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The conscience of the city

He Lichuan, deputy secretary-general of the Kunming city government, recently made a commitment to Kunming residents.

At a recent meeting of the city's Party officials, He pledged to undertake a massive program to improve sewage treatment and collection systems across the city by the end of the year, putting an end to the discharge of raw sewage into the Panlong River and Dianchi Lake.

Heavy rainfall backed up sewers in Kunming.

The daily wastewater treatment capacity of the Kunming municipal area is adequate at 1.1million cubic meters and complies with the national A-standard. But the city's sewer system was poorly planned. Heavy rainfall frequently causes flash flooding. Worse, the system has no mechanism to separate the rainwater from sewage. As a result, untreated waste flows down the Panlong River into Dianchi Lake, turning one of the city's biggest tourist attractions into a noisome cesspool.

"The sewer is the conscience of the city," French writer Victor Hugo wrote in 1862 of Paris' sewers. Even those who have never been to French capital can get a sense of the sewer project's scale by reading Les Misérable. Under China's current political system, the government is responsible for urban construction and management. In some sense, a city's sewer is the city government's "conscience."

Last year, the Kunming government decided to improve the city's sewer system. As of June this year, Kunming has built 251 kilometers of main pipelines and 155 kilometers of branch pipelines. It has finished a renovation project to separate rainwater from sewage and completed a Dianchi Lake sewage capture project. All industrial enterprises within the Dianchi Lake basin were relocated to an industrial park where their discharge can be directed to the central treatment facilities. All counties of Kunming have been equipped with sewage treatment plants and pipeline networks. In total, 11 towns and 270 villages within the Dianchi Lake basin have been equipped with domestic sewage collection and treatment facilities.

But there are still 391 villages in the Kunming metropolitan area with inadequate sewage systems. Some have no drainage system at all. Others lag far behind city standards. Sewage continues to run off into the Panlong River and make its way into Dianchi Lake, doing substantial harm to the city's environment.

"Without sound management of sewage from villages inside the metro area, controlling pollution of Dianchi Lake is just empty talk," said Wang Daoxing, vice mayor of Kunming.

Local government officials in China like to build vanity projects to pad their political resumes. The sewer project is frequently criticized by the citizens for its massive price tag and frequent street closures, which have resulted in nasty traffic jams. For this reason, the sewer project has been largely ignored. But the project is no vain attempt to curry political favor. Its completion will meaningfully improve the well-being of local residents. It's an achievement buried in the ground. It's the conscience of residents, the urban planners and the city government.

At the beginning of summer, torrential rain paralyzed the underground drainage system of many large and medium-sized cities. In hours, cities turned into a vast expanse of dirty, stagnant water. And residents felt the lash of the city's conscience.

The author is a reporter with China Daily in Kunming.

(This article was written in Chinese and translated by Li Huiru.)

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