China Pollution

Unchecked industry reduces land of a thousand lakes to a struggling few

(July 20, 2012) Lakes in large number, once a plentiful distinction for the province of Hubei, are vanishing after years of “growth” without rule of law.

By Lisa Peryman for Probe International

Renowned as a water-rich region and long crowned the “land of a thousand lakes,” provincial lakes in central China’s Hubei province are now in danger of drying up from overuse and pollution. As Hubei officials scramble to address the region’s lake shrinkage with new regulations, experts warn that without enforcement, lakes will lose out.

China’s Caixin Online reports that the past 100 years have seen a reduction of almost 90 percent in Hubei’s lake coverage due to human activities such as reclaiming lakes for farmland, and pollution from mining diversion and agricultural runoff. Rapid industrial expansion by polluting and water-intensive factories in the last half-century has accelerated the problem alarmingly.

In the early 1900s, the heyday of the one-thousand lake province, provincial lakes claimed 26,000 square kilometres of Hubei’s total surface area. This area has since been reduced to 3,025 square kilometres of water.

Although, Hubei officials have been trying to curb the issue of lake loss since 1996, when they introduced China’s first water-usage regulations, that effort faltered because of a desire for growth without liability.

“Hubei was once a province with plentiful water resources and nationally it used to rank number one among fish-producing provinces in total aquaculture production,” said Wang Shuyi, dean of the Wuhan University Institute of Environmental Law. “But this advantage has been lost.”

Hubei lies in the middle of the Yangtze River Valley, just downstream of the colossal Three Gorges Dam.

Now water quality in the area has deteriorated precipitously. Water was deemed fit for human consumption in only one of 26 lakes recently surveyed by the Hubei Province Water Environment Monitoring Center.

In the hopes of counteracting this destructive trend, the provincial People’s Congress passed the Hubei Province Lake Protection Ordinance, the most far-reaching regulation on water pollution to date, reports Caixin. Coming into effect this October, the regulation includes new provisions on enforcement and penalties.

But despite moves that involve tying water quality to job security for local government leaders, better tracking and oversight to enhance protection of Hubei’s fish stocks and wetlands, as well as stiffer penalties for actually emptying a lake, Hubei’s lakes remain in danger.

Speaking to Caixin Online, Lu Xinhai, a professor at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology Institute of Public Administration says legislation is only the first step toward solving the problem. “Enforcement is key,” he says.

Hubei’s “legacy of environmental rule-bending and breaking” bodes ill for the new legislation.

Billions of yuan and more than 20 policies and regulations did little to save the lakes of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei, from slowly vanishing. Wuhan’s government has never enforced its water regulations at the expense of local business, said Lu.

Some experts, like Masahisa Nakamura, chairman of the International Lake Environment Committee, hold out hope for the new policy if the public is allowed to participate. World experience has proven that environmental law flourishes when public participation reinforces legal norms.

Lake loss is not confined to Hubei. As of 2009, China had lost more than 1,000 lakes in the last 50 years. Algae outbreaks due to water quality deterioration affected more than 80 percent of lakes along the lower reaches of the Yangtze River. On average, it is estimated 20 lakes disappear in China every year.

One expert attending a conference on lake rehabilitation in 2009, when the above data was revealed, said human activities were responsible for the disappearing act: reclaiming lakes for farmland, over-drilling of water, and the reckless diversion of river routes, said Yu Hui, a professor from the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences.

Yu said spending money on programs to turn back the tide of loss did not address the issue of how to stop factories from discharging pollutants into lake water. Without penalties and enforcement, lake health will continue to suffer.

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