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Xiongan New Area

Murky Waters

The Xiongan New Area is drawing national attention, but a crisis around the site’s lakes may hamper its progress

By NewsChina Updated Aug.1

Ever since the central government announced it would create the Xiongan New Area, a development zone around 100 kilometers southwest of the center of Beijing, people and businesses have been rushing there to take advantage of the new opportunities. (See Xiongan New Area, China’s 1000 Year Project: NewsChina, June 2017). The new area will be supplied with water from Baiyangdian Lake, a popular tourist destination that’s already drawing even more visitors because of the project. But the lake is suffering from chronic water problems, and its ability to supply what’s planned to be a new city of 2,000 square kilometers is seriously in question.  

According to a recent report in late April by 21st Century Economic Report, water pollution is a constant problem for the lake. “In the center, the water quality looks OK, and boats regularly clean garbage from the surface,” the report states, “But as you get close to villages around the lake, it’s visibly polluted with floating plastic bags and other household garbage.” 

Long-standing woes 

Baiyangdian Lake is one of the biggest freshwater bodies on the North China Plain, covering 366 square kilometers. It’s made up of 143 small, shallow lakes linked by thousands of ditches, which serve a range of needs from drinking water to tourism, fishing and even hydropower. But as sewage and industrial pollutants have poured into the lakes over the last four decades, and potable water has become scarce, this landscape is severely threatened.  

According to a research paper titled “Analysis of the Baiyangdian Water Environment Situation” published in 2016 in Water Science and Engineering Technology, due to human intervention and climate influence, natural inflows into the lake have drastically dwindled since the 1980s. To prevent the lake from drying up, the local government of Hebei Province has been diverting water to Baiyangdian Lake since 1981. From 1981 through 1999, three major reservoirs in Hebei diverted water totaling some 226 million cubic meters to Baiyangdian Lake on eight separate occasions. From 2000 through 2010, a total of 925 million cubic meter of water from upstream reservoirs or running through water diversion projects from other provinces were poured into the lake. In 2006, water was diverted from the Yellow River into the lake for the first time, and as of 2011, the river has been diverted from Shandong Province five times to replenish the lake.  

China’s South-North Water Diversion Project, which uses water from the middle and upper streams of the Yangtze River to quench the thirst of dry northern China, was launched in late 2014. According to the plan, a total of 9.5 billion cubic meters of water is expected to be diverted within five years from the Yangtze to Henan, Hebei, Beijing and Tianjin. 

So far Beijing and Tianjin have enjoyed a larger share of the water due to their political and economic predominance. Hebei is supposed to receive some 1.76 billion cubic meters in total, but hasn’t yet had enough to solve the Baiyangdian crisis. And with intermittent drought and climate change haunting the Yangtze, this water may not be available at all in the future. The latest water refill for Baiyangidan in 2016 diverted just 30 million cubic meters of water from Wangkuai and Xidayang reservoirs into the lake – not even meeting the 100 million cubic meters that evaporate from the lake each year.  

The lake’s ecology is also endangered. Water quality has been deteriorating since the 1980s as local industry grew and living standards rose, resulting in pollution and mass die-offs of plant and fish life deprived of oxygen, a process known as eutrophication. As the ecology worsened, the National Tourism Bureau and the Ministry of Environmental Protection both issued warnings in 2015 over the state of the lake. 

Obstacles and Prospects 

The government has pledged measures against the pollution since the early 2000s. According to the Baoding Daily, a local newspaper, in April 2006, the Baoding government declared a “lasting battle” against water pollution in the lake. Over a decade later, the same newspaper’s front page was dominated by a story declaring that the local authorities had again vowed their commitment to tackling Baiyangdian’s ecological failure and rampant pollution. The main sources of the pollution are agricultural runoff, human waste and fishery bait, which sink into the sediment or the main body of the water causing nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. That in turn creates eutrophication, killing off fish and plant life.

According to the most recently available official inspection of Baiyangdian’s water quality by the provincial authorities in 2013, the lake failed to meet even the lowest level of the national requirements for surface water quality. Mass die-offs of large groups of fish are common, and sudden. The source of the pollution is the upstream rivers, particularly Fuhe River, where domestic sewage from the city of Baoding, once the capital of Hebei Province, flows in. Dams on the upper streams of the lake prevent it from naturally flowing, worsening the pollution. Many private manufacturers operate in the vicinity of the lake, and over 100,000 people live in about 40 villages around the lake. Overpopulation, and a failure to manage the influx of tourists, is making the issue even more damaging.  

Across China, lakes and wetlands have been facing serious threats from pollution and loss of surface area. Statistics released by the Ministry of Environment Protection indicate that over 25 percent of lakes are suffering from eutrophication.   

Baiyangdian Lake is a critical part of the ecology of north China, which makes the pollution issues there particularly serious. According to Xinhua News Agency, during an inspection of Hebei Province this April, Chinese President Xi Jinping emphasized the importance of restoration and protection of Baiyangdian Lake for the sake of constructing the Xiongan New Area. 

Xi also stated that a reservation area should be set up in the lake due to its closeness to urban areas. Xu Kuangdi, one of the prospective consultants on the Xiongan New Area construction, says that the whole project should set the restoration of the lake as its first task. 

China has been making efforts at wetland restoration. From 2011 through 2015, some 7 billion yuan (US$1 billion) have been invested in over 1,000 wetland protection projects and over 180,000 hectares of wetland have been restored as a result. On April 20, the central government released a new plan for wetland protection. Under the new scheme, by 2020, over 50 percent of the total wetland area will be protected and further 140,000 hectares will have been restored. 

The Baoding government has already pledged 24.58 billion yuan (US$3.63 billion) in funds for the river system around the lake, and Xue Tao, deputy head of the E20 institute, an environmental think tank, says the total market for water restoration projects will be over 100 billion yuan (US$14.5 billion). Some domestic firms specializing in water treatment or waste recycling have already signed contracts. 

After recently being appointed by the National Development and Reform Committee as member of the expert team for Xiongan New Area, Xue Tao stated in a recent interview with NewsChina that, since the construction focus of the new area would be on ecological, environmental and green development, some of the existing polluting industries are likely to be closed down. “With sufficient investment from the central government and other support from Beijing, Xiongan can handle rehabilitating Baiyangdian Lake’s environment quite easily,” said Xue: “Also taking into account the self recovery capacity of the natural environment, I believe it will take a minimum of three years to see dramatic change in Baiyangdian, and within a decade’s time, the lake’s ecology could be far more stable.” 

Refuse dumped in Baiyandian

Villagers burn garbage by the lakeside of Baiyangdian, March 2014