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Pollution puts Chinese lake off limits

As algae scum in Lake Taihu cuts off water to 4 million people, a local cleanup advocate remains in jail.

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An estimated 4 million people in one of China's most prosperous industrial towns have been deprived of drinking water for nearly a week, as a carpet of algae scum makes local lake water unusable.

The lake's most vocal defender, meanwhile, who has been drawing attention to its pollution for more than a decade, is languishing in police detention on what his wife says are trumped-up charges brought by vengeful local officials.

The sorry state of Lake Taihu, once a famed beauty spot 90 miles west of Shanghai, has drawn unusually harsh criticism from Beijing. "What's shameful is the [Wuxi] municipality's allowing its city's source of drinking water to be a dumping ground" for waste, the state-run China Daily said in an editorial Friday.

Wu Lihong, an environmental activist from Yixing, on the shore of Lake Taihu, has been saying the same thing for years. His temerity has resulted in being fired from his job, tailed by the police, beaten by hired thugs, and receiving repeated threats, according to his wife, Wu Jiehua.

In mid-April he was arrested. He complained to his lawyer last week that he had been tortured during interrogation. He is due to stand trial next week on charges of blackmail and extortion.

"My husband was trapped by the local government," claims Mrs. Wu. "They are very unhappy with what he has been saying and doing. They are 100 percent responsible for his arrest. They are doing their best to get their revenge."

Mr. Wu has been highly successful in drawing Chinese media attention to the way in which breakneck industrialization around Lake Taihu, China's third-largest body of fresh water, has turned it into a sewer.

"The lake is in one of the world's most heavily populated areas, with the highest rate of economic development in the world," points out Ma Jun, head of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a research group in Beijing. "The water resources there are under huge pressure."

Since Tuesday of last week, a bloom of algae has covered 70 percent of the lake's surface, according to local reports, turning it blue-green and making tap water stink of decomposing vegetation. Several million residents of Wuxi have been forced to rely on bottled water, and local authorities said Sunday they did not know when normal water supplies would be resumed.

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