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The drying up of China's largest freshwater lake

Local fishermen and wildlife lose out as Poyang Lake falls victim to drought and dams

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Mr Jiang and his fellow fishermen are all from Tangyin Village, located on a small island in the middle of Poyang Lake. The unexpectedly early dry season saw the water level decrease at an unprecedentedly fast pace, leaving them no time to return to their village with their fishing boats. Unable to leave their livelihood behind, Mr Jiang and his family have been living on a stranded boat by the lakeside for more than a month.

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Local fishermen traditionally carry their valuables with them on the fishing boats, making it almost impossible for them to abandon their boats when stranded.

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The lake bottom is now so dry that it’s become an area in which livestock can graze.

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China's largest freshwater lake is suffering one of the most severe droughts in history. In December 2013 the lake recorded its lowest ever level.

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Yinshan Island, which in wet seasons is usually flooded by the Poyang Lake, can now easily be accessed by foot.

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The gauges placed on Yinshan Island by the Duchang Hydrometric Station to measure the water levels in the Poyang Lake have become redundant.

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Water supplies to Duchang, a small county along the Poyang Lake in Jiangxi Province, have been threatened by the drought. Residents have had their drinking water cut off for several hours a day since October 2013. The local water company has had to set up seven extra pumps in the lake to secure water supplies.

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But the pumps, which are set hundreds of metres from the bank, might need to move further into the lake as the water levels fall, according to Mr Wan, the operator of the pumps.

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An old sign warning "no ships inside" found between the water pipes.

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Locals in Duchang said the county government once wanted to extend the current pipe system, but the droughts in recent years had made the extension project impossible.

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Recent droughts present an even greater challenge for the local fishermen. The prolonged dry season this year has seen some fishermen's income plunge by more than 60%.

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Jiang Minsheng, 52, a local fisherman who started his fishing career on the lake as a teenager, said his life has been gravely impacted by the recent droughts. This year’s dry season which came a few weeks earlier than usual caught Mr Jiang and his fellow fishermen by surprise and left them stranded by the lake.

When Jiang Minsheng moored his fishing boat on the eastern shore of Jiangxi’s Poyang Lake in November last year, he didn’t expect to it to be marooned. The fisherman’s village is on an island in the middle of the freshwater lake, once China’s largest. But Jiang was caught off guard by the premature arrival of the dry season, and now he is stuck in Duchang, a town on the lake’s shore, until the rain returns. 
 
Jiang knows the lake’s natural fluctuations well; he has fished Poyang for 30 years. An annual ebb sees the 4,000 square kilometre lake shrink to the shape of a swollen river. But since the completion of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, the lake has become hard to predict. 
 
 
One constant is that each year the lake, which is located in eastern China, gets drier earlier. Data from the Jiangxi Provincial Hydrographic Bureau shows that between 2003 and 2013, the average date the dry season commenced was October 27. That is five weeks earlier than the average recorded between 1952 and 2002. 
 
This year, due to an unusual lack of precipitation, the dry season came a whole month sooner than it did last year, with water levels in December reaching 7.5 metres - a record low. A million people in the cities, towns and villages surrounding the lake are now experiencing water shortages. 
 
In Duchang, seven whirring pumps furiously suck water from the lake through rubber, snake-like tubes leading to town. The water from the retreating lake supplies some 130,000 residents.
 
“The change is huge,” says Jiang from the deck of his wooden, flat-bottomed boat on Poyang’s latte-muddied waters. His toddler grandson plays with a plastic truck in the boat’s hull, a sparse interior with an arching tin-and-tarpaulin roof. A hot plate and wok serve as a makeshift kitchen, while a halved plastic bottle nailed to the wall contains the family’s toothbrushes.
 
Jiang, who is 52 and has a tanned face crinkled by the sun, says that because of the decreased water levels, his family is able is earning only a third of last year’s income - around 30,000RMB (£3,000).

“The water went down in July, and there was no fish for us to catch after that,” he says. Historically, September and October have been a “golden season” for fishermen. Now many are forced to make their livelihoods elsewhere. They are entitled to a subsidy from the local government, but that hasn’t happened for years, according to Jiang. “Fishing is my only skill so I can’t find another job,” he adds.
 
