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Dongting Lake at Risk of Environmental Decay
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On the shores of Hunan Province's Dongting Lake -- the second largest freshwater lake in China -- lies the village of Qingshanyuan. As all too commonly found in rapidly developing China, industrial plants surround the lake discharging wastewater and emitting toxic gases into the air, regardless of the environmental consequences.


In 2000, the inhabitants of Qingshanyuan collectively set up a cage aquaculture business on the lake, despite the threat posed by neighboring paper mills and chemical fertilizer plants to the success of their scheme.


Two years after they started out on their 'fish farm' enterprise, the villagers' business began to feel the impacts of the lake's pollution. In 2002, the villagers' entire stock of fish died from water poisoning -- more died in 2003.


Reflecting on the disastrous experience, the village's Communist Party chief Tang Daiqin remarked, "We had invested a lot into our business -- it was terrible."


Development vs. the Environment


Ancient Chinese first settled around Dongting Lake during the Qin and Han Dynasties. At that time, Dongting was the largest lake in China, however due to a large-scale land reclamation movement in the 1950s, the lake has shrank in size by more than a half -- from 6,500 square kilometers to less than 2,700 square kilometers. Farms were erected and gradually, the newly reclaimed land developed into villages, towns, or even districts.


Due to its abundance of reed and fast-growing trees -- coupled with the accessibility of water transportation -- paper mills were established around the lake. Every day, transport boats pass in and out of Dongting, carrying materials to factories on the lakeside.


The experience of the villagers in Qingshanyuan is indicative of the situation across Dongting Lake. 54 year-old Luo Aifu has been driving a transport vessel for more than three decades, delivering reed from the east of the lake to the town of Jiangjiazui on the western shore where Qingshanyuan Village is situated. Luo mentioned that on the route he takes, you can see paper mills scattered all along the shoreline dumping waste into the lake.


"More than 10 years ago, the water in the lake was so clear that I could drink during my trip, but there is no clear water now," Luo remarked.


Indeed, Dongting Lake of old was famed in China for its scenic beauty -- clear water, blue skies and its luscious green setting -- frequently featuring in Chinese poetry and paintings. Today, the water of Dongting is distinctly black in color, the landscape is blighted with industrial plants and the skies bellow with smoke.


Jiangjiazui, where Luo's delivery ends up, was once the industrial center of Hanshou County, enjoying a prosperous period in the 1970s thanks to its vast number of paper mills and chemical fertilizer plants. However, as Jiangjiazui entered into its own little Industrial Revolution, villagers started to notice environmental degradation around the lake.


Peng Pingbo, a representative from the West Dongting Nature Reserve (WDNR) commented, "In Jiangjiazui, 4.8 kilometers along the lakeside and within 100 meters of the bank, the water is all black with nothing living in it -- no living plants exist on the bank less than one meter above the shoreline."


Jiang Yong, vice director of the East Dongting Nature Reserve (EDNR) told China Features that, as a result of the deterioration of Dongting's water, "Some people living at the lakeside are now experiencing water shortages." Jiang added that he believes the situation to be worse than ever.


Cause and effect


Due to the growing construction of dams on the upper reaches of the Yangtze River and its tributaries, along with a long-lasting drought, the amount of water flowing into Dongting Lake in the summer of 2006 was considerably lower than usual. As a result, the concentration of pollutants in the lake has intensified.


Nevertheless, the main offenders are the growing number of industrial plants that line the lakes shores.


Liu Shuai, a senior official with the Hunan Committee for Environmental and Resource Protection under the provincial people's congress, told China Features that 101 papermaking factories are now in operation near the lake. Every year, factories clandestinely discharge more than 100 million tons of wastewater into the lake without meeting environmental protection standards.


Papermaking is one of the most important industries in the area. Also bordering the lake for example, is Anxiang County -- almost half of its government's revenues come directly from its paper mills.


As a result, such factories are given 'special protection' by the local authorities. After the demise of their fish, villagers of Qingshanyuan took legal action against the nearby factories. However, the local government intervened, asking the villagers and factories to reach a settlement. The villagers declined the settlement offered by the factories, eventually winning the court case. They were awarded compensation of just 130,000 yuan (US$16,250) -- their loss was about 680,000 yuan (US$85,000).


In 2003, after a loss of more than 1 million yuan (US$125,000), the villagers took to the courts again, this time winning compensation of 180,000 yuan (US$22,500).


After the second court case, the villagers were told to forget setting up their business again. Tang Daiqin, the village's Communist Party chief said, "The government asked us to stop our cage aquaculture business as the factories do not want to compensate for our economic losses again."


