Battle to restore lake's lost beauty

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 May, 2006, 12:00am

Eco-warrior Wu Lihong has made it his life's mission to clean up Tai Lake.

The native of Zhoutie township in Yixing, Jiangsu, has spent the past 16 years encouraging polluting factories and bureaucrats to clean up the shores and waters of the once-beautiful lake - China's third-largest body of fresh water.

The lake - on the border between Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces - has gone from being a watery jewel and life source for millions of people to a cesspit of pollution - the result of economic growth and effluent from more than 2,000 chemical factories.

'Everybody knows 'the beauty of Tai Lake comes from its clear water', as it was described in a famous folk song from the Yangtze River delta,' said Mr Wu, 38. 'But the beautiful scenery has gone now. Everything has become a dream.'

Mr Wu remembers swimming and catching water fowl in the lake when he was a boy. But in Caoqiao River - one of the waterways that flows into Tai Lake - levels of heavy metals are now eight times the official limit.

'It is shameful that we can't drink water from the lake,' Mr Wu said. 'The chemical factories and local government officials should be blamed. I want them to admit their responsibility so we will have clean drinking water again.

'Government officials are reaping the benefits of Tai Lake left to us by our ancestors. But these benefits also belong to our future generations. I want to stop the pollution and make them give us back clean water.'

He says he feels worn out: 'I am exhausted both physically and mentally from fighting such a big group for so long. The businesses on the frontline of the battle have the backing of local government officials.'

Over the years, Mr Wu has spent more than 400,000 yuan of his own savings to finance his one-man crusade against pollution of the lake and he lost his job after his boss said he was warned by local officials to fire him.

He feels frustrated over his lack of progress, but says he might join forces with other activists by setting up a foundation to save Tai Lake and its rivers.

Last November, Mr Wu was chosen as one of China's top 10 environmentalists by a panel of judges from the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and National People's Congress, and was honoured at a ceremony held at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. However, the recognition did not make Mr Wu's work easier and instead local officials say behind his back that the award has made him even crazier.

Shen Jianjiang , director of the Yixing Environmental Protection Bureau, said he knew nothing about the award.

'I don't know anything about Mr Wu's award because he has never talked about it. He is only interested in filing reports to officials above us. If you want me to commend him ...sorry, I can only say I will not do that,' Mr Shen said.

Bypassing the local bureaucracy and filing reports to higher-level government officials has been the key to Mr Wu's limited success. Since the mid-1990s, more than 200 polluting factories have been closed, thanks in part to Mr Wu's efforts.

The former sound-proofing equipment salesman said his crusade had cost his family dearly. His wife lost her job and his daughter has received anonymous threatening phone calls.

'My wife lost her laboratory technician's job when the chemical factory she worked for closed down in 1998 because of my report,' said Mr Wu, who was beaten three times by thugs in 2003 and had two ribs broken.

His daughter even questioned his crusade.

'She always used to ask me whether I was a bad guy because she had seen me being taken away by the police several times. In school she was taught that only bad guys got detained. She was confused because neighbours told her that her father was a good person.'

But with more than 100 chemical factories still located in Zhoutie township - many of them still pumping ink-like discharges into Tai Lake every day - Mr Wu said he could not give up.

Showing a bottle of dirty water taken from a chemical factory's discharge channel, he said he had no idea when Tai Lake could regain its former beauty. 'I don't know whether it will work, but I cannot think of surrendering so easily,' he said.