New Life in Yundang Lake: Harmonizing Green and Gold

2024-April-9 10:59 By:

New Life in Yundang Lake: Harmonizing Green and Gold

Aerial photo taken on Jan. 24, 2024 shows Yundang Lake and the surrounding area in Xiamen, east China's Fujian Province. (Photo/Xinhua)

As I watched retirees dancing last week by moonlight on the bank of Yundang Lake, I marveled at how much it had changed since I first saw it. In 1988, Yundang stank so badly that I clasped a damp rag over my nose whenever I cycled past—though when possible, I avoided going anywhere near it.

The 19th century British Consul of Xiamen, Robert Swinhoe, marveled that the “Garden Island” of Xiamen had 174 bird species, but by the 1980s, Yundang’s fish and shrimp had died, and even the birds had fled. I could have never imagined that by 1992, Yundang Lake would have a dragon boat race, and in 1994 its clean-up program would become a UN Development Program demonstration site of the “Regional Programme for the Prevention & Management of Marine Pollution in the East Asian Sea.”

Even more astonishing, in 2002, I was honored to represent Xiamen in Stuttgart, Germany, where it won the gold in the international competition for livable communities. After my 30 minute presentation, one of the six international judges said to me, “We had no idea China had cities like this. Xiamen is not only number one but number two is far behind!”

And Xiamen did not rest on its laurels. Two years later, Xiamen was the only city to receive the United Nations’ 2004 Habitat Scroll of Honour Award—and it has continued ever since to prove that growth does not need to sacrifice greening.

Today, Yundang is Xiamen’s “Green Lung”, the cultural and commercial heart of Xiamen, and the site of many corporate headquarters and priciest apartments for diplomats and business people. Chinese and foreigners alike flock to Yundang to celebrate holidays or to enjoy aquatic events such as international boat races, or to explore Yundang’s green trails and sip Minnan tea in picturesque pavilions. And by night, Yundang Lake springs to life as musical fountains dance to classical music and the enchanting lake mirrors a skyline sculpted of colored lights like a neon Aurora Borealis.

Yundang Lake is proof that growing and greening can be sustainably balanced, but it also reminds us that the best goals and plans are stillborn unless a city also has leaders who can inspire and empower people to translate dreams into reality. Xiamen got such a leader on June 15, 1985, when young Xi Jinping arrived.

Prior to that, Yundang Lake had been known as Yundang Port. Yet land reclamation projects in the 1970s had isolated it from the sea. The water stagnated, and discharges from over 100 factories, as well as sewage, transformed the historic port into a poisonous pit.

Following the establishment of the Xiamen Special Economic Zone in 1980, the city focused on economic development but had little left for environmental governance.

Xi Jinping, then serving as executive vice mayor of Xiamen, in 1988 led the formulation of a strategy for Xiamen's economic and social development from 1985 to 2000, which included measures for environmental protection. And on March 30, 1988, a special meeting on strengthening the comprehensive treatment of the Yundang Lake was convened, planning detailed steps:

One: enact and enforce laws. Xiamen banned pollutant discharges into the lakes to shut down or relocate over 100 polluting enterprises, and to construct better sewage treatments plants.

Two: dredge polluted silt. Dredging is usually a last resort, as it can destroy fragile ecosystems, but Yundang was already dead; it needed the poison dredged to give it hope of a new life.

Three: build floodgates on dikes to breathe life into the river by receiving water at high tide and draining it at low tide. In 1987, Yundang Lake had ammonia nitrogen concentrations of 39.4 mg per liter—10 times higher than the 3 or 4 mg per liter that is believed to be toxic to marine life. By 2022, it had plummeted to 0.076 mg per liter.

Four: replant mangroves. Since 1999, thousands of people have worked to replant diverse species of mangroves, the “green lungs of the ocean,” that had once flourished on Yundang and are so essential to a healthy marine ecosystem.

Five: beautify the environment. The beautification of Yundang Lake and the rest of Xiamen has more than paid for itself by the influx from the rest of China and abroad of people and companies that seek an opportunity to prosper while enjoying a true “Garden Island” environment. As an Australian businesswoman told me, “I used to do most of my business in Shanghai and Guangzhou, but thanks to modern transportation and communication, I can be just as successful in Xiamen while living in such a pristine environment.”

In the mid-1990s, former Xiamen mayor and party secretary Hong Yongshi said to me, “Xiamen will not be like those countries that sacrifice their environments to grow rapidly, and then use their wealth to restore the ecosystem. Xiamen will green even as we grow.”

Mayor Hong led Xiamen in such initiatives as being the first city to issue daily air quality reports, and to plant thousands of mango trees that beautify the city while providing revenue for further greening. Xiamen committed a minimum of 2% of its GDP to the environment, and all new projects were required to have an environmental impact assessment; just one dissenting vote was enough to halt it. Xiamen botanical garden was China’s first ISO-authenticated garden; Gulangyu Islet was China’s first ISO-authenticated administrative district. And Xiamen is planning for a green future by holding green training courses and green summer camps from kindergarten through college.

Xiamen has also inspired other cities. In the Xiamen-sponsored 2001 Green Fair, over 100 mayors from all over China signed a “Green Declaration,” and cities like Fujian’s Changtai have prospered after emulating Xiamen’s example.

Changtai is famous today as the “Kayaking capital of China,” but when I first saw it in the 1990s, the river was as black and smelly as Yundang Lake. Yet in spite of the relatively poor county’s economic challenges, they followed Xiamen’s lead by stopping the highly profitable quarrying and closing polluting factories. The county leader told me, “It’s not easy to tighten your belt when you’re already so thin, but we must look long-term.” Companies now flock to Changtai where they can prosper in a pristine environment.

Today, tourists from China and abroad travel to Xiamen to enjoy its rich culture and beautiful environment, but I need only to step out of my door to appreciate my Garden Island home. And Xiamen is far more special to me than to tourists because I remember far too well what it was like in the 1980s and I’ve witnessed its changes firsthand. But such a spirit of balance and harmony with nature is nothing new in China.

Since Laozi said “Humanity follows nature” over 2000 years ago, Chinese have sought harmony not only with each other but also with the environment that makes life possible. And as Yu the Great learned some 4,000 years ago when he diverted the mighty Yellow River instead of trying to dam it, the key to sustainable success is working with nature, rather than against it.

I hope more cities, in China and abroad, will learn from China’s history and from Xiamen’s example. And I hope that the world will heed the warning that a "true treasure" should never be exchanged for any other “fake treasures” that may harm the environment.

Contributed by William Brown, professor at the School of Management of Xiamen University

Editor: GSY
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