Beijing Water

Seeing is believing

Yang Rongrong and Gong Yidong
China Daily
June 7, 2010

Li Yuling, the narrator of the most recent Oral History “A River Returns,” is featured in this China Daily report detailing the activities of Beijing citizens as they raise awareness on the dire state of the city’s once pristine rivers. Read Li Yuling’s oral history here.

Seeing is believing By Yang Rongrong and Gong Yidong (China Daily)

An NGO campaign is turning ordinary citizens into activists monitoring the state of rivers in urban areas. Yang Rongrong and Gong Yidong from China Features report

In a howling dust storm on March 22, World Water Day, Li Yuling and her son, Quan Yizhou, set out for northern Beijing’s Qinghe River. Over the past three years, visiting rivers under the Happy Journey to Rivers scheme has become an indispensable and life-changing experience for Li, 48, and Quan, 14, putting them in touch with nature in the rapidly expanding capital.

Li’s family used to live by the Liangshui (Cold Water) River in southern downtown Beijing, which was nicknamed “the longest stinking sewer”.

The natural surroundings were unbearable at that time.

“The foul river was excellent for mosquitoes, and we dared not open the window in summer,” Li recalls.

Passengers on passing buses had to hold their breath. The notorious river even affected home prices in the area, making it one of least popular locations in the city.

In 2004, the government spent more than 400 million yuan ($58.6 million) on new sewage treatment facilities along the waterways, cleaning up the riverbanks and establishing water purification systems.

The work, completed in 2007, has benefited local residents. On summer nights, Li and her family lie on the bank and chat in the breeze.

That May, Li heard about Happy Journey to Rivers, an environmental protection campaign initiated by local non-governmental organizations (NGOs), to enhance public understanding of urban rivers’ importance.

Li had read extensively about water preservation and environmental NGO activities but hadn’t ever had the chance to see them firsthand.

The tour that week was none other than the Liangshui River. But Quan had planned to take exams for a key middle school at the same time.

After a discussion within the family, Li and Quan decided to participate in the tour instead of taking the exams.

“I think nature activities are far more important than exam-oriented education,” Li says.

The mother and son joined 30 others on their first journey. Quan briefed a group of students and professors from Northeastern University about the Liangshui River before and after the pollution treatment project.

The 21-km journey took them nearly a whole day and finished at 7 pm.

“I was exhausted, but I liked the journey, and I can’t wait for the next time,” Quan wrote in his diary that evening.

Over the next three years, Li and Quan walked along nearly all of Beijing’s rivers, covering about 1,200 km.

With expert guidance, they learned how to test water’s pH values using indicator strips and analyzing samples. They have also learned new concepts, such as chemical oxygen demand (COD), a measurement of water pollution. Their weekly records have been filed as foundations for further research.

After observing rivers for three years, Li and her son were astonished to find half of Beijing’s 200 rivers had dried up, including many branches of Yongding, the city’s 650-km “Mother River”.

Most rivers are heavily polluted, such as Erdaogou River, a drainage canal in eastern Beijing.

“Homeless people take shelter under the bridge, surrounded by mountains of rubbish and excrement,” Quan says.

“The canal is even fouler than the Liangshui River. I can’t believe Beijing has such filth.”

Sometimes, villagers mistake them for officials and complain about people randomly throwing rubbish into the water.

The journeys also provide eye-opening opportunities to help participants’ understand Beijing, largely thanks to the history and biology experts who join the activities.

“I was born in Beijing, but I never knew that many famous places were closely connected to water,” Quan says.

“For example, Wangfujing, the busiest commercial street in central Beijing, takes its name from a well owned by the palace, while Lianzi Hutong refers to a pool filled with lotuses. It’s a pity all this natural beauty is gone.”

Over time, Quan developed a new appreciation of life and nature.

“I used to leave the tap on when washing my hands. But now I shut off the faucet to save water. We must all save water with actions rather than words.”

Over the past three years, more than 11,000 people have participated in Happy Journey to Rivers. Aged 6 to 82, they represent all walks of life – researchers, businesspeople, civil servants, journalists, housewives, retirees and students. Starting from Beijing, the event has expanded to cover nine other cities, including Guangzhou, Lanzhou and Wuhan.

It’s also seeking to do more than offer an initial encounter with nature.

One of the project’s fruits is Water and the Sustainable Development of Beijing, a report written by volunteers and Wang Jian, a water resources expert with Happy Journey to Rivers.

The report traces Beijing’s changing river patterns and proposes recommendations, such as expanded use of collected rainwater.

“Everyone knows the city isn’t what it was in our childhoods, but many people have no idea how much it has changed,” Wang says.

“We walk along rivers so every participant can get firsthand information about their current situation.”

The 57-year-old is concerned that Beijing’s rivers, like those in most Chinese cities, are facing disaster.

The capital’s 200 rivers are located in the water-deficient Haihe River Basin.

Since the 1950s, the city’s waterways have suffered severe pollution with the development of heavy industry.

Meanwhile, Beijing’s population has quadrupled from 4.14 million in the mid-1940s to 17.14 million in 2007, putting greater pressure on the water supply.

The Chinese government has launched a water-diversion project to channel water from the Yangtze River to Beijing by 2014.

Despite the efforts taken by the government, Beijing remains one of the country’s driest cities, with 220 cubic meters per capita – nearly a fifth of the international recommended water-poor countries level of 1,000 cubic meters.

Of the 655 cities in China, about 600 are short of water. In spring, Southwest China suffered severe droughts that left 60 million people without water access.

“Chinese people rarely realize that their country is one of the driest in the world,” Wang says.

“By walking along rivers, more people can see the real picture of urban rivers. They might change after tours like this and realize their responsibility to nature.”

That’s exactly what the program’s initiator, Feng Yongfeng, had in mind when he started the activities in 2007.

“We always try to enable the public to get closer to the truth through this group,” Feng explains.

“More than 10,000 Beijing participants have been moved to become supporters over the past three years. And since this May, we plan to normalize the pollution report and launch the environmental hotline 12369, turning concern into action.”

Feng believes Happy Journey changes public environmental education methods from reading textbooks to engaging firsthand with activities and experts.

“We hope most people would share their knowledge to become water experts and then push the government on environmental issues.”

There has been progress. In late March, the Beijing Water Authority contacted Happy Journey organizers for advice on improving the Yongding River’s conditions.

Participants suggested seven golf courses constructed near the downstream channel should be removed from around the dry riverbed.

Li and Quan now believe water and river preservation is no longer solely the realm of government responsibility, but, rather, one that everyone shares.

“Water is the soul of all creatures, and it’s our obligation to guard it as we would our soul,” Quan says. “We keep walking and walking, and more people are joining us. And the places we pass are getting greener and greener.”

Read the original story here.

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