Why can’t we protect China’s cleanest freshwater lake?

Threats to Fuxian Lake highlight tension between economic development and environmental protection in China

Fuxian Lake, located in Yunnan province’s Yuxi municipality, sits at the headwaters of the Pearl River, China’s third longest river. It is the largest alpine freshwater lake in China; its water storage capacity accounts for nearly 10% of all freshwater lakes in China.  Most importantly, the lake’s water quality is rated at Class I, meaning it is directly drinkable.

In order to protect Fuxian Lake’s water quality and local ecosystem, the Yunnan provincial government issued a set of “protection regulations on Fuxian Lake of Yunnan province” on September 1, 2007. It declares the entire lake, its watershed, and adjacent lakeside area extending 100-metre range from the shore are within the first protection zone, a red line under strict protection and monitoring. In accordance with the local regulations, washing clothes and bathing in the lake are strictly prohibited. Even motor-driven boats have been replaced with manpower-driven pedal ones. Furthermore, conditions on the use of cultivated land, shoals and vegetation around the lake are also defined by the regulations.

Also, clearly banned are “the unauthorized expansion or alteration or creation of new buildings or structures; unauthorized pumping of water from the lake or violation of water permit provisions for pumping water; other destructive practices to the ecological system and pollution behaviour.”

Since 2005, August 26 of every year has been designated as the Fuxian Lake Protection Action Day. All of these measures seem to favour the lake’s protection and its aquatic ecosystem. But in practice, is it true?

A June 7 China Central Television (CCTV) report disclosed the unregulated construction of eleven real estate projects around the lake that threaten to destroy its aquatic ecosystem and degrade its water quality.  The numerous luxury lake-view villas, five star hotels such as the Hilton Hotel and golf courses were built or under construction within the Fuxian Lake protection area. For sales promotion, these ‘Big Mac’ projects were crowned as resorts and sports parks, among other flashy names.

For example, Longhu Lake Park project is located in Mackerel Bay with an investment footprint of US$730 million. A realtor for the project boasted that it is as large as one-fifth of Kunming’s metropolitan area. To my surprise, this project even passed its environmental impact assessment. The EIA report said “impact of the project construction on the environment is slight and controllable. The project meets the regulations and the environmental management standards of construction project of the national construction projects in listed in Yunnan province’s environmental regulations. The project location is feasible.”

A further embarrassing fact is that some projects broke ground before their EIAs were processed. The Kowloon Bay, Kowloon Sheng Jing Project is located in the upper reaches of the lake’s western banks.  In its promotional materials, the developer dared to say “the project site offers the nearest resort-style apartments to Fuxian Lake so far. It is only 50 metres away from the shoreline.” Most of these European style villas come with a lake view. The project includes luxury hotels, lake view hotel apartments and villas.

In September 2009, the Yuxi municipal party committee and government issued “A Decision for Accelerating Tourism and Cultural Industries Development.” It declared that “from 2010 onwards, the municipal government will invest 30 million yuan to promote tourism development…. Each subordinate district and county should set up a special budget for tourism development.” The cited purpose of the decision is to “encourage the introduction of high-star hotel projects” and “local governments will be awarded with 10 million yuan for the successful introduction of well-known international brand five-star hotel projects exceeding investment levels 300 million yuan after the project’s completion.”

In this decision, the projects mentioned above were highlighted one by one. The Yuxi municipal government vowed to “create conditions to facilitate the projects’ construction as soon as possible”.

Around Fuxian Lake, many developers promote new commercial buildings and hotels connecting project names to the beauty and quality of the lake. For instance, “Holy Water Lake Phase II” advocated that they build a “wetland park” in Fuxian Lake, exclusively open to the residence owners and the hotel guests.

Locals from surrounding villages told a CCTV reporter that the residential developments were discharging excessive levels of black, smelly sewage directly into the lake. The local villagers angrily said that protecting the Fuxian Lake was something officials only talked about doing and the regulations were useless.

The CCTV report further pointed out that although the country already banned golf course construction in national level water resource protection zones, golf courses were being constructed around the lake. It also mentioned that most real estate projects were initiated via oral permission from the local governmental leaders without an environmental impact assessment.

Although the Yuxi government subsequently issued a moratorium on the processing of new real estate development projects around Fuxian Lake, the incident highlights many difficult issues requiring resolution, not least the clash between political agendas and the rule of law, and the tension between economic development and environmental protection. A further question is why local environmental protection agencies continue to maintain silence about the Fuxian Lake even after the CCTV report.


This article first appeared at East by Southeast, a website which explores the economic and environmental connections between China and Southeast Asia.