Author: Wang Lina
Cameraman: Wang Yongchen
Following a short stay in the Ulansuhai Lake area, 30 members of the “Ten-Year Yellow River Journey”, including experts, volunteers, and journalists, set out for Wuhai. The pollution in the Wuhai area is serious and the intent of the group was to conduct interviews and surveys to gain insight into the effects of the pollution.
Located in the western part of Inner Mongolia, Ulansuhai Lake borders the Yellow River to the south and the Yinshan Mountains to the north. The Lake has an area of 293 square kilometers and is the largest wetland lake in the desert regions at this latitude, the second largest freshwater lake in Inner Mongolia, and the eighth largest freshwater lake in China. Ulansuhai Lake has also been listed internationally as an important wetland area.
The abundant fish in Ulansuhai Lake make the lake an important site for migratory birds travelling from the Arctic Circle. The lake is teeming with over 20 species of fish including Crucian Carp, Grass Carp, and Silver Carp. Reeds and Cattails are also plentiful.
The reeds lie irregularly over the broad expanse of water and an array of bird species circle and dive for their prey through the gaps in the lake cover. The “Ten-Year Yellow River Journey” group was enchanted with the magnificent scenery, however a nearby construction site created a deep flaw in the picturesque landscape. According to Zhao Lianshi, a member of the Scientist Exploration Association, 400 million Yuan has been invested in a program to preserve the reserve but the money has not actually been attached to specific projects. Based on the nearby construction site, it seemed likely that the money was being used to strengthen the region’s tourism infrastructure.
Before the establishment of the reserve, this area was threatened by overfishing, which contributed to a decrease in migratory bird breeding. Fishing is now prohibited within the reserve, with an exception being extended to reserve employees. Consequently, more birds have started to return. There are still fewer facilities here compared to similar scenic areas in the region and there are very few restaurants. Despite the lack of tourist amenities dozens of motorboats still moor at the dock, creating ongoing cause for environmental concern.
The development of a tourism industry in a natural avian habitat is controversial because the birds are easily startled by human presence. Restrictions on the number of visitors and operational hours will effectively protect the birds while still providing an educational opportunity for people to learn about the birds. The government has established a “protection agreement” with local developers in the region, under which the government has agreed to manage parts of the reserve if the developers commit to sustainable construction and development practices. It is uncertain whether this measure will succeed or not.
At 10 a.m. the “Ten-Year Yellow River Journey” group drove from Ulansuhai Lake to Wuhai where the pollution increased dramatically. Along the route the terrain transitioned from fields to deserts. Across the Yellow River Bridge, Wang Jian, a specialist in water resources, pointed out the desert on the distant bank of the river and explained that the Yellow River helped to combat greater desertification. Upon arrival in Wuhai, the scenery again changed dramatically. Factories sprawled on both sides of the road and concrete homes filled in the gaps.
According to Wang Jian the mineral exploitation began very early in this area. At present the major industries produce tar, coal, and chemical products, which all contribute to the pollution here.
The bus stopped at the side of the road and the group walked through a plot of cornfields to the riverside. Some withered Xerophytes, or plants that need very little water or moisture to survive, were scattered along the riverside. While these wilted plants may be of little interest to most people, Zhao and Wang were quite excited and squatted down to examine the plants more closely. Zhao explained that this was the western part of Ordos, Gondwanaland, which is a harbor for ancient creatures that have become virtually extinct in other places. According to Zhao, 72 species of the world’s most rare and unique plants grow in this area.
Zhao explained that these plants are priceless and at first, few people knew their value, but later some had made a lot of money selling them.
The government set up this natural reserve in an effort to protect these rare plants, but now their habitat is faced with the threat of development from the mineral industries. The natural reserve has been cut into pieces by mineral exploration and the construction of factories, which has been harmful to the reproduction of these plants.
Apart from damage to the ecological environment, another serious threat caused by the development of the mineral and chemical industries is environmental pollution. In order to effectively track the changes in environmental pollution, it would be necessary to observe a specific household. A young man grazing sheep by the river agreed to let the group observe his family as the fourth fixed tracking household in the study.
The selected house turned out to be the only modern brick and tile house in the neighborhood while the other homes were all constructed with earth. The home belonged to 52-year-old Kang Yintang and 50-year-old Gao Erlian, his wife. Kang informed the group that this was Bayincun Village in Qianlishan Town, Wuhai City. Three families lived in the house including Kang’s mother, his brother’s family of four, and his own family of four. He also had a married daughter and a son who attended a university in Baotou.
When asked why only his family could afford to build a modern brick and tile house Kang answered, “When working in the south of Wuhai in the 1980s and 1990s, I earned 1200 Yuan a month, which was respectively high, and saved some money. In 1994, I came back to this village and spent 60 thousand Yuan to build the new house.” Kang then explained that the other young men stayed and worked in the south, leaving only the elderly people in the original homes that are still here.
