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Environment

RESERVOIR HOGS

Local governments that pinned their hopes on building water parks and artificial lakes to boost their economies have been slapped down, but not before causing environmental damage and destruction of farmland

By NewsChina Updated Sept.1

Weinan, a city in the eastern part of Shaanxi Province at the junction of three rivers, has become the focus of domestic media due to its controversial “Qindong Water Town” project. The source of the controversy is a water diversion and artificial lake project launched in 2016, costing billions of yuan raised from private enterprises and the local government. It was planned to boost the economy of this agriculture city.  

But now the central government has slammed the project as an unrealistic artificial lake and scenery-making project to promote urban construction that should be “strictly prohibited.” In January 2020, at a press conference held by the Ministry of Natural Resources, Ma Sulan, deputy director of the Office of the State Chief Inspector of Natural Resources, criticized specific aspects of the project, including the destruction of 136 hectares of cultivated land to make way for a lake. In March 2020, an official report published by Shaanxi Provincial Natural Resources Department said that in 2019, the department instructed Weinan to investigate and resolve the illegal occupation of 1,066.7 hectares of cultivated land in the construction of Qindong Water Town.  

Since April, cities in the Yellow River Basin, from the upper stream in Qinghai Province to the downstream in Shandong Province, have commenced inspections to correct artificial lake projects launched by local governments. 

“This round of inspections focuses on projects such as diverting water from the main stream and tributaries of the Yellow River, or artificial lakes with water storage greater than 100,000 cubic meters,” Yang Zhengwen, an assistant engineer at the Water Bureau of Haidong in Qinghai Province told NewsChina. Zhang said the purpose of the investigation is to check if these artificial lakes are vanity projects funded by illegal borrowing.  

Vanity Project
In early May, a NewsChina reporter visited Weinan and found artificial lake projects have been halted in places including Linwei District, Weinan High-tech Zone and Dali County. Some lakes have been refilled and facilities dismantled, with reasons stated that include damaging the environment, encroaching on farmlands or wetlands and affecting the groundwater.  

Xihai (West Sea) Park Wetland Project is in Weinan’s High-tech Zone. The first phase of the Weihe River south bank waterfront project, it covers 300 hectares, with a total planning land area of 1,247 hectares. The Weinan Daily reported that total investment was 2.16 billion yuan (US$304.7 million). 

The West Sea is an artificial lake. A display board outside the park said that “the project was acknowledged by Weinan municipal government as a key project, and hailed as one of the top 10 projects to improve people’s livelihood in 2017.” In reality, this project dispossessed farmers of their land.  

“The land acquisitions for Xihai Park Wetland Project involves as many as six villages including Mutun Village and Xiqing Tun Village,” an official from Xiqing Tun Village, told NewsChina on condition of anonymity. In the first phase, 267 hectares of farmland were requisitioned, and it was scheduled to expand to over 667 hectares for the second phase in early 2017. “They’ve requisitioned the land for the first phase, but the second phase requisition hasn’t been completed,” the official said.  

Villagers in Mutun Village told NewsChina that in the second phase of the land acquisition process in May 2017, thousands of hectares of wheat were almost ready to be harvested. One day during that month, 40 or 50 loaders arrived with no warning and drove over the fields, destroying the entire crop. The villagers complained to the reporter: “We were angry but dare not speak up. Now three years have passed, but the land remains deserted.” 

A village official said there are nearly 3,000 people in the village, who are allocated some 400 hectares of land. In recent years, because of land requisition projects to construct projects including a sports center, roads and the West Lake, the village’s farmland has dwindled to just dozens of hectares. There has been no compensation scheme set up, and the villagers all complained about it. Some villagers in Mutun told the reporter that the promised 8,000 yuan (US$1,130) annual compensation for the third year had not yet been sent to them. In late May, a representative of the managerial office of Weinan High-tech Zone responded to NewsChina’s interview inquiry and said due to the impact of the Covid-19 epidemic, the compensation payment was postponed until mid-June.  

Xinghai Lake undergoes an ecological rehabilitation project in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, April 16

Ambitious Plans
The seeds of Weinan’s ambition to build a water town can be traced back to 2011 when a report of the Party Congress of Weinan mentioned the building of a national high-efficiency ecological economy demonstration area that included a water town. Then on July 19, 2012, the Weinan municipal government website posted an article headlined “Weinan planning investment of more than 70 billion yuan to build ‘Guanzhong Water Village.’” 

