Wetlands Running Dry in China

Drought Erodes an Ancient Way of Life in Mythic Marshes

By Philip P. Pan

Washington Post Foreign Service

Sunday, July 1, 2001; Page A14

BAIYANGDIAN, China -- China is suffering its worst drought in more than two decades, with crops in huge tracts of the north and southwest withering in parched fields, cities imposing emergency restrictions on water use and rivers becoming dusty gullies.

The drought, which stretches across 17 provinces and has lasted more than 100 days, has left 23 million people short of drinking water and damaged more than 73 million acres of farmland. Herds of cattle and sheep are dying of dehydration, and peasants are abandoning their land to search for work in factories and mines.[Catch-22, More CO2 generation and more drought.]

Fearful of social unrest, the government has fired chemicals into the skies to seed the clouds and cause rainfall. It has also mobilized millions of workers to dig deeper wells and distribute bottled water to the hardest-hit regions. In a special session in June, the State Council ordered local officials to guarantee the water supply for cities first and drafted plans to divert rivers if necessary.

The drought is the latest manifestation of a water crisis that has been building for decades and has become severe in the past few years. China has about as much water as Canada but 40 times more people, and demand for water is soaring as cities grow, industry expands and living standards rise. Reckless economic development, low water prices and poor planning have exacerbated the problem.

Here in the Baiyangdian marshes, northern China's largest freshwater lake system and the setting of countless folk tales and poems, the water shortage threatens an ancient landscape and way of life.

Baiyangdian is still blessed with a natural symphony, the croak of frogs and buzz of insects mingling with the calls of cuckoos, wild ducks and pheasants. But for the fifth summer in a row, these once-majestic wetlands 70 miles south of Beijing are drier than they are wet.

The roots of reeds stick out of exposed, muddy banks like the wiring of broken machines. Water levels are nearly seven feet below normal, rendering many of the docks on the scattered islands useless. Wooden boats sit stranded in stinking ditches that once were sparkling waterways.

Struggling to adapt are people such as Chen Changdai, 64, a fisherman who sets out each morning on a small punt with eight black cormorants -- birds trained to dive into the water, snatch fish in their bills and bring them back to him. For centuries, if not millennia, men like Chen have been using the large, web-footed birds to fish, fastening rings of straw around their necks to prevent them from swallowing the catch.

But Chen is among the last of Baiyangdian's cormorant fishermen. "The water is disappearing, and so are the fish," he said, gliding through the green reeds and lotus flowers.

Water is disappearing elsewhere, too. More than half of China's 700 cities suffer chronic shortages, causing $15 billion in lost industrial output every year, according to government statistics. And the supplies that remain are getting dirtier, contaminated by industrial waste, urban sewage and chemical fertilizers. China's rivers and lakes are all polluted to some degree; half the population drinks contaminated water, Chinese scientists say.

The crisis is most severe in northern China, where so much water is drawn from the Yellow River that it fails to reach the Bo Hai gulf several months each year. China plans to spend tens of billions of dollars building huge tunnels and aqueducts to take water from the south and channel it hundreds of miles to the north, but the mammoth project could take decades to complete.

Meanwhile, clashes over water are becoming increasingly common. Last summer, thousands of farmers in Shandong province rioted when officials tried to block access to a reservoir. This summer could be worse. Human rights groups have reported incidents of peasants protesting against paying taxes because the drought has ruined their crops, or against fees designed to keep them from moving to the cities.

Here in the Baiyangdian region, though, there is only quiet resignation among people who feel powerless to stop the drying up of lakes where the Qing emperor Qianlong once went fishing.

A local Communist Party secretary, Gao Jianpo, insists that Baiyangdian's problems are temporary and minor, part of nature's cyclical ebb and flow. But the villagers say something else is happening, and the experts say they are right.

"This isn't just a natural phenomenon. It has more to do with mankind," said Liu Changming, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, adding that less water reaches Baiyangdian because the cities, factories and farms upriver are using more. "And when there's a drought, people use even more water."

In the 1950s, the lakes of Baiyangdian covered more than 310 square miles. Today, local officials say 186 square miles remain under water; Liu puts the figure closer to 44 square miles.

But local officials still brag about Baiyangdian to investors looking for reliable water supplies for factories, and reservoirs siphon off water from all nine of the rivers that flow here. When rainfall is heavy, the government sometimes releases water from the reservoirs and publishes articles describing how Baiyangdian has recovered.

Another problem is pollution. In February 2000 and again in December, tens of thousands of dead fish were found floating on the lakes, apparently victims of toxic discharges from paper mills and chemical factories. Fishermen said they received "pollution relief" payments as compensation, but Gao, the local official, declined to discuss the subject.

"We should talk less about this," he said, steering the conversation to tourism.

In Beijing, environmental officials acknowledge the Baiyangdian lakes are among the most polluted in China. One government study in the mid-1990s discovered liver and esophageal cancer rates in the villages around Baiyangdian that were three times higher than those of villages with cleaner water supplies.

The government has tried to save Baiyangdian, partly because it is so well known. All Chinese schoolchildren read an essay about how villagers here waged a guerrilla war against the Japanese during World War II, hiding in the complex network of waterways and moving underwater by breathing through straws.

As early as 1972, Premier Zhou Enlai called a special meeting to protect Baiyangdian. There have been many more meetings since, and the government says it has shut down hundreds of paper mills, tanneries, dye factories and oil refineries and spent millions building waste-treatment facilities around the lake.

But, according to Liu, 80 to 90 percent of the wastewater from the cities and farms upstream still is not treated before it flows into Baiyangdian. And because there is less water in the lakes, the pollution has a greater effect.

The lack of water and its declining quality mean the reeds are growing shorter, making it more difficult for villagers to weave the mats they export to Japan. Even Baiyangdian's duck eggs, known for their red yolks, are losing that special characteristic.

"There's not enough in the water for the ducks to eat," complained Xia Huitian, 24, tending his flock of 2,000 ducks.

Perhaps the fishermen and their cormorants have it worst.

"Mandarin fish, blunt-snout bream, yellow croaker," said fisherman Chen Enpo, 67, listing some of the species that have disappeared. "There are fewer fish now, and fewer kinds of fish too. . . . On bad days, we don't catch any at all."

So the cormorant fishermen are fading from Baiyangdian, too. They are all old men now, and none of their children has chosen to learn the trade.

"They can't support themselves doing it. . . . If there's no water, how can there be fish?" asked Chen Changdai, whose two sons make a living on the land. "It's hard to take. . . . I remember as a boy I used to swim in the lake and drink the water, and it tasted sweet."