 (Editor: Lu Guang studied photography at The Academy of Arts & Design of Tsinghua University). In the beginning, I wanted to become Ansel Adams, shooting high-quality landscape photos. Later, after I learned about world-class photojournalists such as Eugene Smith, I found myself more comfortable with documentary photography. My first set of such photos was shot in 1994 documenting the “Gold-Rush” in the Western China. Those photos attracted a lot of interest in Beijing and also won several awards.

Lu Guang Coal Mining Inner MongoliaAround that time, I also documented some small coalmines in Wuhai, in Inner Mongolia. My work on these mines had a significant impact, and forced the government to shut down some of high-polluting ones.

After that I was determined to continue with the path of documentary photography.

CWR: Your works have always focused on sensitive social, health & environmental issues in China. This not only requires a passion for photography, but also a strong sense of responsibility. What drove you to these areas of focus?

LG: When I first started taking photos, I wanted to use photography to express myself and establish my own style. I mainly wanted my works to be recognized.

Lu Guang child in AIDS VillageIn November 2001, I went to a village in Henan Province where many villagers have been infected with HIV. At that time, the local authorities were trying to cover up the conditions of these villagers who had contracted the virus through unregulated blood-selling operations, rather than prostitution or drug abuse.

Not enough help was being given to them and information was blocked. I hoped that my photos could help relay the truth to ‘the outside’ so that these villagers could receive such help. What I saw in these “AIDS villages” changed my view towards photography – it is not just for winning awards, photography can be used as a tool to help others.

(CWR: Lu’s work on the AIDS villages won First Prize in the Contemporary Issues category in the 2004 World Press Photo contest. See Lu Guang’s prizing-winning photos here and more on AIDS villages here) 

CWR: Your photographic works on pollution are quite shocking. What led you to explore environmental issues? Can you share with us some challenges or dangers you have faced whilst working in the field?

LG: After the AIDS village project in Henan, I began to work on projects related to environmental pollution. In 2005, I revisited the mining area in Wuhai, Inner Mongolia and found that the small coalmines that I had documented ten years ago were almost all closed. But suddenly, I saw some thick yellow smoke in the distance from my taxi. I asked the driver, “how far is it?”; he replied, about a dozen kilometers. We drove there.

“I saw some thick yellow smoke in the distance … We drove there”

Lu Guang Industrial Park in Coalmines

I was shocked when we arrived. The green prairie was gone; it had turned into a huge industrial park. About twenty large chimneys were blowing thick yellow smoke into the sky.

These emissions were all from coal-related industries such as coke, iron refining and so on. I rushed into the factories and started shooting.

Before I was caught by the people from the factory, I started deleting the photos from my camera. They asked me what I was doing there and forced me to delete everything. I was detained and questioned for more than half an hour before I found a way to leave the factory.

Shortly after, I went to another one nearby and started shooting again. I saw people from the factory rushing towards me and I immediately swapped the memory card and got on the taxi.

Since then, I realized the danger of documenting environmental pollution and would always carry out my projects secretly. Now, it has been almost ten years since I have worked on such projects not only in the western region, but also in the central and coastal regions, including industrial pollution along all the major rivers of China.

“I realized the danger of documenting environmental pollution and would always do my projects secretly.”

Lu Guang Yangtz River Industrial Discharge

CWR: One such powerful social-environmental documentary work was on cancer villages. In your opinion, what were the key environmental and health issues here? 

LG: It takes time for health impacts and outbreak of pollution-related diseases as a result of rapid industrialization to surface. Now, you could easily find cancer patients in villages near the mining areas which I documented over the past 20 years.

Take Henan Province as an example, more than 2,000 paper factories were shut down by the government during 2000-2005. However, during my investigation, I could still see lots of wastewater being illegally discharged which then polluted the rivers and the groundwater. People in Henan were relatively poor and they accessed water by digging 7-8 meter deep wells. Grey sediment would form if the seemingly ‘clean water’ was left to rest for several days. So even without any testing, you could see that the water is not clean and that there is some kind of contaminant inside.

Separately, when I was doing a project during 2008-2010 along a 30km-long section of the Xiaohong River (upstream of Huai River) in Hebei Province, I encountered many villagers living with cancer due to the water pollution.

“Now, you could easily find cancer patients in villages near the mining areas which I documented over the past 20 years”

Lu Guang Huai River Cancer Family

CWR: Did these “cancer villages” seek help from local authorities? Was any action taken to resolve the problem?

LG: The wastewater pollution came from factories located upstream. The villagers living downstream tried to protest in front of the factories and reported the pollution emissions to the local authorities, but nothing changed. These villagers have been constantly reporting the situations to the county and city governments. And this was not just one village, but the whole region. However, none of these petitions worked. One of my photos, shot in those cancer villages during 2008-2010, shows a government slogan on the wall, “first time illegal petition, admonition; second time illegal petition, detention; third time illegal petition, re-education through labor”. As such no one dared to speak about it publically.