A person close to the Weinan City Planning Bureau told NewsChina that parts of the plan were not rationally thought out and there was a significant funding gap. Coupled with a change in local leadership, there was bumpy implementation of the plan. In December 13, 2016, Weinan government decided to launch an ecological water system scheme and construct Qindong Water Town.  

The ecological water system scheme is a grand plan. First, relying on the developed natural river system and irrigation and drainage channels in the city territory, it would create a “four horizontal and five vertical” ecological water system. Second, it proposed to use abundant incoming water resources, retain flood resources, divert water into the city proper, build an urban water network and water surface landscapes in Weinan’s central urban area and its 10 affiliated counties. Third, it would use the low-lying terrain of northern Weinan’s flood-prone area, focus on rural drainage, build artificial lakes and restore wetland resources. 

Qindong Water Town project began in 2016 and soon spread out in Weinan. Artificial lake projects were launched in 2016 and 2017 in almost all counties and districts in Weinan. An entrepreneur in Shaanxi told NewsChina anonymously that the city is underdeveloped economically, and the funding for road-greening facilities often requires support from the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) model. The artificial lake projects were no different.  

On February 24, 2017, the Ministry of Civil Affairs website reported that Weinan was suffering from a severe drought that was affecting 416,000 people and 39.5 thousand hectares of crops, with direct economic losses of 4.8 billion yuan (US$678.6m). 

However, even during the drought, the enthusiasm for making artificial lakes continued unabated. According to Shaanxi online media portal Huashang Network, on February 13, 2017, Linwei District held a ground-breaking ceremony. It was estimated that construction of Nanhu (South Lake) Park would be finished by the end of 2017. Nanhu Park, a key project in Weinan covering an area of 810,000 square meters, cost 400 million yuan (US$56.5m). 

Some project insiders told the reporter that as the artificial lake and the landscaperequires a sustained water supply, it adopted methods including pumping groundwater, transferring reservoir water or diverting agricultural irrigation water to recharge the lake, a bizarre contrast to the lack of water for agriculture at that time. 

The remains of a bridge are seen in the waters of Weihe Ecological Park

  
Intervention from the Top
The problems of the Qindong Water Town project aroused the attention of the central government. In November 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping made important instructions addressing the damaging effects caused by Qindong Water Town in Shaanxi. Subsequently, efforts to correct the damage wrought by the project began. An official of the Weinan municipal Party committee told the reporter that Shaanxi Province, Weinan and its counties have started taking action to rectify the project.  

An official from Dali county party committee told NewsChina that in Dali County, staff from land, housing, water and other departments are involved in rectifying the projects. “Each individual project involves different problems so what we have to do to rectify them varies too,” the official said.  

In December 2019, Dali County issued an announcement for public bids for the demolition Qindong Water Town. Apart from the removal of buildings including pumping stations, recreational fences, sports equipment and a horse racing course, the project requires to cut down or transplant trees that affect flood discharge. The demolition project is costing 4 million yuan (US$565,000). 

Through reviewing open material, NewsChina found that several Weinan officials were fired. On June 28, 2019, the Shaanxi Provincial Commission for Discipline Inspection and Supervision reported that the former deputy secretary of the Huazhou District Committee and District Chief Bai Xiaolin had turned himself in to police. According to the official notification, Bai Xiaolin’s improper decision-making was mainly responsible for Huazhou District’s project woes. 

On April 8, 2020, the Shaanxi Provincial Discipline Inspection Commission declared on its website that Wu Mangcheng, chairman of the Weinan Municipal Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, was under investigation. Wu was appointed deputy mayor of Weinan from December 2011 through January 2018, administering the Land and Resources Bureau and the Water Bureau, both of which took the main responsibility for the water town projects.  

Wider Problem 
It is not just cities in the Yellow River Basin that are keen to build artificial lakes. Inspection results released by the Ministry of Natural Resources in January found that since 2017, a total of 1,368 urban landscape parks, riverbank or lakeside greenbelt, wetland parks and other artificial projects were constructed without official approval, which involves 12,447 hectares of cultivated land and 3,860 hectares of permanent basic farmland. Some had destroyed cultivated land to dig lakes and build river channels and artificial waterscapes.  

Environmentalist and hydrologist Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), told NewsChina that it was ironic that some cities which had filled in natural lakes to reclaim land for urban development were now building artificial lakes, also for the sake of development. 

