For 73-year-old fisherman Ni Tingrong, who lives in a village on the northwestern shore of Taihu Lake, China's third largest freshwater lake, the idyllic scenes portrayed in the folk song "Beauty of Tai Hu" are confined to memory.
The lyrics go something like this: "Green reeds at the water's edge, rich in fish and shellfish at low tide, the lake water weaves through irrigation nets and the fragrance of fruit and rice wafts up from the lake."
But the modern-day reality is far from poetic.
"Just 20 years ago, I fished in the lake and the rivers nearby almost everyday," said Ni, who began working as a fisherman at the age of 14. "But pollution has only left us blue-green algae and the odor of dirty water, the fish stocks are drying up."
Covering an area of 2,400 square kilometers in east China, Taihu Lake is a major source of drinking water for people living in Shanghai and Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces. Historically a rich and fertile area, the lake region has become one of the most populous and prosperous regions in the country with 33.5 million people living in the surrounding area.
However, the lake has come under increasing environmental strain for years as untreated sewage from towns and villages, as well as the region's booming chemical and light manufacturing industries, have choked its water with pollutants.
The fine line between rapid economic growth and continuous ecological degeneration was crossed in May when a large bloom of blue-green algae was found to have swamped the lake. The combination of the low water level and the accumulation of waste and untreated sewage had triggered the algae bloom, turning the water putrid and cutting the water supply to more than two million residents.
Workers collected thousands of tons of algae from the lake and residents raced for bottled water.
It was not the first time Ni had seen the lake water clogged up with waste in his hometown of Zhoutie, outside Yixing City, in Jiangsu Province, home to more than 100 chemical plants.
"Actually, all the families in our village have been using water from the nearby well, instead of that from Taihu Lake, as drinking water since 1998, because the lake water had a weird smell of chemicals," said Ni.
The old man said Zhoutie Town saw its first chemical plant 15 years ago and so many others followed in the space of one decade that the town soon won a reputation as the "hometown of chemical plants".
The booming chemical industry has inspired the economic growth of Zhoutie Town, but the industrial waste has also brought environmental disaster to its residents with urban sewage and chemical fertilizers from agriculture.
"Black water flows directly into the lake. Soon fish in the rivers nearby died and we had to fish in the large lake, " said Ni.
"There is still fish in the lake, but the quantity is reducing because the lake is being polluted too."
Zhoutie Town is no exception to the Taihu Lake region. Around 20,000 chemical plants that cluster in the Taihu valley have had a drastic effect on the water quality of the lake.
Experts say that the lake's environmental problems include accelerated eutrophication, or aging, caused by nitrogen and phosphorus enrichment. These materials cause an overgrowth of algae and further deterioration, including oxygen depletion.
Investigations from the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) show that the content of nitrogen in the lake in 2006 was three times the amount in 1996, while the content of phosphate pollutants had increased 1.5 times in the 1996-2006 period.
To mitigate the lake's environment pressure, all towns around Taihu Lake have been ordered to establish sewage treatment plants and are forbidden from discharging untreated sewage into the lake and rivers in the Taihu valley.
Existing plants must also install nitrogen and phosphorus removal facilities and those that fail to meet the raised water emission standards risk suspension. They will be shut down permanently if they still fail to meet the standards by the end of next June.
In addition, more than 1,000 small-sized chemical plants that are scattered around rivers and lakes have been closed since June in the cities of Wuxi, Suzhou and Changzhou in Jiangsu.
In Zhoutie alone, 93 chemical plants were closed in the past three months and more than 40 others are left, said Wu Xijun, Party chief of the town's government.
"After the algae incident, voices to reform the chemical plants are coming from everywhere and we have felt more pressure than ever, so we know we have no other choice but to close the plants," said Wu.
"I hope the policies will be faithfully implemented," said Ni, " or what an irony it will be, if we have no water to drink though the lake is right before our eyes."
Plateau lake's uncertain future
While people living around Taihu Lake were haunted by algae, thousands of kilometers away in the northwestern province of Qinghai, farmers and herdsmen living around Qinghai Lake, the country's largest saltwater lake, were busy preparing to receive tourists from all over the world.
Perched more than 3,200 meters above the sea level, the 4,300-square-km Qinghai Lake, located in the northeast of Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, is not only a "Holy Lake" to Tibetans, but also home to 189 species of birds and a crucial barrier against the desert spreading from west to east. With a slim population of more than 70,000, the Qinghai Lake valley is historically a land for farming.
"Generally speaking, the lake is healthy thanks to few industrial projects even till now", said Zhao Haoming, head of the provincial environment protection department.
Beautiful scenery has drawn more and more tourists to the lake in recent years. According to Dong Lizhi, deputy manager-general of the Qinghai Lake Tourism Development Co. Ltd, more than 890,000 people visited the lake in 2006 and by July this year, the lake had received more than 500,000 tourists and the figure was expected to hit one million by the end of this year.
Degyi, 19-year-old Tibetan girl who grew up in a nomadic family living by the lake, has been getting used to her new role as a tent restaurant waitress.
