About 130 kilometres northeast of Hong Kong is a city called Heyuan which sits on the banks of a remarkably clean river. The water is a clear turquoise and locals take pride in drinking it untreated. 'It is the cleanest river I have ever seen in a city,' claims Liu Chen, chief supervisor of the Pearl River Water Resources Protection Bureau. Classified grade two in a five-grade mainland system, maintaining the quality of the water takes priority over almost everything else in the Heyuan economy. Since 1993, 70 factories, 30 quarries and 40 restaurants have been closed, and billions of yuan in potential revenue from development projects has been turned away, to safeguard the purity of the river and the massive Xinfengjiang reservoir it feeds. Why? Because these are the middle reaches of the Dongjiang or East River and its water flows via a network of channels, reservoirs and pipes to our taps. And because, in exchange, China receives a cashflow of more than $2 billion a year from the Hong Kong Government. The Chinese government is proud of the water quality at Heyuan, and the mass of regulations that make the Dongjiang the first legally protected body of water on the mainland. Whenever Hong Kong complains about its water quality, it is to Heyuan that Beijing points. But at what cost? Heyuan is one of the poorest regions in Guangdong, its revenue too low to support development. Yet each year it spends at least 10 per cent of that revenue on maintaining the Dongjiang. 'China will do everything to ensure Hong Kong gets our best water,' says Liu. The central and provincial authorities have been especially strict on Heyuan, he says, but the government has been trying to compensate the city with part of the profit of the water suppliers in the lower reaches of the river. 'It hasn't been enough, though,' Liu admits. 'The officials there are afraid of us whenever we visit because they're worried we'll tell them to start new projects when they can hardly afford anything.' The people who pay, though, are those who live on the banks of the river. People like Ling Hegou. In 1990, Ling moved to Heyuan to work at a cement factory near Xin- fengjiang reservoir. Six years later, he and 400 co-workers were laid off when the factory closed because it was polluting the water. Like the city itself, he turned to tourism. A third as large as Hong Kong, Xinfengjiang reservoir is an area of scenic beauty in a province widely marred by development. Holiday resorts and restaurants sprouted on the islands and on the banks of the reservoir. Speedboats and ferries shuttled tourists between attractions such as Deer Court Island with its herd of 100 deer and Moonlight Bay, where tourists could eat in floating restaurants. Ling bought an LPG-fuelled wooden boat and started work as a ferryman. 'I made the money I borrowed to buy the boat in less than a year,' he says. 'Many of those who used to live in the reservoir area, but had left because there were no jobs, came back to work in the restaurants and holiday homes.' But it was not to last. 'A directive came from the party committee in Guangzhou last year,' explains Li Linguang, deputy chief of the Heyuan Environmental Protection Bureau. 'We had to knock down the resorts. The deer were freed. Even the piers were demolished. There's nothing left on those islands now. It was quite a big loss. Heyuan is already falling behind on economic development and now we can't develop tourism in the reservoir area so we face an even bigger problem. The provincial government has made it very clear that Heyuan is a sensitive area because of Dongjiang. We have no choice but to protect the water at all costs.' Leaving Ling struggling to survive as a ferryman with few people to ferry. He's not the only one. 'I don't know how I can make a living in this place,' says Fu Luoyang, a 62-year-old fisherman born in a village today submerged by the reservoir. In the heat of the People's Commune campaign in 1964, his family turned over their land and, with 3,000 other families from the area, were resettled in new towns. Fu helped build the dam, then went to work on the reservoir as a fisherman. He says the government used to stock the lake with young fish, but stopped about six years ago because it could no longer afford it. 'Now there are only shrimps as small as my little finger left in the reservoir,' he says. Fishing is no longer encouraged. Making life even harder, the government's monthly allowance for resettled villagers has not been raised for several years; it supports Fu's family of five for little more than two weeks. 'We have sacrificed so much for the river and the reservoir,' he says. 'Why are we not taken good care of by the government?' BUT ALL THE EFFORT that goes into maintaining the purity of the water at Heyuan is window-dressing as far as Hong Kong is concerned. Our water doesn't come from this so-clean-you-can-drink-it section of the river; our water comes from a point more than 100km downstream. Before that, it passes through Huizhou. Unlike Heyuan, Huizhou's industries were already well established before water quality became a priority, and while several factories have been closed, hundreds more have simply been relocated downstream. This has improved the water in Huizhou itself, but by the time the river leaves the city the quality has dropped to a grade four. It passes through another 30km of industrial development before it reaches Qiaotou, where a modified channel of the Shima River - a Dongjiang tributary - branches off southwards to Shenzhen and Hong Kong. Seven pumping stations force the water uphill, level after level, until it reaches the Yantian Reservoir, from where water flows through a tunnel into the Shenzhen Reservoir before it's supplied to Shenzhen and Hong Kong. For 60km, the open channel cuts through an area inhabited by 1.5 million people and more than 6,000 factories. Only a tiny fraction of the waste water produced here is treated, the rest is discharged into the Shima channel and its tributaries. Farms in this area are a major source of produce for Hong Kong. A farmer in Tangxia, Dongguan, an industrial town 30km north of Hong Kong's border, says the water from the stream that runs next to his farm - a tributary of the Shima channel - is too dirty for watering the cabbages he grows. 