"Unprecedented deterioration"


The factories are not the only ones to blame. Referring to the serious environmental degradation in and around Dongting Lake, Liu Shuai said, "The protectionist attitude and nonfeasance (failure to perform an act required by law) of the local government are the fundamental causes."


In order to better protect the wildlife in the reaches of Yangtze, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) established an office in Changsha in 1999.


Wei Baoyu, an officer from the WWF commented that, "Over the past seven years we have witnessed the unprecedented deterioration of the Yangtze's ecosystem, therefore we are considering the inclusion of pollution control into our conservation program."


According to Jiang Yong, birds are the most affected by changes in the ecosystem. As one of their obligations, Jiang said that the EDNR has been keeping track of the local bird population. Their studies show that, since 2002, the number of birds sighted in the Dongting Lake area sharply declined -- from around 250,000 in 2002, to 130,000 in 2003, and just 89,000 in 2005.


The Yangtze Basin has, for a long time enjoyed the name of "a land of fish and rice". However, the fish population is falling, some rare species like the Yangtze sturgeon and the white sturgeon can no longer be found in Dongting Lake. On top of this, the Yangtze River dolphin, or "baiji", which used to swim the waters of Dongting, and long regarded as the "Goddess of the Yangtze", was recently declared "functionally extinct".


The fishing industry has started to feel the effect of the fall in the Yangtze fish population. A recent EDNR study of the Dongting Lake fishing industry highlighted the dramatic fall in output over the past twenty years. In the 1980s, fishing output was recorded at about 20,000 to 30,000 tons a year on an average. The 1990s witnessed a sharp increase -- nearly 40,000 tons a year. The output at present however, is less than half of that recorded in the 1980s.


The vast majority of the fish that are caught today are less than one kilogram in weight. In the 1950s, 40 percent of caught fish weighed in at more than one kilogram, while today only 7 percent weigh over one kilo.


The EDNR figures reveal the stark reality of the situation in Dongting Lake -- a lake that could soon be empty of fish. "Fishermen often go home empty handed as there are hardly any fish left in the lake", said Jiang Yong, "it is driving some of them into poverty."


The fall in fish stocks cannot be totally attributed to the pollution of Dongting, indeed over fishing is fast becoming the main culprit. Fishermen have invented a new device, whereby bamboo sticks are thrust into the mud at the bottom of the lake, with nets fastened to them leading to a "dead corner". Each device can catch more than 500 kilograms of fish a night.


The most destructive practice however, is electro-fishing whereby fishermen pilot a fishing boat equipped with a storage battery and two electrodes stuck in the water. When the battery is switched on, all living organisms within five or six meters of the electrodes are killed, allowing fishermen to easily harvest them.


The local fishing authorities ban and impose fines for these kinds of fishing methods, however Jiang pointed out that some fishermen are in fact allowed to use the above mentioned methods?


Over fishing, widespread pollution of the lake, together with ignorance on the part of the local authorities, is taking its toll on the Dongting environment. Many local people believe the lake has a bleak future ahead of it, however there are some encouraging signs -- the government has started to take notice of the desperate situation in Dongting.


Time for action


In October last year, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao asked the government departments concerned to find solutions for the environmental degradation of Dongting. As a result, local government officials were pressured to act.


At the beginning of the year the Hunan provincial government shut down eight paper mills, in an attempt to tackle the catalogue of problems that Dongting faces. By the end of 2007, the provincial government plans to close all paper mills that have a capacity of less than 50,000 tons.


In terms of the illegal fishing practices, Liu Shuai noted that the provincial government has finally enacted related laws and regulations, "However, implementation now becomes the most important thing", said Liu.


Glimpses of Dongting's beautiful past are reappearing in some areas of the lake. In the Daxi Lake -- part of the EDNR -- thousands of water birds have returned and can be seen taking off from the beach and digging into the clear water to catch fish.


Vice director of the nature reserve, Jiang Yong declared, "Now that we have closed the whole Daxi Lake to fishing and ended the pollution, birds are starting to come here again."


The WWF's practices however, are proving to be the most helpful in preserving the environment in the Yangtze Basin. They are educating the local populace and encouraging them to develop eco-tourism and eco-fishing -- like cage aquaculture -- in order to help them to protect their livelihoods after being banned from destructive fishing techniques.


WWF officer Wei Baoyu commented, "What we are doing is trying to find a sustainable way in which the lake and the people can thrive together in harmony."


(Xinhua News Agency January 27, 2007)

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