Like many of their neighbors, Degyi's father began to set up two white tents four years ago on the grassland on the southern shore of the Qinghai Lake, to receive tourists. Visitors are provided with traditional Tibetan food like boiled mutton, milk tea and yogurt made of yak milk. They can also rent a horse to pose for pictures or for riding.
Though the business only lasts from May to October, Degyi's family is able to earn more than 15,000 yuan every year, accounting for two thirds of the family's annual income.
However, with booming tourism comes pollution. The waste produced by hotels and restaurants have been discharged into the lake without being properly treated and garbage, such as crisp packets and plastic drink bottles left behind by tourists, are frequently found around the lake.
In addition, the lake is threatened by global warming and encroaching desert. Statistics with the provincial environment protection administration show the lake shrunk more than 380 sq km between 1959 and 2006 and the average water level dropped three meters to the present level of 18 meters.
More than 111,800 hectares of land around the lake has been suffering from desertification brought about by overgrazing around the lake and global warming, according to the provincial forestry department.
To curb ecological degeneration on the lake, China has invested 470 million yuan on recovering the plants around the lake and dealing with desertification. Local government has also banned fishing in the lake since 1982.
A latest move taken by Qinghai is to ban the construction of permanent buildings around the lake.
"Not only the projects under construction have been stopped, the hotels, restaurants, and shops near the lake shore will be torn down," said Jetik Majil, vice governor of the province.
According to Jetik, under a new tourism development plan around the lake which is expect to be enacted next year, permanent buildings such as hotels, restaurants and tourist service centers will be relocated to an "accommodation zone" at least three kilometers away from the southern shore of the lake.
"Grassland will be restored after the buildings are demolished. In the future, tourists can only tour around the lake by riding horses and bikes, taking shuttle buses powered by electricity or walking on a boardwalk," said the vice governor.
"For a province like Qinghai which falls far behind many of our counterparts in terms of economic development, to improve GDP growth is very important to us", said Jetik. "However, we can't afford to taking the old road of developing first, cleaning up later."
New perception of development
Protecting the environment and sustainable development are now part of China's national strategy, which calls for a "scientific concept of development".
The new policy put forward by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party of China in 2003 has been calling for coordinated development between urban and rural areas, among different regions, between economic and social development, between the development of man and nature, and between domestic development and opening up to the outside world.
"The new perception of development has been set out to halt the trend of local governments, in both economically developed coastal areas and underdeveloped inland areas, pursuing economic growth at cost of ecological deterioration and many other negative social consequences," said Ma Jun, director of the Beijing Public and Environment Affairs Institute.
The Taihu Lake algae incident again clearly demonstrates a conflict between China's development and environmental protection and "the root cause of the problem is the evaluation system of Party and government officials based on GDP figures," he said.
A national investigation of the Ministry of Water Resources shows that more than 70 percent of China's waterways and 90 percent of its underground water is contaminated by pollution.
Ma's comments were echoed by Wu Xijun, Party chief of the Zhoutie Town government.
"The booming chemical industry in our town is somehow related to the GDP evaluation system," said Wu, who came to his current post in 2005. "The chemical industry is helping to resolve the local employment issue and encourage economic growth and increase GDP, which will reflect leaders' achievements."
The central leadership has also detected the dark side of the GDP evaluation system, and has been working on new systems of Green GDP or Happiness Index, which put public opinions into consideration.
"In the past two years, the evaluation system for officials has taken on great changes. Economic growth is not the only major factor and residents' satisfaction with their living environment has become another major index," said Wu.
Zhoutie Town has banned construction of chemical plants since 2005 and the existing factories have been ordered to meet water and gas emission standards.
After the large scale reform of the chemical industry, the town's GDP ranking has fallen from the third in Yixing City to the sixth, according to Wu.
"But I think it's worthwhile as our living environment has an opportunity to recover. A place with a better environment has more space for future development," said Wu. The town plans to import high-tech projects and develop tourism in the future.
"The scientific concept of development will not be a mere political slogan or a catchphrase," Ma said. "After being in practice for four years, the Party, government and the people have realized it will be the only right way of China's future development."
Government actions are already in the pipeline. The State Council, China's cabinet, has called for research on green taxes, looking at using a tax to bolster environmental protection. New research and trials on environmental tax and compensation policies are also underway. The authorities will audit the environmental records of listed companies, hold trials of compulsory environmental liability insurance, and strengthen oversight of export firms' environmental standards.
And the new perception of development is also winning more and more support from the public.
The Tibetan girl Degyi does not know exactly what the new concept means, even though she claimed to have heard about it on television. However, she and her family show understanding and support to government policy to end their tent restaurant business near the Qinghai Lake.
"When I was young, there are many farms around the lake and people launched a campaign of what they called 'opening up the wasteland', which resulted the dropping of the water level and the expansion," said Huage, 43, Degyi's father. "I don't want to see that keep happening."
Huage has applied to open new tent restaurants in the "accommodation zone".
"It is the most beautiful scenery to see tourists riding horses on the green grasslands by the lake and I hope this is able to last forever," said Degyi.
(Xinhua News Agency October 10, 2007)