What if Beijing’s rivers ran clear?

Beijing's waterways suffer from severe pollution. But even if they did not, the residents of the capital might present an even greater threat, writes Lu Dongting.

At some of Beijing’s beauty spots, you can still find fresh, clear water flowing from underground springs: water which is eagerly sought by city residents, who fill up plastic containers to drink or to use in their cooking.


This phenomenon can be seen at many of Beijing’s best-known sites, including Badachu Park and the Xiangshan Botanical Gardens. Local authorities have put up signs prohibiting unauthorised water collection, but to no effect.

Avid anglers

The capital’s anglers are even more numerous. They fill up the train at six in the morning from Beijing South Station, carrying a jumble of fishing rods, stools and nets, all heading for a series of reservoirs on the Yongding River.

These fisherfolk, of all ages and backgrounds, often know each other from the time they spend sitting around Beijing’s lakes, rivers and canals. Visit any body of water in Beijing, and you will see them holding out their fishing rods hopefully.

And they really do sit around any body of water: most are stagnant, poisoned or lifeless. But nevertheless, the eager anglers still try their luck.

I have always wondered why they go fishing: is it to eat? Hardly. Is it a hobby? Unlikely: China has little tradition of catching fish with a line. So what keeps them coming back? Is it just something to do?

There are those who prefer to use nets to catch their fish. As soon as the water level is low enough, they roll up their trousers, wade in and set their nets – or anything else they can use to catch fish. One group prefers to electrocute its prey, riding around on motorbikes and stopping here and there to dip their equipment in the water and scoop up the stunned fish.  

In February, the Beijing Water Authority announced that rate of water treatment had reached 90%, meaning the target for the Olympics had been attained a year in advance. But take a look and you will find that Beijing’s waterways are still plagued by low water levels, unclean water and, further downstream, a lack of surviving wetlands. And despite this, there are still hordes of anglers out on the water.

Determined bathers

Beijing is also home to a group of outdoor swimmers that can be found in and around the city’s lakes.

One of these lakes is Yuyuantan, in west central Beijing. This lake links up with Kunming Lake in the city’s northwest. In the 1960s, a canal was built to bring water from the Miyun Reservoir to Kunming Lake. Since some of Beijing’s waterworks were located beside Yuyuantan, an extra canal was built to link the two bodies of water.

The water quality in Yuyuantan is above average, making it a popular destination for bathers. The park authorities have erected signs beside certain spots, warning them that since 1996, almost 100 people have died as a result of swimming in the lake. But swimmers still laugh and chat next to the sign – even bringing buckets of water from home to wash in after their swim.

Shichahai is a network of six lakes that stretches from the central government complex at Zhongnanhai through Beihai Park to Qianhai, Houhai and peaceful Xihai. The lakes took shape during the Yuan Dynasty and are closely linked with the history of the capital. The development of an entertainment industry around Qianhai and Houhai led to greater efforts to improve water quality; these include pollution control and bringing in clean water from the Chang River, which connects to Yuyuantan and Kunming Lake. The Shichahai bathers are there all year round; even the occasional deaths have not discouraged them.

Swimmers are also found at other locations in Beijing, even where the water quality is very poor. It is as if nothing can stop them – not the weather, the dirty water or the mystified stares of passers by.

However, the state of Beijing’s water does put off most of the capital’s residents from swimming. What would the result be if the water ran clear, if all of Beijing’s 20 million residents decided to take up swimming in the waters of the city?

Fish food

Beijing‘s water pollution has given rise to a new industry: catching and farming water fleas. These are popular as food for pet fish; anyone living near a dirty river – the fleas are drawn to the poor sanitation – can easily bag enough to keep their goldfish happy. Professional fish breeders will don waders and spend a whole day collecting fleas.

Liangshui River is a natural river that runs from Beijing’s northwest to southeast, but in recent years it has become an important route for getting polluted water out of the city. Once it passes a water treatment plant at the city’s fourth ring road, untreated water enters the river, and it becomes steadily filthier. The water fleas are caught in this water, stored in riverside pools and sold on to wholesalers, who sell them to retailers in the city’s fish markets.

If Beijing’s rivers were cleaned up, this industry would die.

And if Beijing’s waterways really became clean, pure and full of life, what damage would the people do? Everyone is attracted to water, it revitalises the soul just as drinking it sustains our bodies. This is no crime, but if the capital’s water is ever cleaned up, perhaps the residents will have to restrain their love of water, or at least find another way to express it. Else it will not stay clean for long.

Lu Dongting is a Beijing-based reporter.

Homepage photo by Doncorleon.