“Investigations and inspections into artificial lakes are led by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) at the central and provincial levels, while projects at the municipal level are looked at by the city water bureau,” Yang Zhengwen, an official in charge of the inspection work in Haidong, a city on the upper Yellow River in Qinghai Province. Yang told NewsChina that artificial lake projects which had already obtained complete permission were allowed to continue, but that it would be hard to get approval now for artificial lake projects as management of the Yellow River is stricter.  

Artificial lakes need regular water replenishment each year. A paper published by Shaanxi Water Conservancy in 2016 by Zhang Jian from the Research Institute of Survey and Design of Water Conservancy and Electric Power of Shaanxi Province calculated the water supply quantity of three artificial lakes in northwest Xi’an, capital of Shaanxi Province, with a total water storage capacity of 3.45 million cubic meters. The three lakes are located in areas where the average annual evaporation exceeds 400 millimeters, with annual evaporation and leakage losses of 680,000 cubic meters and 414,000 cubic meters. If the three lakes change water six times a year, more than 15 million cubic meters of water is needed, equivalent to five times the amount of water in the three lakes.  

Ma Yichao, chief expert and chief engineer of Zhejiang Ecological Science and Technology Research Institute, told our reporter that most artificial lakes in China are similar to the West Lake in Hangzhou, which is a closed pool with no source of living water. At present, the scale of the artificial water diversion in the West Lake is 400,000 cubic meters per day, and it takes about a month to completely change the water of West Lake, more than 100 million cubic meters per year. 

In the Yellow River Basin, where water resources are already tight, it will be difficult to fill and replenish all these projects. More importantly, water quotas are fixed in all areas of the Yellow River Basin. In order to obtain more Yellow River water, in recent years, provinces and regions in the basin have proposed to reformulate the distribution plan, claiming that regional development needs more Yellow River water support.  

Ma Yichao told NewsChina that building artificial lakes is a new model for regional expansion and development. The model for city development constructs artificial lakes in the suburbs of a city, the purpose of which is to promote suburban land appreciation and promote urban development. 

Land price appreciation around the artificial lakes can improve local financial conditions. Hu Gang, a professor from School of Public Administration and Emergency Management of Jinan University told NewsChina: “The problem is that local governments compete with each other to dig more and bigger lakes, even expecting to surpass the West Lake (in Hangzhou).” 

Root Causes
“The leap in this artificial lake construction phenomenon mainly appeared after the real estate boom,” Ma Jun said. 

Experts interviewed by NewsChina said that from the ecological point of view, there is a rationale for urban construction of artificial lakes. Hu Gang believes that urban artificial lakes can store water and drain water, regulate the microclimate and improve the surrounding living environment. 

In some experts’ views, one factor behind local government’s impetus to build artificial lakes everywhere is the lack of clear policy provisions. The State has strict standards and regulations for urban green areas, but no unified standard for urban lakes. Hu believes it is difficult to set a unified standard at the national level considering the vast territory of the country. 

“With the West Lake, Hangzhou has its spirit,” said Ma Yichao said. The flood control function of the West Lake is limited, and now the most important function is for tourism, and its existence is of great significance to the development of Hangzhou. “Similarly, many cities now build artificial lakes based on this idea, but as in the implementation of similar projects, it is often not managed well in both scale and planning, resulting in unsatisfactory efforts to push the local economy. Most of this is due to blinkered decision-making without adequate scientific reasoning,” Ma Yichao said. 

“In particular, there must be a thorough environmental impact assessment (EIA) and expert advice should be heeded. There should be public participation to provide balance and avoid this blinkered decision-making and reduce unnecessary losses,” Ma Jun said. In reality, artificial lake projects lack information disclosure and public participation, with EIAs a mere formality. “In the face of strong government desire and developers, it is important to allow for community discussions addressing those projects, and have experts’ voices heard so as to correct previous mistakes,” Ma Jun said. 

In Ma Jun’s view, the Yellow River, Haihe River, Liaohe River and other watersheds are seriously short of water, thus many cities in the basins are dependent on water transfers. “Water transfers have their own environmental costs, and perhaps these costs occur thousands of miles away. These cities need to be careful when building artificial lakes to ensure they are able to achieve sustainable use of resources rather than abusing them,” Ma Jun said.

Pictured are designs for Weinan Xihai Park Wetland, the construction of which has been halted since early 2019

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