How children saved the river
Old houses often hold fond memories. That is why people can become nostalgic about the places where they’ve spent their childhood or the prime of their life. But not 79-year-old Xiang Zhiming, a retired hardware dealer. He no longer gives much thought to the house that sheltered him for some 40 years.
‘That house was made of bamboo shafts pasted with a mix of mud and straw. It was about as thick as a palm. Nothing said inside could escape the neighbours’ ears,’ says Xiang recalling the 56-square-metre dwelling that used to house his family of six in Chengdu in southwest China’s Sichuan Province. Dust and mud fell from ceilings as cats chased rats across roofs. ‘During the rainy season the river kept us awake at night for fear that the sewer might be blocked or flood could hit.’ Xiang is referring to the Funan River that serves as a city moat and runs by rows of low-lying houses where he used to live.
Funan River - ‘Mother River’ - has been acclaimed a ‘green necklace around the neck of Chengdu’
From that river local residents fetched water for drinking, cooking and laundry until the 1960s when a single-tap water pipe was installed to supply water to over 500 households for the next few years. None of the households had toilets and there were only a couple of such facilities per 500 households on Xiang’s street. ‘So every morning people had to line up in a queue for their turn. You had to wait no matter what.’
This is all in the past thanks to Chengdu’s municipal government which in 1992 resolved to revitalize the Funan River and to move all the 30,000 households living along the river to new living quarters.
Now Xiang and his wife live in a 66-square-metre apartment in a building within walking distance from his original residence. They were among the first of the 100,000 residents to move – without much hesitation – during 1994 and 1995. Xiang got his new, bigger house for free. ‘It was beyond my wildest dreams that I could move to a house like this at my old age. We don’t have to worry about water, toilet or flood any more.’
The Funan River flows 29 miles through Chengdu City, a cultural and economic centre in southwest China with a population of three million. In the 1950s water in the river had been so clear that fish could be seen from the bank; it was also a playing ground where people young and old could enjoy swimming and angling. ‘By the 1980s water in the river was too dirty for washing. When it was windy, you could smell the foul from the river even dozens of metres away,’ says Xiang.
The first call to do something about the pollution came from pupils at Chengdu’s Longjianglu Primary School in 1985. After a one-day field study of the river they sent a letter to the (then) mayor, saying: ‘We saw residents dumping dirty water and rubbish into the river. Wastes were also discharged to the river from a paper mill, a hospital, and a strongbox manufacturing factory.’
The children appealed to all city residents to stop dumping garbage in the river and to treat industrial refuse before discharging it into the water. By way of reply they received a hand-written letter from the mayor who spoke highly of their love for and care of the river. Local media ran their letter accompanied by a commentary praising the pupils’ initiative. Students from other schools followed their example. What used to be weak, individual voices asking for change turned into an appeal in unison.
Further fuel for change came two years later when Xiong Xiaoli, a correspondent of Xinhua News Agency, prepared an in-depth report. ‘That summer, I took my six-year-old son to the river. The temptation of water was so great that he started splashing water everywhere. But that night my son ran a high fever and had rashes all over his body. The doctor said it had to do with the polluted water that might contain parasites,’ says Xiong. Appalled, he started a two-week investigation, bicycling along the entire length of the river within the city jurisdiction. His report on the river’s grave pollution went direct to the leaders of the central government.
In 1992 the city government acted. It invested 2.7 billion yuan ($320 million) to unfold a 5-year comprehensive revitalization project for Funan River. A total of 488 polluting factories were closed down while 478 others were ordered to update their waste-disposal technology. The remaining 40 were moved to an industrial park in a suburban area. A 16-kilometre river course was dredged and nearly all the banks were rebuilt or consolidated. Shanty houses crawling along the river were all bulldozed to make way for grassland.
To remind people of environmental protection, white stones were placed among grassland with carved characters reading ‘Don’t hurt me’ or ‘You protect me, I protect you, we protect the Earth’. A Flowing Water Garden was set up by the river to give visitors a virtual demonstration of how water from Funan River is rendered clean and revives with thriving vegetation.
Now with clean water, tidy dams, green lawns and open parks, Funan River (‘Mother River’ to many) has been acclaimed a ‘green necklace around the neck of Chengdu’. The riverside is now a new attraction for sightseeing, recreation, wedding ceremonies and morning exercises. In summer people go there to enjoy the cool.
‘It never occurred to me that the river could become so beautiful. I’m so happy and proud,’ says Po Bo, one of the pupils who wrote the letter to the mayor in 1985.
Having come this far, the city government now nurtures more ambitions. Work on the upper and lower reaches of Funan River has begun. To save precious water resources a large water-treatment project of 200 million yuan ($24 million) has just been inaugurated which will channel the water upstream for reuse.
Longjianglu Primary School has since launched its environment education programme and encouraged students to participate regularly in activities to monitor the pollution of the river and campaign for keeping it clean. ‘From the very beginning the Funan River Revitalization Project has been an education campaign on environment,’ notes Ai Nanshan, professor with the Architecture and Environment Academy of Sichuan University. ‘Marginal groups living in shanties are attended to and public green fields are provided for all to care. This kind of human touch is something far more significant than the project itself.’
In a country where economic growth is being pursued at a rapacious rate, Chengdu is not the only city in China that has recognized that economic development does not necessarily deliver human development. Guangzhou (formerly Canton) – a sprawling city of 3,700 square kilometres with 7 million people in China’s prosperous Guangdong province – has experienced double-digit economic growth since the mid-1980s. But by the mid-1990s its living environment was plagued by traffic congestion, air pollution and a rapidly deteriorating quality of life. Citizens, visitors and businesses complained loud and long. So in 1997 the municipality put in train a five-year action plan. To help control car emissions they built an 18-kilometre subway and improved traffic flow by building a ring-road and bridges. As with Chengdu’s river clean-up a massive relocation process needed to be undertaken to implement Guangzhou’s new transport system: 14,000 households, businesses and institutions were moved, mainly to bigger and better-serviced living spaces. The city reduced industrial pollutants, started to convert to diesel, emphasized the treatment of domestic sewage, cleaned up streets and toughened pollution laws.
In its submission to the UN HABITAT ‘best practice’ awards for improving the living environment, the municipality explains its new approach: ‘Our previous policy of seeking rapid economic growth at the expense of the environment was short-sighted. Guangzhou’s Action Plan replaced the past practice of “treatment after pollution” with “pollution prevention” and the principle of “economy first” with “ecology first”.’ Planners from 30 Chinese cities have come to Guangzhou to study the programme and it’s now being applied in Hangzhou, Nanjing, Jinan, Xiamen and Changsha.
In Chengdu’s experience, as the environment started to work for the people the people started to work for the environment. They volunteered to help construct new river banks and get the silt out of the river. Concern about protecting the river is now shared across the community. Older citizens act as de facto inspectors reporting on those who still dump garbage into the river. Local media run regular reports on the river’s progress. Even now, suggestions about how the river could be improved are gathered once a week and passed on to decision-makers.
So too in Guangzhou. As citizen satisfaction with the quality of life rose (from 27-per-cent in 1997 to nearly 96-per-cent in 2001), so did people’s participation in environmental protection and decision-making. During its 5-year programme over 300,000 volunteers took part in traffic management and environmental improvement. Popular voting has formed the basis of the design and construction of the new international airport and the landscaping of the banks of the Pearl River. And during the tree-planting month of March each year, millions now partake in reforestation. According to the municipality: ‘The principle of “citizen-centred and people first” is a powerful means of transforming local governance and improving urban management.’