The polluted lake at heart of Xi Jinping’s new city dream
Baiyang Lake water not fit for human contact, with scientists divided on clean-up prospects
Garbage dumps litter the shoreline of Baiyang Lake, 120km south of Beijing, and its waters contain high levels of pesticides from corn fields and antibiotics from animal farms.
Hidden pipelines discharge toxic pollutants from nearby factories straight to the bottom of the lake, once called the “kidney of the North China plain” for its waste-filtering function but now one of China’s dirtiest lakes.
Some scientists say the pollution is likely to worsen as the Chinese government proceeds with plans, announced this month, to build a brand new city there. Others say solutions could be found.
The government wants the Xiongan New Area, encompassing three rural counties surrounding the lake, to become a modern metropolis with a population of up to 2.5 million, home to leading companies and as prosperous as Shenzhen and Shanghai, with top universities, research institutes and hospitals.
Scientists have been studying Baiyang Lake’s pollution and water crises for decades.
Everyone agrees that the water in the lake is not fit for human contact. Whether the situation will improve, given the government’s vow of “a thousand years of effort”, is open to debate.
“It will get worse,” said Dr Han Dongmei, deputy director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Key Laboratory of Water Cycle and Related Land Surface Processes in Beijing.
The lake could not even cope with the impact of the 200,000 to 300,000 people living in and around it at present, she said.
“It is easy to predict what will happen as more people swamp in,” Han said. Water consumption would increase rapidly because people needed to drink, bathe and wash their cars. Massive construction might last decades and all that human activity would inevitably generate waste, a big proportion of which would end up in the lake.
That could turn Baiyang Lake into an ecological “disaster”, Han said.
Baiyang Lake and surrounding bodies of water cover an area of 366 sq km, comprising the biggest wetland in the North China. But popular accounts say it was 10 times larger up until the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. Much of its surface was covered by water plants such as reeds and lilies and in the harvest season it was full of light-coloured flowers. That’s the origin of its name, with Baiyang meaning white ocean in Chinese.
The lake has shrunk dramatically since the 1980s, even drying up completely several times, with trucks able to drive one from side to the other. Many fishermen were forced to become farmers.
The damming of rivers leading to the lake for irrigation and power generation was a major cause of the change in the lake’s fortunes.
The mainland’s top water scientists conducted a large-scale survey in 2012 that found that so many harmful elements had seeped into the lake from garbage dumps and industrial discharge that it would take “decades of clean-up efforts” for its water to become drinkable again.
Professor Cui Baoshan, dean of the school of environment in Beijing Normal University, who specialises in wetland ecology and environmental protection, said the lake could still be saved, and there were several methods available.
The government could shut down all polluting factories, reduce pesticide and fertiliser use in nearby farms, move residents from the heartland of the lake and build lots of waste-water treatment plants to reduce the environmental pressure caused by a growing population, he said.
“The most effective method is to bring more fresh water into the lake,” Cui said. “This can be achieved by diverting water from other sources in a larger region. It will require the establishment of an overall water-management system.”
But the Xiongan New Area will not be the only place in Hebei province facing water a crisis, with most rivers having dried up or become severely polluted in recent decades, and the fight for water rights between some of the most severely affected cities and counties has been fierce.
In 1992, farmers in Hebei blew up the famous Hongqi Canal with dynamite, cutting off the water supply to more than 400,000 people in Henan province, to the south. In 2009, more than 160,000 Hebei residents signed a letter to the central government protesting against the construction of a dam in Shanxi province, to the west.
Climate change caused by increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere makes the lake’s future even more uncertain.
The decision to establish the Xiongan New Area was made at the highest level of the Chinese government. There has been no environmental assessment and, according to some researchers close to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, the environmental authorities were among the last to be informed about the project.