Jiang says the early onset of the dry season coincided with the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. No hydro-engineering project rivals the colossal structure, the largest hydroelectric facility in the world. It stretches for a mile and a half across the Yangtze, and generates ten times the hydropower of the Hoover Dam.

Read from our archives: Crisis at Poyang Lake
 
Four rivers feed Poyang Lake (the Gan, Fu, Xin and Xiushui) from its southern shores. The lake then empties into the Yangtze, which flows along the north of the lake. When the Three Gorges Dam stores water upriver, the Yangtze, as it rushes through, is depleted, causing even more water to flow out of Poyang.
 
“It is obvious that lots of provinces have benefitted from the power generated by the Three Gorges Dam,” says Liao Guochang, director at the Mountain-River-Lake Sustainable Development office (MRLSD) in Nanchang. “But Jiangxi’s Poyang Lake is paying the price.”
 
Yuan Qi, a bird enthusiast and editor-in-chief of local web-based news portal Duchang Online, monitors the lake’s water levels closely. He finds it ironic that Duchang is so close to the lake but the residents have no water to drink. He accompanies us to what in the wet season is the lakebed. Cracked mud flats stretch to the horizon, while hillocks covered in lilac knotweed flowers and wild grass yield hundreds of crushed mussel shells, tangled fishing nets and shredded plastic.

Birdlife and biodiversity
 
But Poyang’s dry season also harbours life. As the waters recede, the wetlands are exposed. These provide respite and nutrition for astounding numbers of migrating birds. Eighty-seven bird species winter at the lake, including almost half the world’s swan geese and 98% of Siberian cranes, one of 11 endangered species that migrate to Poyang.
 
Unofficial figures suggests bird numbers are dwindling every year. Compared to a decade ago, only a tenth of their number now arrive. Lower water levels mean less food.

Meanwhile poachers, spurred by the soaring prices fetched by rare birds, can access their habitats more easily. The hunters plant their nets, often several kilometres in length, on poles in the mud, entrapping the birds indiscriminately.
 
Poyang’s abundant flora and unique fauna – besides the Siberian crane the lake provides a habitat for the critically endangered finless porpoise – has spurred the government towards protective action in the past. China applied for Unesco heritage status for what many Chinese refer to as the “bright pearl” in 1996, but the lake remains on Unesco’s tentative list. 
 
What price for the environment?
 
More recently, Poyang’s natural charm has attracted the interest of the tourism industry, with the provincial government investing 100 million yuan (£10 million) in tourism infrastructure and planning. In November 2013, some 230,000 tourists visited the lake - a 30% increase on the previous year. 
 
Harm to the environment here means harm to this growing industry. And Jiangxi’s provincial government appears to be showing some concern over the receding waters. It has proposed to install sluice gates at the mouth of the lake, reducing the output when the Yangtze River runs low.
 
“This proposal certainly benefits Jiangxi province,” says Liao of the MRLSD. “But controversially, it could aggravate the drought situation in other Yangtze River basins…For instance, if the water level is too low when it reaches the estuary in Shanghai, then a problem as serious as seawater backflow could occur.”
 
But their solution has also aroused concerns about damage to the wetlands, which would become flooded during the dry season, destroying the birds’ habitat. Despite this opposition, the proposal passed a review by the Ministry of Water Resources and is awaiting approval from the Ministries of Agriculture, Forestry and Environmental Protection.
 
In the long-term, Yuan Qi says local authorities need to start thinking more about the lake’s ecosystem. “Local governments along Poyang Lake worship GDP growth,” he says.
 
“They don’t care about the environmental impact in ten years’ time. They’re thinking about GDP progression this year - how many job opportunities are created and how pristine the newly-built houses are.” If the lake dries out, he says, they can build even more houses.

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匿名 | Anonymous

一个关于鄱阳湖的短纪录片

青原色民间记录制作了一个短的纪录片,突出介绍了这篇文章描述的情况,很值得一看http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XNjk2MjMyODIw.html?firsttime=0

A short documentary on the Poyang lake

This short documentary film made by IFChina Original Studio highlights the situation described in this article and is worth taking a look at http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XNjk2MjMyODIw.html?firsttime=0

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

这文章真讽刺

江西人民有权利争取自己想要的,如果上海等其他省份不想承受江西在鄱阳湖上建大坝导致自己的损失,应该出钱补偿江西省人民,没道理一直由一个贫穷落后的省份补贴周围的发达省份。