“first time illegal petition, admonition; second time illegal petition, detention; third time illegal petition, re-education through labor”

Lu Guang Huai River Government Slogans

CWR: Given that this was a taboo subject how did you help the villagers express their plight? Can you share some of your experiences with us?

LG: When I was there, they told me that some had already died from cancer. When people realized they have cancer, it was already too late. Some people died just within two to three months. This sudden realization of the disease was like an “outbreak of cancer” amongst the villages. The chief of one village said to me: “if you could help us solve the problem, we would be really grateful”.

The chief of one village said to me: “if you could help us solve the problem, we would be really grateful”

During my visit there, I told villagers that I was investigating the water pollution problem rather than just taking photos. I stayed with one family. In the evening, I would buy peanuts and beer, and chat with villagers. They found me different from others who just came and left, and started to trust me. Late into the night, after a few beers, the man in the family told me about other people in the village who had cancer as well.

The next day, I went to visit one family, a young couple in their twenties. I told them that I came from Beijing and was investigating the water pollution in their village. It opened up the conversation and they told me their story. The man had cancer and I could clearly see a tumor on his neck. His wife was pregnant. They were expecting their baby soon.

After visiting the village, I visited a chief oncologist in the city. I told him about what I saw and showed him my photos. The doctor was shocked and asked “why were these people still at home and not receiving treatment in such severe conditions?” He immediately asked me to call them to come to the hospital. The villagers were soon at the People’s Hospital in Zhenzhou City. I went along. The situation was quite intense. Sadly, the expectant father passed away within a month and half a month later, his child was born.

“The man has cancer and I could clearly see a tumor on his neck. His wife was pregnant …. He passed away within a month and half a month later, his child was born”

Lu Guang Huai River Young Couple

CWR: Did you revisit that village afterwards? Has the situation there changed since the publication of your photos?

LG: I know some people there quite well and they have kept me updated about the water pollution situation. The local government has helped the people dig deeper wells and installed water pressure facilities to have “tap water”, about one month after my photos were published. But it still cannot provide enough clean water to all the people as the pollution is discharged upstream and those factories are still polluting the river.

“… they had previously petitioned to higher authorities for more than three years … but to no avail. However, apparently my photos made a big impact and government authorities came to visit the villages”

A year later, the village secretary called me. He said they had previously petitioned to higher authorities for more than three years, to the city, to the provincial government, and even to Beijing but to no avail. However, apparently my photos made a big impact and government authorities came to visit the villages. Some of the villagers were relocated away from polluted areas. They were very thankful.

But still, nothing has happened to those polluting factories – some are quite big, some belong to listed companies, and some are privately owned. They carry on polluting. So unfortunately, after more than 5 years, the situation hasn’t changed much. I plan to go there again this year.

“the pollution is discharged upstream and those factories are still polluting the river … some are quite big, some belong to listed companies, and some are privately owned”

Lu Guang Huai River Rural Water Pollution

(CWR: Since then the central government has officially recognized the existence of these cancer villages in February 2013 – see here)

CWR: Why is it so difficult to resolve water pollution? What are the key obstacles to cleaning up?

LG: The key issue is non-action. In the past, it was widely accepted that pollution was unavoidable during the initial stages of economic development. We also didn’t have enough money to follow strict standards like developed countries. Polluting companies therefore didn’t face detention or sentence, but only symbolic fines. Only if there was a significant disaster, such as the outbreak of cancer caused by pollution, would responsible parties face criminal charges.

“Only if there was a significant disaster, such as the outbreak of cancer caused by pollution, would responsible parties face criminal charges… But it is difficult to prove that pollution is the direct cause of cancer”

Our current way to finding the cause is comparative study. For example, assuming two villages located along the same river, both are about one to two kilometers away from the riverside and have same diet and farming pattern. (If the water in one village is polluted and the other not), then the ratios of cancers patients in total population of these two villages are very likely different. This is the current method used for isolating the cause of cancer.

But it is difficult to prove that pollution is the direct cause of cancer. There is maybe only one exception – lead pollution. By testing for lead levels in the villagers’ blood and comparing these with the test results of the polluted water where they live, you could probably find the correlation between the two. As a result, only lead factories or their owners faced sentencing.

That said, after the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the CPC, the government will probably issue more stringent policies.

(CWR: In the past, in order to access the courts, pollution victims needed to show prima facie that they suffered damages. Such burden of proof is expected to be lowered in the coming amendment of the Environment Law, which is expected to be passed in 2014 as per the War on Pollution).