Kang was also asked about the wages he currently received. He answered that he was working in an iron factory and earned 1600 Yuan a month salary, which was not satisfactory compared with the 1200 Yuan a month he had earned a decade ago. Kang explained that his wife also worked at the factory, earning 1500 Yuan a month, and their combined wages were the main source of income for the entire family. In addition, they owned some small fields and just over 20 sheep, which provided for the basic expenses of the family. Kang had also purchased a 100 square meter house for his son in the west of Inner Mongolia on installments.
When asked if his children would return after graduation, Kang said that the youth were all working in other places and no one stayed at home to do the farm work. When asked what his parents would do when they were not able to do the farm work it seemed Kang had never thought about this. He finally answered that when the time came the work would just be left undone.
Kang’s mother, who is over 70 years old, changed her clothes specifically for the interview. As she talked about her life, she kept mentioning the fine policies of the government, which provided her a pension of 900 Yuan every year.
Eventually the key issue of pollution came up. When asked whether these factories discharged pollution, the family members each hesitated and answered that it was hard to say. “If we tell the truth and the factory fails we will lose our jobs,” said Kang. After a while he began to speak more openly about the subject.
“A few years ago many villagers had cancer, the water became unsafe to drink, and the harvest was poor. The conditions this year were even worse.”
According to Kang and his family, after walking in the street for just a little while, they would find their clothes dirty with soot. They could smell a penetrating odor after 7 or 8 o’clock every evening. In just a few years many changes took place. As Kang was not well educated, he was not able to confirm if there was indeed a connection between these phenomena and the environmental pollution or more importantly how to protect his own well being.
After the interview Kang took the group to his cornfield. He pulled out some corn ears to show to the group. The leaves around the corn ears were black and the corn kernels were very few. Kang said he was not sure whether this was caused by the drought or the factories that had been set up here last year. His face was covered with worry.
The industrial and mining enterprises in Wuhai have been discharging pollution since the 1990s. At that time coal was found in Wuhai and many manufacturers from the south of China came here to set up small mines. These mines caused serious pollution in the villages along the Yellow River where the people originally made their living as sheep herders.
As the government undertook shutdown or suspension and correction activities of the polluting enterprises prior to the 2008 Olympic Games, many small mines and factories were permanently evacuated, but larger operations simply replaced some of the small ones.
According to another villager, there was now a cement plant with an output of 5000 tons per day and several iron plants with outputs of 400 cubic meters per day. These factories were located on land that was once viable for raising sheep.
Environmentalists are often accused of advocating for restrictions that ultimately decrease employment opportunities for villagers in this area. However at the end of the interview Kang was asked which place he would have chosen to live in (a place where there are numerous factories and work opportunities but is also seriously polluted or a place where there is fresh air, clean water, and the land to farm) if he had the right to choose. Kang chose the latter and said that if he had a good harvest and the cows and sheep were well fed, he could earn more than he did at the factory.
Agriculture is the foundation of the state, and land is the foundation of the people. Exploitation and destruction of the environment may bring the people some short-term economic return, however when they are old and unable to work in the factories they will lose their jobs and their source of income. When they reconsider life in the factories and try to farm and graze sheep to make a living, they are no longer able because the farmland and grassland is disappearing.
On the bus ride back to Yinchuan a range of hills appeared on the roadside around dusk. Zhaolianshi explained that they were not green hills but rather piles of coal cinders. As the bus rolled on flames appeared - the result of spontaneous combustion in the coal mines. Encountering this kind of exploitation first hand, Zhao, who had watched the west Ordos region for many years, said angrily, “the fire of human desire is much larger than the natural fire.”
Dongsheng, the Ordos people’s radio station, invited me to do a broadcast in 1991. After that interview, I drove from the capital of Ordos to Yinchuan along the same road the group was currently following. I still vividly remember the situation from 20 years ago. At that time, we had to search out roads to drive and in most cases had to make our own paths. After dark, we could hear the wolves howl and were often invited into households along the way to warm up. Now things were totally different.
As the group prepared to leave the fixed tracking household, the daughter came back from the fields pulling one uncooperative sheep. The present conditions cannot be viewed with the eye of 20 years ago. As society develops, humans are also developing. It seems that the lifestyle of the farmers here is being pulled away like the sheep. We have had a decade to corroborate our worries and must use this decade to use public opinion and public participation to produce some effect.
Tomorrow we will investigate the irrigation networks in Yinchuan and have a look at the lush southern-type fields north of the Great Wall, where irrigation is dependent on the Yellow River and discover whether the water conservation system there works.
Translator: Gao Yuan
Proofreader: Annie Geratowski