Chengdu, situated at the foot of the Tibetan Plateau, has had a long and tumultuous relationship with its water resources.
Historically, the area in and around the city was a large, uncontrollable flood plain. Periods of heavy rain, followed by long stretches of drought, made the Chengdu Basin one of the least hospitable areas in China. To address this, Qin governor Li Bing commissioned what is today the world’s oldest non-dam irrigation system, the Dujiangyan. Completed prior to the advent of gunpowder, engineers would heat and cool rocks until they cracked. After 8 arduous years, the project was completed in 256 BC.
More recently, a local government document submitted to the United Nations notes “…rapid industrialization, accelerated urbanization, population explosion [sic], sharp increase in water usage and environmental deterioration…” along the city’s Fu and Nan Rivers. The telling document discusses how throughout the mid-twentieth century, Chengdu’s rivers were used as wastewater outlets and became “…dirty and smelly ditch[es].” What’s more, 30,000 families lived on or near the banks of these rivers, once the central arteries of the city, in substandard shanties. By the 1970s, both rivers had dried.
Better known as the birthplace of pandas, paper money and some of the world’s spiciest food, Sichuan province is often considered a backwater in terms of environmental management. Chengdu is undertaking an ambitious project to change this perception by heralding a renaissance with the city’s main waterways. Water plays a central role in many of China’s modern environmental improvement projects. The Suzhou Creek in Shanghai and the Qingdao Marina are two examples of successful urban water renewal.
The long-term endeavor began in 1993. To be completed in phases, the project seems to be about 75% towards its goal. The initial work focused on flood prevention and pollution control. The scale of the project is staggering, with 42 new kilometers of embankments, 12 new docks and 18 new bridges. Additionally, an initial 500 factories along the rivers were closed while another 500 greened their facilities. Wastewater treatment plants can now accommodate a capacity of 300,000 tons. A total of 100,000 people living along the rivers in dilapidated housing were relocated to new high-rise complexes.
Today, Chengdu is undergoing the final phases of the water renewal project. Improvement to derelict cultural sites along the rivers, most notably historic bridges, gardens and pavilions, seems to be happening in earnest. Transportation and infrastructure improvement is also a major part of these final phases. Noting the impact of cars on the health of the city and its waterways, Chengdu is busy expanding its metro system and moving automobile traffic away from the Fu and Nan Rivers.
On a recent visit to Chengdu, I happened on a beautiful old temple complex situated on the Fu River. Unbeknownst to me, and not at all apparent from the outside, the temple served as the showcase for Chengdu’s water renewal project. Scale models, bilingual education material and informational videos were all very professionally presented. The downside? I was the only one there!
A project of this magnitude, as with many social ventures in China and across the world, suffers from a lack of marketing. Of course it is important in its own right, but how much more successful could a project like this be when promoted adequately? Additional monetary support, access to volunteers and, of course, public relations kudos is all part and parcel of getting the word out. That’s what John’s Little Green Book is all about! You, dear readers, are the ones that can help spread information about what is happening.
I’ll challenge you to share this article with 5 friends. Sure, the people of Chengdu will probably never know how invaluable your help has been. Just consider it a way to pay it forward.