Apple, Cadmium Spill and Poyang Lake

As the world's most valuable public company, Apple has been trying hard to keep up with a world wide cult and demand for its iPhones, iPads and other products. Yet, the pressure on Apple to clean up its supply chain in China has also been heating up. An Apple loyalist, Mark Shields, even launched a campaign to petition to the world's most popular electronics maker to pick up the slack and has garnered 158,000 signatures.

As the anonymous Apple official quoted in the New York Times suggest, how serious Apple is going to treat the China fallout remains to be seen. Indeed, Chinese worker safety seems far less important than the product quality of Apple's products. And even more than a year after the report The Other Side of Apple by a few Chinese environmental NGO's, there's been less than significant progress. The Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, one of the groups that published the report, put out an Apple China pollution map half a year later.

Ma Jun, founder of the Institute, says that Apple presents a shiny image like a responsible corporate citizen to American, European and Japanese consumers, but hides a dark and unsightly side deep in its supply chains. In a web survey by the green channel of one of China's leading portal, an overwhelming majority of respondents say Apple is responsible for its China consequences, 50,000 out of a total 55,600 respondents. While a few non-side takers' comments are worthy of note as well. One poses a rhetorical question: -Where are the government? -Counting money?

A recent weibo (Chinese version of twitter) comment highlights this anecdote: before the iPhone went on sale in 2007, Steve Jobs wasn't happy about the potential hazards of the touch screen and redesigned it the last minute, forcing a Chinese subcontracting factory to retrofit all assembly lines. When the redesigned touch screen arrived at this plant, a head man woke up 8,000 workers in the dormitory. Handed a biscuit and a cup of tea, the workers started a 12-hour shift in half an hour to assemble the newly designed touch screen for the iPhone.

Right before the Chinese New Year (Jan. 23), a cadmium spill struck Liuzhou City area in southern China's Guangxi Province, triggering one of the largest water contamination cases in decades stretching a 300-km segment of Longjiang River and sending residents massively storing up bottled water in panic. To contain the spill from reaching Liuzhou, which is surrounded by water on the lower reach of the river, hundreds of armed police were dispatched in a few spots to drop sack after sack of pollutant coalescing compounds to sink the cadmium to the river bed before wreaking havoc to 3.5 million citizens of Liuzhou, also known as the "dragon town."

Through the incident and damage control, two local governments emerged in stark contrast, with Hechi city where the spill occured being criticized as the bad guy who was afraid to release much information in the wake, which was a drastic difference with itself before the incident when government weibo accounts were quite active. And Liuzhou government became very active in publishing information about the daily monitoring of water quality to its citizens through text messaging or weibo postings and won a lot of people's praise.

Poyang Lake, in Jiangxi Province, is China's largest fresh water lake along the Yangtze. As the Three Gorges dam on the upper reach of the Yangze has started to hold up water for hydropower generation, coupled with human interference over the recent years, the lake has been dramatically shrinking and the drought season is getting even worse year by year.

The seasonal change of the lake in terms of both depth and size has been dramatic, as the wet months of the year in the summer will fill the lake up with water from the Yangtze and precipitation, and the dry months of the year will flush a lot of water out of the lake into the Yangtze that empties into the East Sea out of Shanghai. But the past few years the drought of the lake has been particularly alarming. The depth of the water has recorded a new low of under 8 meters (26 1/4 feet) shrinking the size of the lake to less than 5% of its full capacity, when the water depth is about 18 meters. And local meteorologists have noted the extension of the drying span, from over 90 days a year ten years ago to 110-120 days in recent years. And last year was Poyang's driest of all time, after a particularly dry spring and summer. And precipitation mostly happened in the first half year in storms, which didn't help for the lake region to hold the water.

But this isn't all natural. As the Three Gorges dam has stemmed a lot of water in the dry seasons, the Yangtze is no longer a powerful regulator with the water it used to have to help Poyang when it's low. Locally, real estate projects have been gobbling up the shores to make way for profitable properties like villas, enriching local government coffers with hundreds of millions of yuan in revenue. Some of these lake-view properties are sold 1,000-2,000 yuan/square meter more than their counterparts elsewhere. There has also been sand digging operations in the lake, sinking lake bed as much as 15 meters (49 feet) and making the lake as a far less water-reserving ecosystem.

Along with all the destructive forces combining to plague Poyang, the lake has seen a steady dropping of its water quality too, from the best in all the major lakes in China to one of its worst. And many fishermen around the lake, who have made their living for generations, are now finding fishing a side job as fish are increasingly hard to catch, if at all. And the situation has become so dire that Jiangxi provincial government is about to start a Three Gorges style reverse engineering to help Poyang, by damming the pathway between the lake and Yangtze so that during the dry seasons, the new dam can hold Poyang's water (as much as 145 billion cubic meters or 38 trillion gallons) back without losing the precious water and relieve the drought around the lake. This is indeed a Jiangxi version of "Three Gorges Dam," as people start to call it. Jiangxi has submitted the project up to the National Development and Reform Commission and it has reportedly passed the environmental assessment. With concerns about the potential ecological consequences to fish, bird and other wildlife, the project has yet to pass the criticisms of environmentalists.