A Thirsty Billion: High Toxic Risk In China's Water System

Warning in Dongguan, China
Warning in Dongguan, China
Han Yuting

LANZHOU Over the last few days, panic has been spreading about the drinking water in Lanzhou, the capital city of the northwest Gansu Province. The water contains dangerously high levels of benzene, a cancer-causing substance. Television reports show the public madly rushing to the supermarkets for bottled water.

What if this also happens to the city I'm living in? That is the first reaction for many of those watching these scenes on television — a very natural human instinct of self-protection. Water, after all, is a central source of life.

In terms of national and social governance, how safe water resource is provided can be regarded as the basic measure of a government's administrative performance and the degree of civilization of any given place. Thus, much is on the line.

The poor management of the Lanzhou municipality once again highlights the general awkward response of local governments in the face of public emergencies. Delaying, blocking information and covering up: These are their usual reactions.

Back in March, people started detecting a strange odor in their tap water. Yet the Lanzhou authorities insisted that the water quality was up to standard and even threatened to arrest the "rumor mongers."

After weeks of covering up the truth, city officials finally admitted that the contamination was caused by a large amount of oil that had leaked when pipelines run by the China National Petroleum Corporation exploded twice over the past years, which tainted a water treatment facility.

The event shines a light on the inadequate governance of and long-term ignorance about water sources among many of China's local governments.

Water safety is no doubt a global issue, and in particular in developing countries, where as many as 12.4 million people die of disease from drinking contaminated water each year.

In China, some reports have said that 50% of China's water table is contaminated. Hundreds of kinds of organic compounds as well as heavy metal ions have tainted water sources. Meanwhile, even the groundwater sources are not safe, with excessive levels of fluoride, arsenic, iron and manganese.

Rusty traditions

In 2011, China's Ministry of Health published a test report stating that they had found 2,221 kinds of organic compounds in water. More than 750 of these compounds are found in the drinking water; of these, 20 are carcinogens, 23 are suspected carcinogens, 18 are pro-carcinogens and 56 are mutagens.

Sha Tin water treatment facility in Tai Wai — Photo: Chong Fat

So what could this mean? When water is contaminated with organic matter, boiling the water can kill microbial contamination. Nonetheless, boiling cannot remove organic pollutants and heavy metal ions. When these pollutants accumulate to a certain level in the human body, it may cause carcinogenic, teratogenic and mutagenic effects

In 2009, in order to estimate China's overall urban drinking water quality, the Ministry of Housing conducted a national survey. This survey covered more than 4,000 water plants of above-county-level cities and obtained the most detailed analysis of China's national drinking water condition. Yet, five years on this data is still unpublished.

What's stopping these numbers from being disclosed? It is largely fear that the water quality will provoke public outrage. Among the aforementioned 4,000 water plants, 98% still use the traditional water treatment process. When the water is contaminated with heavy metal ions and organic compounds, the traditional process cannot cope.

This is a reality we have to face seriously. China's regulatory mechanism of urban water supply facilities is extremely weak. In recent years, many provincial capitals' water tanks and reservoirs have all experienced similar contamination incidents.

China's so-called modernization of industry and agriculture has failed to establish rigorous and meticulous water monitoring mechanisms. That has left the Chinese public as unwitting "filters" of China's water. The method to change this situation is simple — just refer to the supervision and management standards of the developed countries. Many tools and measures are readily available. The rest lies in the conscience and motivation of those in power.

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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