2,800 Dead Pigs in a Shanghai River: How Did This Happen?

And what does it say about China's water supply?

shanghaideadpigs.jpgTwo of the almost three thousand dead pigs found in Shanghai's Huangpu River (Aly Song/Reuters)

Over the weekend more than 2,800 dead pigs were fished out of the Huangpu River that bisects Shanghai--and is a source of drinking water for the city's 23 million residents.

The story highlights a seldom-covered source of China's water pollution problem: agricultural waste. Under Chinese law, farmers are required to take carcasses to their village or town's community disposal site, or bury the animals with disinfectant, but many don't. And as of 2010, agricultural pollution, which includes livestock and produce, surpassed industrial waste as China's main pollutant.

In fact, waste related to animals made up about 90 percent of organic pollutants in China's water, according to Wang Dong of the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning. In a 2012 study from Huazhong University, waste from pigs, cattle, sheep, and other animals left 228,900 tonnes (252.6 tons) of biochemical oxygen demand, a standard measure for organic pollution, in part of the Han River in central China. Now, about 15 percent of China's major rivers are too polluted for safe use, not just from local factories, but farmers who throw animal carcasses and waste into nearby streams.

Chinese residents are well aware of the country's water pollution problems. A Chinese businessman recently offered a local environmental official 200,000 RMB ($32,000) to swim in a dirty river in Zhejiang province. The issue caught fire last month when investigative journalist Deng Fei invited people to post photos on Sina Weibo of polluted waterways in their hometowns.

And the health consequences of this trend can be severe. For example, in 2011, a farm was found throwing duck excrement into a river in Henan province, giving thousands of people diarrhea.

But while Shanghai authorities are still investigating the source of the dead-pig spill -- which some Shanghai residents proposed calling " hog wash" -- Chinese officials say there's no sign of any disease outbreak from the floating porkers. Porcine circovirus, the suspected culprit in the mass pig death, is probably harmless to humans, they say.

However, residents are already worrying about what they're not being told -- hardly surprising, given the utter lack of credibility the government inspires in protecting its people from sometimes lethal contamination of food and drink sources. A blogger in Wenzhou noted on Sina Weibo that tens of thousands of pigs had died recently of swine fever, and that the authorities only reported the Huangpu River pig pollution once photos of the floating carcasses, er, surfaced on the internet. "They only found 1,200 pigs," he wrote, referring to an early tally. "Where did the remaining tends of thousands go"?

Lily Kuo is a reporter at Quartz covering emerging markets.

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