'Now we get water from somewhere else,' he says, and points to a water tank fed by a drain. The 'somewhere else' turns out to be a sewer running from a residential area. Nevertheless, to an untrained eye, the water in the tank looks far cleaner than the slow-moving black stream. Like his neighbours, the farmer pumps drinking water from a well near his hut. 'We've been drinking from this well for 30 years,' he says. The well, about 10 metres deep, is only 60 metres from the stream. It isn't difficult to understand the logic of the Dongjiang-Shenzhen (Dongshen) Water Supply Project Administration Bureau when faced with pressure from Hong Kong to improve water quality: seal off the channel. Problem solved. The Dongshen Water Supply Project was originally the responsibility of the Guangdong Water Ministry. But last year it was turned over to Guangdong Enterprise Holdings (GDE), the investment arm of the Guangdong government, as part of an attempt to save the debt-ridden company by bolstering it with profitable businesses and utilities. Dongshen is required to spend at least two per cent of its profits on improving and maintaining water-treatment facilities along the Dongjiang River. But according to Greenpeace campaigner Dr Howard Liu Hong-to, who worked for the Guangdong Environmental Protection Bureau before he joined the green group, of the $2.4 billion received from Hong Kong last year 'practically no money has been spent on water protection'. Howard Liu says a proposed aqueduct will not only fail to improve the water quality, it could exacerbate the problem. The project will cost about $5 billion, of which $2.3 billion will be an interest-free loan from the Hong Kong Government. After spending so much money on its construction, Liu says there will be little left for water treatment. And he believes local governments and officials will take the pollution problem less seriously because the aqueduct gives the impression the problem is solved; which is not the case because pollutants will continue to wash back into the aqueduct at high tide. Most importantly, the Shima River will revert to its old course once the aqueduct is built, but with only a fraction of its current volume. Yet the pollutants discharged into the river will remain the same if not increase - making the Shima more polluted than ever. If the aqueduct succeeds in making Hong Kong people think the water they get is less polluted it will be at the expense of the people living in downstream cities such as Guangzhou and Dongguan. 'Does it mean the health of the 10 million people living in the cities along the river are worth less?' asks Howard Liu. 'It is a blatant double standard and unjust distribution of resources. A situation made possible by the government's decision to put public resouces in the hands of private firm.' GUANGZHOU HAS ALWAYS drunk what Liu Chen calls 'water from the river tail'. Shahefen, a dish made from rice noodles rinsed with spring water and a famous Guangzhou delicacy, is becoming increasingly rare. In the past few years, the springs in the Baiyunshan hills north of Guangzhou have become the most sought-after alternative water source in the city. 'Water is the talk of the town. All the newspapers and television stations are discussing ways to improve water quality and finding new sources,' says Liao Xingfei, a Guangzhou waiter. At 5.30am every Saturday, he and his mother journey to Baiyunshan and queue for up to two hours to get drinking water from the springs. 'There are so many people there every day the government has to restrict the amount of water each person takes to two buckets,' he says. 'Our tap water [from the Dongjiang] is barely drinkable. The water company puts chemicals in the water and it looks frighteningly murky. Those who can afford it drink only bottled water. Those who can't, like us, queue up for spring water.' Guangzhou is one of many Chinese cities plagued by a shortage of potable water. 'I thought the water was okay, until one day I walked by the Pearl River and realised this is the water we drink,' says Jiang Guiquan, a student at the Guangzhou University of Technology. 'Guangdong is the seat of the provincial government. People here deserve better.' Not least, he says, because they are paying almost twice as much for it now than they were three years ago. As in Hong Kong and Shenzhen, there are moves afoot to improve the water quality in Guangzhou. A proposal to build a pipe from the Xinfengjiang Reservoir to Guangzhou has the backing of Guangdong Governor Lu Ruihua. Shenzhen, meanwhile, has almost finished constructing a pipe from upstream of Huizhou, and expects to start drinking cleaner water next year. All of which makes Hong Kong's aqueduct seem like an expedient measure. Howard Liu, for one, is unhappy about the project. 'The money could have been spent on treating sewage,' he says. The Guangdong government's plans to build more than 20 water-treatment plants have so far yielded just four, which means less than 10 per cent of the province's sewage is treated. According to the estimate by Guangdong Environmental Protection Bureau, about 40 waste water-treatment plants are needed to deal with the pollution. 'That would cost only RMB2 billion, not even half the money needed to build the aqueduct, and the pollution can at least be dealt with properly,' Howard Liu says. 'The people of Heyuan sacrifice so much to protect the water quality, while the cities downstream pollute the water and [the Dongshen administration] is making a profit from selling it without rewarding them for their effort. It is a conflict, a time-bomb waiting to explode.' From far left: boat people in Huizhou are caught in a vicious circle: they rely on the river for survival but have no alternative than to discharge their daily waste into the water; a farmer in Tangxia is forced to use polluted water for his crops; (top) the Shima channel at Qiaotou carrying water to Hong Kong and Shenzhen is also used for washing; Meihu, a new industrial estate in Huizhou, pumps waste regularly into the Dongjiang River.