Written by Wang Xinhong and Hermann Aubié.

One month ago in Lanzhou, a heavily industrialized city of 3.6 million people in the northwestern province of Gansu, a district court accepted the filing of four lawsuits by fourteen citizens against Lanzhou Veolia Water Company after almost a year of struggle.

From “Rumour” to Reality

The cause of the lawsuits began a year ago, when Lanzhou residents started to complain about smelly tap water. The local authorities responded that such “rumour-mongering” would be “dealt with” according to the law. Eventually, local media reported on 10 April 2014 that carcinogenic levels of benzene were found in local tap water. The next day, Veolia and the local authorities informed the public to stop using tap water.

While the World Health Organization’s maximum limit for benzene in drinking water is 1 microgram per litre, Caijing reported that benzene levels in Lanzhou were 20 times the national limit of 10 micrograms. Since Lanzhou residents usually boil their tap water to drink it, the pollution incident caused panic buying of bottled water. News of the pollution caught nationwide attention through online and traditional media. While benzene levels supposedly returned to normal on April 15, Lanzhou residents remained skeptical. After learning that they had consumed contaminated water for eight full days before the official ban was issued, they felt compelled to seek justice.

Citizens’ Reactions

On April 14, five Lanzhou citizens first used the “weapon of the law” by filing a civil litigation case against Lanzhou Veolia for economic and mental damages. As expected, Lanzhou Intermediate Court refused to file their claims. Citing Article 55 of China’s Civil Procedural Law, they stated that the plaintiffs did not have the “legal standing” to file pollution-related lawsuits. At that time, only the All-China Environment Federation could file public interest litigation. However, the plaintiffs did not give up and took the lawsuit to Lanzhou Chengguan District People’s Court, which also rejected their claims. On April 23, the plaintiffs complained to the Superior People’s Court of Gansu Province which did not even reply. And yet, two days later, Lanzhou Intermediate People’s Court informed the plaintiffs that they could file their claim before Chengguan District People’s Court. While the materials of the complaint were accepted, the plaintiffs were not given any formal notice of claim that recognizes the filing of their lawsuit by the Court.

Around the same time, six law students from Northwest University for Nationalities in Lanzhou also filed a lawsuit to Chengguan District People’s Court, asking Veolia to disclose all water data from February 24 to the present, and to compensate medical testing for affected Lanzhou residents. Although Article 112 of China’s Civil Procedure Law stipulates that courts should respond to lawsuits within seven days, the court remained unresponsive.

In the meantime, the Nanjing-based policy advocacy NGO Justice for All (JFA) has worked continuously to address the water pollution incident. They first called for an independent investigation, claiming that Lanzhou authorities’ disclosures did not meet the requirements of national regulations. Using China’s environmental information disclosure laws, JFA requested on repeated occasions that Veolia and local authorities disclose water quality data of twelve Chinese cities, including Lanzhou. So far, only Shenzhen partially replied.

Justice for All’s founder Yu Fangqiang also went to Paris to protest in front of Veolia Environnement’s central headquarters. On the same day, the authorities of Lanzhou organized a news conference where the chairman of Lanzhou Veolia Water Company apologized to the residents.

Fighting a Strategic Target

The Lanzhou pollution incident is not the only case where Veolia has been suspected of violating environmental standards. Since July 2007, Beijing Youth Daily reported that Veolia had caused 13 water pollution incidents in various cities across China. In most incidents, the water distributed by Veolia contained pollutants exceeding limits.

As the world’s largest private supplier of water services, Veolia Water has contracts with municipalities in China covering 43 million people. In many ways, Veolia defines the terms by which private water companies can operate in China. By signing in 2007 a 30-year contract giving Veolia 45% of the shares of Lanzhou Water Group, the Lanzhou authorities transferred part of their management and distribution responsibilities. Since then, Lanzhou citizens complained that the new joint-venture did not upgrade the high risk water pipes built in 1955. According to Caijing, the benzene seepage is partly explained by the fact that old water pipes run very close to the oil pipes of Sinopec. Last January, the Lanzhou authorities unsuccessfully requested Sinopec to apologize for its repeated pollution accidents. While Sinopec is also liable, to sue one of the most powerful state-owned enterprises in China can be more challenging than Veolia.

Pushing the Court into Action

After ten months of irresponsible inaction from the Lanzhou court, the five plaintiffs wrote a letter to the Supreme People’s Court in Beijing on 1 February 2015. Coincidentally, the Supreme Court issued on February 4 a judicial interpretation of the Civil Procedural Law to reaffirm that courts should respond to lawsuits within seven days. A few days later, Chengguan District People’s Court informed the plaintiffs that the filing was accepted. Almost at the same time, the court also accepted three other lawsuits filed in April 2014 against Lanzhou Veolia by the six university students, as well as a couple and an independent resident. Thus, Veolia is now the defendant in four civil lawsuits concerning 14 plaintiffs in total. Although victory in court is not guaranteed, it is an encouraging sign. At least a trial may help clarify the responsibilities of each party involved.

As one plaintiff Xu Ziqi said “We are very happy that the case has been accepted by the court. We will make preparations for the court trial to make the polluting enterprise pay its price, and to stop such severe public health pollution from happening again.” In fact, the five plaintiffs only claim a symbolic compensation amount of 6000 RMB (£650). Unlike protests against water privatization in Europe, Lanzhou residents and the JFA do not advocate reclaiming public ownership of the water system. What they care about most is to see more courageous Lanzhou residents and NGOs joining their current efforts to make Veolia behave responsibly and transparently in order to prevent such incidents from happening again.

Holding Providers Accountable

Adding to the complex of concerns around China’s deteriorating environment is the performance of providers like Veolia. While the court trial is still pending, many Lanzhou residents found again this month that their tap water was undrinkable with an irritating strong odor. In order to stop such incidents from haunting their daily life, Veolia should cooperate with Lanzhou citizens and disclose the requested water data as a first step towards transparency. Access to information is essential for meaningful public participation.

As Wang Canfa warned, if the judge decides the cases against the plaintiffs or delay the trial, “it could result in many people seeking other ways to make their case heard, such as petitioning or staging sit-ins outside government offices.” In a 2010 letter to the Human Rights Council, Veolia stated its “strong belief” that “water is a human right.” As World Water Day is celebrated on March 22, it is time for Veolia to demonstrate its good faith to Lanzhou citizens.

Wang Xinhong (PhD) and Hermann Aubié (PhD Candidate) are both based at the Centre for East Asian Studies, University of Turku, Finland. Image Credit: CC by Richard Weil/Flickr.