The last lakes in Hubei province are shrinking so fast that no one knows whether new government regulations—the latest leg of a sixteen-year-old environmental scramble—can reverse the disappearing act.
The province has been losing its once-bountiful lakes for about a hundred years, but the destructive pace accelerated in modern times with extension draining projects for farmland and the expansion of water-dependent heavy industry.
Today, the total surface area of all provincial lakes is just 3,025 square kilometers, according to official statistics, compared to some 26,000 square kilometers of water in the early 1900s, when Hubei was called the Province of 1,000 Lakes.
Farm runoff and mine wastes have contaminated many of the surviving lakes in a wide region that includes either side of the Yangtze River valley below the Three Gorges Dam.
Water was deemed fit for human consumption in only one of twenty-six lakes recently surveyed by the Hubei Province Water Environment Monitoring Center.
In hopes of counteracting the destruction, the provincial branch of the National People’s Congress recently passed its most far-reaching water protection measure ever—the Hubei Province Lake Protection Ordinance—and said it would take effect in October.
The regulation includes an accountability system that directly ties water quality assessments to job performance evaluations for local government leaders. It also clarifies the functions of government agencies whose responsibilities involve various aspects of lake management.
The provincial environmental protection department, for example, will be in charge of drawing up specific plans for enforcing water pollution laws. The Hubei government’s fisheries experts have been told to better track fish stocks and identify vulnerable species, while the forestry department has been put in charge of oversee wetlands protection.
“Hubei was once a province with plentiful water resources,” said Wang Shuyi, dean of the Wuhan University Institute of Environmental Law. “It used to rank No. 1 nationally among fish-producing provinces in total aquaculture production. But this advantage has been lost.”
The lakes and its fisheries lost out, Wang said, during a push for economic growth.
In Hubei “the biggest conflict has been between economic development and environmental protection,” Wang said. “This is why it’s taken sixteen years to have meaningful legislation.”
Indeed, as early as 1996 Hubei officials were aware of and tried to address the shrinking lakes issue and water pollution by adopting China’s first water-usage regulations. They were based on research conducted by the Hubei Department of Water Resources, which found lake management seriously lacking.
Subsequently, in 1998, the provincial government poured 2 billion yuan into various efforts to save lakes and rivers. But the investment never translated into measurable improvements, according to the water research center’s recent report, due to weak water-usage planning and rules enforcement.
In addition to spelling out government agency responsibilities, the new regulation includes specific guidelines for public participation in the lake protection process. Public comments will be sought for water-related policies before the proposals are discussed by legislators.
Stiffer penalties for draining lakes are in store as well. Currently, the highest fine for emptying a lake in Hubei is 500,000 yuan.
Despite these moves, Wang doubts the health of provincial lakes will improve anytime soon. One reason for pessimism, he says, is Hubei’s legacy of environmental rule-bending and breaking.
“Legislation is only the first step toward solving the problem,” he said. “Enforcement is the key.”
The provincial capital Wuhan has invested more than 20 billion yuan in lake-protection and water treatment initiatives. And the city government has directed more than twenty policies and regulations to address water quality. Nevertheless, Wuhan’s nearby lakes are still slowly vanishing.
Wuhan’s government has never enforced its water regulations at the expense of local business, said Lu Xinhai, a professor at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology Institute of Public Administration.
Other experts say the success of the new policy will hinge on public participation. Masahisa Nakamura, chairman of the International Lake Environment Committee, said it’s been proven around the world over time that environmental law flourishes when public participation reinforces legal norms.
Will officials in Wuhan and other parts of Hubei mend their ways and support the new environmental regulations before the province’s lakes vanish completely? Nakamura is among those who harbor no illusions.
“Overall, I’m not optimistic about restoring China’s seriously polluted lakes,” he said.
Liu Hongqiao is a Caixin staff reporter.