Lake once famed for beauty set to get a second chance at cleanliness amid Xiongan project

By Zhang Yu Source:Global Times Published: 2017/4/25 19:23:39

○ Baiyangdian Lake, composed of 143 small lakes, has been plagued by issues like water scarcity and pollution for decades

○ The building of the Xiongan New Area, which will include Baiyangdian, will pose a challenge for the government, which must improve its water quality in order to meet the new city's needs 


Local authorities deal with the water pollution issues that plague Baiyangdian Lake. Photo: IC

For many Chinese, Baiyangdian Lake, 120 kilometers south of Beijing, is a literary landmark famous for its association with the writer Sun Li  (1913-2002), whose beautiful stories and essays about the wetlands, included in China's primary school textbooks, have made it a household name, similar to how Henry David Thoreau made Walden Pond famous.

Today's Baiyangdian, however, is no longer the scenic tableau of pink lotuses and waving reeds described by Sun half a century ago. Over the past decades, excessive fishing and massive industrialization in Baoding, North China's Hebei Province, where the lake is located, has turned the largest freshwater lake in northern China into a polluted swamp that's officially designated as unfit for human contact. It's also plagued by water scarcity that compounds the threat to its ecosystem.

So when China announced this month that three counties in Baoding surrounding Baiyangdian will be converted into the Xiongan New Area, a metropolis being built from scratch that has been described as being "of historic significance for the next millennium" to China and one that requires "eco-friendly and green development," it immediately set off discussions on how to purify Baiyangdian and make it fit to be a major water source.

"Improving the water quality of Baiyangdian Lake should come before building the Xiongan New Area," Zhang Xiaomin, village head of Zhenbian village in Anxin county, one of the areas that will be included in the new city, told news portal

A fisherman rows a boat in Baiyangdian. Photo: CFP

Worsening water

It was early April, and a horrible stench from a local down feather factory was plaguing Dazhang village in Anxin county, which administers Baiyangdian Lake. Some factories and residential buildings discharge waste water directly into nearby rivers. Household trash and construction debris can be seen floating on the lake once called the "pearl of North China."

China's surface water quality is measured in six grades according to their pollutant levels. Water ranked from grades I-III is drinkable; grades IV to V are for industrial and agricultural use only and are unfit for human contact; while anything more polluted is simply referred as "worse than Grade V," or Grade V+, and is deemed unusable.

By these standards, the water in Baiyangdian is severely polluted, according to Hebei Province's Environment Statement 2015. Its waters near Nanliuzhuang and Duan villages, in the lake's east, are graded V+ for excessive levels of phosphorus and chemical oxygen demand. The rest of its water is graded an average of IV to V.

Compared with ten years ago, the water quality has not improved. Back in 2004, 75 percent of the water in Baiyangdian was rated grade IV, with the rest rated grade V or V+.

Since 2006, dead fish, often hundreds of thousands of kilograms of them, turned up in local fish ponds during spring and summer. The latest massive fish die-off occurred last summer, when over 60,000 kilograms of dead fish were discovered in Anxin. Investigations showed that the fish likely died because of pollution and a lack of dissolved oxygen.

An ongoing water shortage is another chronic problem that has been threatening the area. In the late 1950s, hundreds of dams were built in the streams that once fed Baiyangdian, stopping many from carrying water into the lake. The lake almost dried up in the 1980s,

The growing industrialization and population of nearby towns also contributed to water stress. Many factories and households in the area still use underground water. This has significantly drained the area's groundwater reserves.




Diversion projects

Over the years, the local and central governments have rolled out a series of measures to improve the area's water quality.

In order to refill Baiyangdian, from 1981 onward local water resources department and Hebei's provincial government decided to divert water from nearby reservoirs into the lake. From 1981 to 2003, reservoirs upstream from the lake diverted 537 million cubic meters of water to Baiyangdian in 18 times.

Starting from 2004, water from other water basins started to be diverted into Baiyangdian. In 2006, over 100 million cubic meters of water from the Yellow River was diverted to Baiyangdian for the first time.

According to a water improvement plan issued last year, this will become a regular occurrence. Each year, 110 million cubic meters of water from the Yellow River will be diverted to Baiyangdian.

The local authorities also say they are closing down factories to control pollution.

The down feather industry is a key part of Anxin's economy, and there used to be 108 down feather factories in Dazhang village. Now, only 40 are still operating. Many factory owners told the National Business Daily that they have been ordered to buy sewage treatment equipment, costing millions.

The polluting leather and dyeing industries along the shore of Baiyangdian have either been closed down or ordered to install waste water recycling equipment.

The local authorities have also installed underground drainage facilities in Dazhuang to prevent waste water from flowing into Baiyangdian.

But problems remain. When Caixin visited the villages around Baiyangdian earlier this month, its reporter discovered that many sewage treatment facilities and government-built treatment plants are not actually operating. Trash filled a pond near one plant, emitting horrible smell.

"The government invested over 400 million yuan ($58.1 million) in these sewage treatment plants, and yet many have never been in operation. It's just a vanity project," a resident of Mapu village, Anxin told Caixin.


New opportunity

Now the establishment of the Xiongan New Area may offer a fresh chance for the improvement of the local ecology.

Xu Kuangdi, head of the expert advisory committee on the collaborative development of Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei, told the Xinhua News Agency that protecting and restoring the ecological functions of Baiyangdian is a precondition for the establishment of the new city. The restoration of Baiyangdian will depend on the improvement of the entire ecological system.

According to Chang Jiwen, vice director of the Research Institute of Resources and Environment Policies under the Development Research Center of the State Council, a new plan aimed at improving Baiyangdian's environment has already been completed.

"Many people worry that Baiyangdian's environment is not fit for a metropolis to be built there.  However, I don't think the Xiongan New Area will be a megapolis, but a complex of several satellite cities," he told the National Business Daily.

Cui Baoshan, professor of environmental sciences at Beijing Normal University, said the water in Baiyangdian is largely stagnant at present as there are few rivers flowing into it, but its circulation could be improved by releasing water from two upstream reservoirs and linking them with Baiyangdian.

"After the water starts flowing, the environment around the Xiongan New Area will gradually improve," Cui told the Global Times.

Cui said the majority of water consumption in the Xiongan New Area in the future will have to rely on water diverted to the area via the South-to-North water diversion project.

"In the future, Baiyangdian could be a water source for aquaculture and landscaping. But it won't be a source of domestic and drinking water," he said.

His viewpoint was echoed by Jia Shaofeng, deputy director of the Center for Water Resources Research of China Academy of Sciences, who wrote in a recent blog post that the Xiongan New Area's existing water system cannot meet its future water needs, and it will mainly rely on water diverted to the area.

"But due to the South-to-North water diversion project's costly water price, almost 10 yuan per cubic meter, it can been foreseen that water scarcity will be an eternal concern in the area. The New Area should bar industries high in water consumption from entering, and try to keep its sewage emissions to zero," he wrote. Currently, the cost of water for domestic use in Hebei Province is around 5 yuan per cubic meter.

Zhang Boju, chief executive director of Friends of Nature, said the wetland resources of Baiyangdian should be taken very seriously. "The ecological function of the wetlands should be taken advantage of, such as its role in water purification, " he told the Global Times.

This is very likely in line with President Xi Jinping's blueprint for the area. According to former US Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson's book Dealing with China, the Chinese president commented to him in 2013 that "We have to build more wetlands, which will be the kidneys of planet Earth."

According to the book, Xi saw the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei joint development plan as "one of his legacies." He recalled: "As he personally told me in July 2014, 'this was my personal initiative.'"

Newspaper headline: Scrubbing the shore

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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