How Many Pig Carcasses in Your Tap Water is Too Many?

Tap water drinkers, cover your eyes: according to CNN, upwards of 2,800 pig carcasses were found floating in the Huangpu River this weekend. The river is a primary source of Shanghai’s water supply.

People grew uneasy when dead pig photos appeared on Sina Weibo, a popular Chinese micro-blogging service. Yet officials insist the water is safe to drink. In light of China’s increasing environmental concerns, this incident raises important questions about contamination, access, and government reliability.

Events leading up to the carcass discovery are still being uncovered, but this is known: pigs in the region have been dying a lot lately. According to nearby village records, over 18,000 pigs died of an “animal disease” in January and February alone. Tests indicate that some carcasses from the Huangpu show traces of porcine circovirus, an affliction that's usually non-lethal on its own and does not affect humans. But (not surprisingly), Shanghai residents are unimpressed.

Farmers upriver are the primary suspects behind this pig dump. Though regulations require them to bury dead animals with disinfectant or toss them in designated disposal sites, a local villager has been quoted saying: "More than 300 pigs die everyday in our village, and we barely have any space left to dispose of [them]." According to one micro-blogger, "this [kind of thing] has happened more than once or twice in the past." Villagers in neighboring provinces are "known" for dumping animal carcasses in rivers.

Considering that air quality is worsening, and Apple supplier Ri-Teng was recently fined $32,000 USD for an oil leak that soiled another local tributary, residents of Shanghai are not happy campers. Environmental concerns have consistently plagued discussions around China’s rapid industrial boom. This pig carcass incident fits neatly into these criticisms.

Furthermore, talk of how environmental problems affect poor people gets little exposure. Wealth disparity in China is getting worse. People reliant on public resources (like tap water) are disproportionately impacted by events like this. It’s difficult to defend an economic boom when its cost includes making life worse for poor people. Even more disconcerting is that the full impact of these environmental concerns may not be felt for years, especially in terms of public health.

A more disturbing aspect of this story is that before photos showed up on Sina Weibo, the public didn’t know it was happening. To make matters worse, government workers began clean-up a few days after the first pig carcass showed up on Thursday. Not only did no one alert the public that their drinking water had dead animals floating in it, the fix-it crew was late to the party.

None of this looks good. One micro-blogger says, "The government should really pay attention to people's lives," and it’s hard to disagree. Even if the water is "safe to drink," the people who consume it have a right to know what’s being dumped into and fished out of it.

But even this last bit has raised skepticism. Gan Yuanchun, a blogger and lawyer, takes it upon himself to say what everyone else is thinking: "since there ... is no problem in drinking this water, please ... ask Shanghai's party secretary, mayor, and water authority leaders if they will be the first ones to drink this meat soup?"

Well played. Meat soup, anyone?