After undergoing booming expansions over the last three decades, urban China has recently been enjoying the fruits of its labour. But this prosperity has come at a price: the environmental deterioration that haunts many Chinese city-dwellers.
Besides the now infamous haze and smog, water pollution has also emerged as an especially serious problem. Numerous measures and investments have been taken in cities to reduce pollutants, such as construction of more wastewater treatment plants and similar facilities in recent years. However, many rural areas that face the same problems are often largely overlooked, particularly around wastewater issues.
One could argue that it is not so urgent a problem there, since the major pollutants in the countryside are smaller in scale than in urban areas. However, when you consider the hundreds of millions of rural residents, the overall pollution generated can still be immense.
In the mountains of southwest China, agricultural communities situated in critical watershed areas should be able to enjoy the freshwater supply at its purest. Yet in many villages, particularly in more developed regions, countless stinky ponds and ditches have sadly become regular scenery.
As in much of rural China, for as long as anyone can recall the domestic sewage here has been discharged untreated directly into the environment. This would not have been an issue decades ago, but when modern habits and products (chemically sourced laundry detergents, cleaning agents, etc.) entered this part of the world, pollutants that are now mainstays in everyday life have become an emerging problem, reducing the quality of the water used for drinking, hygiene and other human needs.
Fortunately, some rural areas are also experiencing progress. Since 2012, CI China has conducted a sewage treatment project in five villages located on the periphery of nature reserves within the mountains of southwest China. This project has constructed a domestic sewage treatment system using a septic tank, as well as artificial wetland and soil infiltration techniques that aim to purify the wastewater before it enters the freshwater system.
By design, this system demands no external power supply and relatively few labour and monetary costs to build and maintain. However, although local people showed great enthusiasm for the idea of the project, many of them still weren’t willing to pay the additional costs of system maintenance.
A variety of measures have been taken to encourage villagers to actively help maintain this sewage system, and subsequently ensure the sustainability of our project. For instance, we have been trying to determine specific community demands that the project could help to meet in exchange for the maintenance cost. For example, helping communities pursue sustainable agricultural methods could incentivise people to support the sewage project — an approach influenced by the success of conservation agreements set up by CI’s Conservation Stewards Program.
Yet material incentives cannot guarantee an endless drive for maintaining the system, as the profitability of sustainable agriculture could be subject to various unpredictable factors, such as market fluctuations and shifting weather patterns. A long-term motivation will require a larger shift in local perception and behaviour.
Therefore, as part of our project strategy, we also designed an environmental education programme for local children. Last summer, CI China and its local grassroots partner cooperated to organise summer camps for the children of these five communities, allowing them to learn about their environment in a more informal atmosphere than school.
The camps turned out to be quite a novelty for the children, who have less access to resources than urban kids. By conducting a water purification experiment, we gave a simplified demonstration of how the tanks and wetlands turn the sewage back into clean water; through a “treasure hunting” game, we inspired them to discover the beauty of those teeny-tiny things hidden in their surrounding farmland, hedges and bushes. Even we tutors gained much knowledge from these lovely children about the birds, insects and vegetation that surround us.
This experience could well be a starting point for these children to understand environmental issues. As the children grow and learn more about their living environment, I am confident that they can become the drivers of positive changes taking place in their homeland. This would be one of the project’s most important legacies — one that would outlast its pipes and cement tanks.
Promising as the sewage treatment project does seem, its impact would be limited if it never extends outside these five villages. Lasting success of the project will lie in the adoption of this sewage treatment model in other regions. To our delight, our project has already attracted interest from forestry departments and many other nature reserve authorities. CI China will soon carry out a new sewage treatment project in dozens of sites within nature reserves areas in Sichuan province.
For every visit our project communities, I am always awed by the spectacular landscape, fresh breeze and limpid water flow. Often a two-hour drive takes me to a fairly pristine place with a world of difference from where I departed. Here, nature is so prosperous and yet so fragile — so susceptible to our often-destructive power.
And this is precisely why CI is here — not only for the mountains and the wildlife, but also to try to secure a watery future for all mankind. Nature needs our care.
Yan Jin is a project consultant with CI China.