Stalwarts in China’s Water Struggle

A swimmer prepares for a dip in the Han River, which is threatened by a proposed water diversion project. Experts say that environmental advocates have helped bring about a notable improvement in the water’s quality over the last three or four years.

To report out my article on China’s ambitious and troubled plan to divert water from the south to try to satisfy the drinking needs of people in the dying north, I traveled to the Han River, a tributary of the Yangtze River that winds through the heart of the country. It is there, at a reservoir at Danjiangkou, that the middle channel of the water diversion project starts.

Scientists who study the Han told me that the water project could kill or severely damage the river, which provides crucial support for farmers and manufacturing centers and is a lifeline for millions of people.

In Hubei Province, there are self-styled guardians of the river who have fought many battles to keep the Han healthy, persuading local officials in recent years to shut down or move some factories that have been polluting the waters. I met Yun Jianli, the director of Green Han River, an environmental advocacy group, in the city of Xiangfan.

I had first heard of her from Alex Wang, a lawyer in Beijing who until recently worked for the Natural Resources Defense Council. He visited Ms. Yun in 2009 and wrote this on his blog:

“People like Yun Jianli are the drivers of positive change in China. All countries that have dealt with their environmental problems to any degree have people like Yun — passionate, on-the-ground voices who will keep on working until things change for the better.”

Ms. Yun and volunteers with her group took Mr. Wang along parts of the Han River. He concluded that their work and that of other environmental advocates had had a notable impact:

“Looking at pictures of the Han and its tributaries from just 3 or 4 years ago, it’s clear that there has been significant improvement here. The river – oily and black in many places back then – to the naked eye looks, well, like a river again.”

One of Ms. Yun’s volunteers, a soft-spoken tax official named Ma Dong, took me to spots along the Han where the group regularly tests the water quality. He told me there was a time when “you couldn’t tell the water here apart from mineral water.” Even now, he said, “there are few rivers in China of this quality left.”

But there are many threats to the health of the Han. At one stop just outside Xiangfan, I noticed barges loaded with sand drifting near fishing skiffs. Along stretches of the bank, heavy machines were being used to dig up sand at a furious pace.

The sand is used to make concrete for construction. Mr. Ma said sand dredging was rare back in 2007. But as infrastructure projects and construction have taken off in Xiangfan, in the kind of boom that is happening all across China, such barges and digging machines have become a common sight.

“The government doesn’t limit the sand dredging,” Mr. Ma said. “There’s a huge amount of construction. That’s the main conflict: between construction and the environment.”

We got back into the car and kept driving toward Danjiangkou to take a look at the reservoir that will feed the middle route of the water diversion project, which could pose the greatest challenge so far to the Han. Along the river, fishermen cast nets from their boats. Birds swooped above clusters of reeds. The water flowed toward the river city of Wuhan, where it would merge with the Yangtze.

The New York Times

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