China’s Water Crisis – Fancy a ‘Green’ Swim in Qingdao?

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QINGDAO, China – While it is common knowledge that China’s air is bad – The New York Times, reported in January that “On scale of 0 to 500, Beijing’s Air quality tops ‘Crazy Bad’ at 755” – the deteriorating quality of water has gotten less attention. Yet there is plenty of evidence that China’s waters are just as endangered as its air. Just ask Mr Liu, one of the many millions of Chinese who have watched the deteriorating water quality along the Chinese coast. He has lived his whole life in Qingdao, a popular Chinese beach resort. Now he’s 66 and retired, and enjoys a cigarette as he looks out over the water and the crowded beach. Kids are playing in the water and women have hid under the parasols to not get sunburnt, no one seems to mind that there is a green layer of grass-looking algae along the shore.

The hutai algae on the city's beaches.

Flickr / Liddybits under Creative Commons

The hutai algae on the city's beaches.

During the last couple of years, record-breaking blooms of the algae Enteromorpha Profera – which is responsible for the weird, green color of the water – have washed up on the beaches of Qingdao. This year, the blooms have been more severe than ever. The algae, known in Chinese as hutai, helps Qingdao live up to its name, literally meaning “Green Island”. An area larger than the state of Connecticut has been affected by the alga, which is harmless to humans but it is destructive to marine life and fishermen along the coast.

New York Times reports that, although this coastal area is not alone in having large amounts of algae-blooms, the annual bloom in the Yellow Sea is the largest in the world, growing to million tons of biomass every year. Some researchers suggest the algae are a result of pollution or changing seaweed-farming practices around the coast of Qingdao. Another research suggests seaweed farmers all the way down by the coast of Jiangsu Province.

City of Qingdao and the "green" lake

Flickr / Liddybits under Creative Commons

City of Qingdao and the "green" lake

Nonetheless, on a recent afternoon, few, if any of the visitors at the beach seemed concerned about the blooms. That the green blooms should be an environmental concern does not seem to have crossed their minds. For Mr. Liu, for example, the problem is commercial: This time of year, Qingdao will be packed with people as Chinese families flee the hot cities in the summer. He says first and foremost the algae-blooms are bad for Qingdao as an attractive tourist spot: “Because the algae will rot and then it smells really bad.”

Only one couple I spoke with linked the algae-blooms to pollution. “It’s because of the hot weather,” said Mrs Lin, a 68-year-old former high school teacher, who was visiting Qingdao for the weekend and is playing at the beach together with her grandson.

Instead of being concerned, however, she seemed to find it amusing. Her grandson, like many of the visitors, used the algae as an additional toy, playing and covering them selves in the ‘green grass’. When asked if there were any negative aspects of the algae-bloom, she said “there are two types of algae, one you can eat and one you can’t. This type of algae, you can’t eat, so what’s the point?”. Like most other visitors on the beach, Mrs Lin and her grandson seemed not too bothered by the field of algae: “Soon there will be a clean up,” she said, as the boy rushed off, into the water.

But the problem with China’s water supply extends far beyond the algae blooms. The Chinese summers are hot, and many lakes and rivers are drying out at a shocking rate, reports the WorldWatch Institute. According to Xinhua News Agency, eighteen local rives which where tributaries of the Yangtze River have dried up, leaving all but empty riverbeds behind.

Most likely, dried up rivers and record-breaking algae-blooms are only the beginning rather than the end of what’s happening as a consequence of China’s rapid economic growth. However, many Chinese still live in poverty, and for them, economic growth is still more important than preserving the environment. “We are still a developing country,” says Mr. Deng, a local taxi-driver. “Even if the Chinese economy is growing fast, China has not fully developed, so economic growth is the most important.” Nevertheless, as the Chinese saying goes: Xiao dong bu du, da dong chi ku – a small hole not mended in time will become a big hole much more difficult to mend.

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