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A boy sits beside one of the creeks that was turned into a construction site as part of a project to improve water quality. Photo: Handout

Creek work halted at China’s Erhai Lake in win for environmentalists

  • Water quality improvement project included lining five creeks flowing into beauty spot with cement
  • Local authorities have suspended the project and promised to make a revised plan open to the public
A controversial project aimed at improving the water quality of Erhai Lake in southwest China has been put on hold following an outcry from environmentalists.
The 340 million yuan (US$47.7 million) project to line five creeks that flow into the lake in Dali, Yunnan province, with cement horrified local environment groups. Bulldozers went on site in April to take advantage of the dry season but work was suspended by the end of that month after criticism on Chinese social media.

The Dali Tourism Resort Management Committee, which is running the project, said on Weibo it was soliciting public opinion and would make a revised plan open to the public. No explanation of the environmental rationale for lining the creeks with cement was provided.

The protection of the lake has been high on the local government’s agenda since Chinese President Xi Jinping inspected the region in 2015 and urged local officials to clean it up.

Bulldozers at Baihe Creek in April. Photo: Handout

Erhai Lake and neighbouring Cang Mountain – where the creeks originate – are signature tourism sites and a popular destination for travellers in China. Water quality in the five creeks – named Baihe, Mocan, Qingbi, Zhonghe and Tao – has been rated as low as Grade Five, the worst category in the country’s water assessment standard.

According to the project’s chief engineer, quoted in the Dali Daily, “the target is to lift the water quality to Grade Three and to ensure there is always water flow throughout the year”. But environmentalists say the pollution is due to the direct release of household waste water from nearby residents and agricultural run-off which contains fertiliser.

Xi Zhinong, a Dali-based wildlife photographer who campaigned against the cement project, said the key to making the water clean was to stop releasing polluted waste water into it.

“We cannot use an ‘engineering’ solution to overhaul rivers. Rivers don’t need us to overhaul them. What should be overhauled is people’s outdated thinking,” he said.

Yu Bo, another volunteer, said the project had hurt the creeks’ ecological diversity.

“The ecological system of these shallow waterways has gone. They also cut down trees and took away grasses on the bank,” he said.

He also questioned the goal of preventing the creeks from drying up. “Isn’t that up to God?”


Chinese protest against waste-to-energy plant project

Chinese protest against waste-to-energy plant project

The committee declined a request for an interview and the Yunnan Development and Reform Commission could not be reached for comment.

Hua Jie, an engineer from the Dali Urban Planning and Research Institute, said the downstream area of the creeks was close to major roads and their banks needed strengthening as required by the anti-flooding law. But, he said, for other parts of the waterways the “hardening” method was not “optimal”.

“It’s a different era from the past. A project without taking ecological elements into consideration is not what the public expects,” Hua, who was not involved in the project, said.

There are 18 creeks originating from Cang Mountain and flowing into Erhai Lake, accounting for 30 per cent of water replenishment of the lake, according to the Dali Daily. The other 13 creeks have not been exempt from similar renovations. Three years ago, the authorities cemented these waterways and even built small dams on some of them to prevent mudslides.

Shuangyuan Creek (left) before the project and after the bulldozers moved in. Photo: Handout

Xi, who lived by one of these creeks, named Shuangyuan, from 2009 to 2018, said he had never witnessed a mudslide during that time. In March 2017, when bulldozers were used to smash the big natural stones on the creek bed, Xi called the vice-mayor of Dali and other top officials of the city, urging them to halt the project.

“I told them not to be history sinners,” he said. “They heard my advice and suspended it. However, one year later, the project continued and was completed within several months.”

Xi said it was difficult to convince the authorities to cancel projects completely because of the number of interested parties involved.

“This is like a common phenomenon in mainland cities – a road is repaired, but not long afterwards it is wrecked and repaired again. The motivation behind these efforts is to create an excuse to get funding from the government,” he said.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Big win for green activists after controversial project at Erhai Lake suspended