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Slideshow: reviving the Yongding

Tom Hancock

Berta Tilmantaite

Readinch

Beijing’s “mother river”, dry for more than a decade, has started to flow again. Tom Hancock presents a series of photos by Berta Tilmantaite documenting the controversial restoration of an iconic waterway.

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A section of the Yongding River in Beijing's Mentougou district, April 2011. The Beijing section of the river runs through four of the city's districts, and has been dry for more than a decade. 

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Longwang temple contains a statue of the Yongding River god. In the past, water flow along the river was so fierce that local villagers made offerings to the deity in the hope of preventing floods. The temple is now locked, and is rarely used.

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A villager stands on a dried-out section of the riverbed, April 2011. The river dried up due to low rainfall and, starting in the 1950s, the diversion of water for reservoirs and factories built upstream.

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Dry land near the Guanting reservoir, north-west Beijing. Built in the 1950s using water diverted from the Yongding River, the reservoir was once Beijing's main source of water. Now, it is less than a tenth full.

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Deng Zhuozhi, the engineer responsible for designing the new river. Deng also designed the water system for Beijing's Olympic Park, and likes to promote his personal philosophy that life should be lived in proximity with water.

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Tree planters walk along the riverbank, April 2011. As part of the reconstruction project, thousands of new trees and plants will be planted next to the river, transforming the barren landscape into lush parkland.

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A migrant worker stands next to his dormitory. Most of the manual labourers working on the river are migrants from nearby Hebei and Henan provinces. They make around 1,500 yuan (US$235) a month, higher wages than they would earn in their home towns.

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A truck driver transports materials along the river. The Beijing section alone will cost 17 billion yuan (US$2.7 billion) to restore. The first stage of the restoration is due for completion this month.

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A section of the river in Beijing's Mentougou district, July 2011. In just a few months, the barren surface of the riverbed has been transformed into man-made parkland.

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Children playing in a newly restored section of the river. The riverbed is covered with a lattice of stones, designed to slow the absorption of water by the ground.

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Local residents swim in the restored river after heavy summer rains. As well as rainfall, the river will be filled with cleaned-up waste water from Beijing's households. To prevent stagnation, water is circulated around the river by electronic pumping stations.

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A child holds her pet duck on a visit to the river. Beijing's municipal government hopes to encourage growth of leisure industries in the west of Beijing by creating a “Central Recreation District” on the banks of the river.

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Swimmers shelter under a bridge to avoid the sun. The local government hopes that the project will attract businesses and promote real estate development along the river.

article image
 

Beijing is running out of water. Water levels in the city have plunged to 100 cubic metres per person, far below the international warning level, while Beijing’s two major reservoirs are now less than a tenth full.

Once known as Beijing’s “mother river”, the Yongding River has been dry for over a decade: a victim of low rainfall and overexploitation for industrial development.

But in the last few months, the Yongding River has begun to flow again. Beijing's government is spending 16 billion yuan (US$2.5 billion) on restoring the dried-out riverbed, filling it with water and creating parkland along the riverside.

Government officials say the project aims to benefit the local environment. But environmentalists argue the river is being restored for the sake of economic development in districts bordering the river, adding to the pressure on Beijing’s water reserves.

Tom Hancock is a freelance journalist and Berta Tilmantaite a freelance photographer. Both are based in Beijing.

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