by Sara Brock, Groundwater Foundation Intern
The word for “water” in Mandarin is 水 (pronounced “shway”). It is a relatively easy character to pronounce and write, earning its place as the third word I’d learned, preceded by “Hello” and “Thank you”, since stepping into the Beijing airport. Having just recently graduated with no immediate plan beyond a general desire to travel and study the environment, I spent my first post-grad year teaching English at a university in a small city about three hours north of Beijing. The Chengde municipal area is home to less than 4 million laid out amidst geography reminiscent of rural Appalachia and cutting through city proper is 武烈河, or the WuLie (woo lee-ah) River. Along its slow-moving and marshy banks, you are likely to find small plots of crops, fishermen, and clumps of mucky, shiny chips wrappers. Odors from rotting fish, spilled fuel, and human waste rise from the waters to assault your eyes and nose, sticking to your clothing to remind you of where you’ve been. Sewer systems lack proper ventilation and treatment. Seepage and sickness are very real threats.
Even more threatening than the smells and sights of water contamination in China (and, in my experience, many Asian countries), is the apathetic attitude towards the root of the problem. Hebei Province, where Chengde is located, is known for its aggressive restoration of its temperate forests as the federal government strives to make up for copious air pollution created by industries in Beijing and, one of the smoggiest cities in the world, Shijiazhuang. To their credit, it is a supremely necessary step in their path towards sustainability and their success is found in the blue skies that, more often than not, peak through the skyscrapers on cold winter days. However, for the privilege of clean running water that most Americans enjoy, simply planting trees is not enough.
It’s a self-destructive spiral. The water isn’t clean, so large jugs of filtered drinking water are cheap and readily available. Recycling, at least rurally, is not widely accessible, much less understood, so all that plastic becomes trash. Waste disposal tends to be seen as someone else’s job, so littering and the dumping of oils and bio-waste is frequent and geographically random. Government vehicles keep streets and sidewalks clean by sweeping and spraying haphazardly disposed items into the sewers. Sewer systems may or may not be treated before dumping their contents into the river, making the water unclean. Many rural communities are now unable to use shallower aquifers for their wells and have turned to digging deeper wells, taxing the capacity of remaining clean groundwater sources.
This is not to say that the Chinese don’t care. Many of my students eagerly shared with me their views on climate change and it seems the younger generations are taking a more holistic approach towards conservation. Several international organizations including The World Association of Soil and Water Conservation and the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies work through offices in Beijing to conduct research and provide recommendations to the Ministry of Environmental Protection. National parks and conservation areas proudly boast glassy rivers and natural hot springs. But until the government makes a coordinated effort to educate poor rural communities like Chengde on conservation practices like recycling and proper waste disposal, safe water will remain a commodity that is easier to say than to find.
Sara Brock is a volunteer intern at The Groundwater Foundation. She earned a BS in Biology and English from Drake University in 2015. Sara has been working on writing stories about program participants and working on the Science Olympiad program. Reach Sara at firstname.lastname@example.org.