CWR: HSBC recently published a report called “No Water, No Food – ensuring food safety & food security”. You have spent a lot of time shooting photos in rural China. How do you see the relation between water and food?

LG: “No Water, No Food “, this is kind of true. Water is vital for all living things. Water from rivers has been used for irrigation. Especially during Mao’s time, the government realized the importance of food and thus built a lot of water conservancy infrastructures. After China’s economic reform and opening-up, many water bodies have since been polluted. At the beginning, the water can still be used for irrigation but as pollution became more serious, crops have been affected by the heavily polluted water. The farmers have to rely on rainfall again, like in the old days.

“crops have been affected by the heavily polluted water”

Lu Guang Yangtz River Polluted Farmlands

The authorities have helped farmers to dig deeper wells, partly funded by the government and partly by farmers themselves. Now deep groundwater is used for irrigation as the rivers are still being polluted. But deeper wells are just a temporary solution. The fundamental problem hasn’t been solved.

Another problem in North China is that some farmers deliberately irrigate with wastewater, usually polluted with heavy metals, because they consider it full of nutrients. Wheat samples have tested positive for heavy metals. The farmers themselves won’t eat the contaminated crops they grow, but sell them to the state and then buy food from the market. Many villages there are like that.

“In North China …. some farmers deliberately irrigate with wastewater, usually polluted with heavy metals …

The farmers themselves won’t eat the contaminated crops they grow …”

Lu Guang Jiangsu Wastewater Rice Fields

(CWR: Deep wells have also led to groundwater over-extraction in the North. See more on heavy metals discharge in China here, contaminated rice here, and HSBC’s views on pollution & scarcity here.) 

CWR: After documenting environmental pollution for the past two decades, do you think there is an improvement or has it worsened?

LG: I feel it is getting more serious. In the past, factories were usually quite small. They neither had good equipment, nor wastewater treatment facilities. The wastewater was usually discharged to the rivers right next to the factories. So you could easily see and take photos in case of any wastewater discharge violation.

Now, the factories are getting bigger and have more money. Some don’t use the money to treat wastewater but instead spend it on burying pipes deeper underground to illegally discharge wastewater. So now it is more difficult to see such violations. Recently, I heard from the news that tap water from about a dozen cities in China has a strange smell. The groundwater has probably been polluted due to underground discharge.

An example of the good….

Lu Guang Yangtz River Improvement Wastewater Discharge

And the bad….

“Some bury pipes deeper underground to illegally discharge wastewater … So now it is more difficult to see such violations”

Lu Guang Jiangsu Wastewater Discharge Pipes

(CWR: Indeed industrial wastewater is under-reported. See 8 facts on China’s wastewater here.)


Further Reading

Coal & Water

  • Water Grab: Shenhua Responds – Shenhua’s reponse to water grab allegations is a good start but Greenpeace’s Quek say questions still remain. Can the environment support a large scale push into the coal-to-chemicals sector?
  • Spend To Quench Coal Thirst – Can China manage to balance her limited water resources & coal expansion? Debra Tan argues that the sector can spend to quench coal thirst with consolidation or more investment in aggressive water savings tech

Industrial Pollution, Cancer Villages & Government Action

  • Cancer Villages: Toxic Tipping Point? – With official recognition of cancer villages in 2013, we reviewed 255 media reports of such villages to look at their spread and industries that may be responsible.  Is this the start of a long costly road to clean up?
  • 8 Facts on China’s Wastewater – Don’t know anything about wastewater in China? Is it on the rise? Is industrial wastewater under-reported? Is it worse for rural areas? Check out our 8 facts from tech, key pollutants to standards
  • The War on Water Pollution – Premier Li has just declared war on pollution. Tan expands on the government’s stratagems & offensives and fundamental changes required to shore up the MEP’s arsenal in order to wage a successful war
  • Groundwater Crackdown – Hope Springs – The economy slows down but the Chinese government speeds up groundwater crackdown with increased transparency, blacklists at both central and provincial levels

Food Safety & Soil Contamination

  • The State of China’s Agriculture – China’s limited water and arable land plus rampant water pollution not only exacerbate water scarcity, but also raises concerns over food safety & food security. Get the latest update on agriculture & water and see why these policies matter for global trade
  • Heavy Metals & Agriculture – Check out China Water Risk’s overview of the status of heavy metals discharge into wastewater, priority provinces, overlap with agriculture sown lands, crops exposed and industries targeted for clean-up
  • 8 Things You Should Know About Rice & Water – How much of water & farmlands are used to grow rice in China? What about exposure to Cadmium, Mercury, Lead & Arsenic? Can China ensure rice security? Here are 8 things you should know about rice & water in China