By Xinhua writers Wu Zhi, Yuan Zhiguo
WUHAN, Dec. 26 (Xinhua) - Zhu Guolin and his fellow villagers had to leave home and look for new jobs after they were ordered to stop growing lucrative yellow ginger.
Local firms that processed the ginger into medicine were closed down because they were polluting the Danjiangkou Reservoir.
In central China, the Danjiangkou Reservoir and its upper reaches are the headwaters of the world's largest water diversion project, designed to transfer relatively clean water from the Han River, a major tributary of the Yangtze River, to the country's parched northern regions, including the sprawling capital city of Beijing.
"We realize the project is a national priority," said Zhu, "but the closure of the factories and the restrictions on fish farming in the reservoir are a big blow to our quality of life."
The headwater regions span 43 counties and cities, 26 of which are among the poorest in China, with a total population of about 10 million.
In Danjiangkou City, Hubei Province, engineers have raised the height of a dam on the Han River. In 2014, the level of the reservoir behind the dam -- the largest man-made lake in Asia -- will rise so water can flow north along channels stretching 1,277 kilometers.
Progress on pollution control is well-advanced in the provinces of Hubei, Henan and Shaanxi, but maintaining the cleanliness of the water is a major challenge.
Over the past five years, 6.1 billion yuan (969.8 million U.S. dollars) has been invested in building sewage and garbage treatment facilities, as well as dealing with pollution from factories and in nearly 700 small tributaries, according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection.
Meanwhile, more than 1,000 polluting firms, including paper mills, pharmaceutical factories and mineral processing plants, have been shut down. Tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs and local governments have seen their annual revenues shrink by billions of yuan.
Discontent has been growing among laid-off workers, and some are seeking redress from local governments for the way environmental protection has changed their lives.
"People here must stop the water from being contaminated, but they also have the right to make a living. It's hard to strike a balance," said a government official in Danjiangkou City who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
"The investors we turned away have gone to other provinces. That's why we are falling behind economically," he added.
The city, which has a population of 440,000, used to be one of the top 20 county-level economies in Hubei. Since the water diversion project began, however, it has fallen to 41st on the list, according to the city government.
While the tough measures to protect water quality have worked, economies in the headwater regions are not developed enough to be able to create new sources of revenue.
Water quality in the Danjiangkou Reservoir has now reached Grade II, the mandatory standard for the project. But nitrogen and phosphorus are still accumulating in a number of inlets.
So far, the reservoir's nitrogen levels remain at about 1.2 milligrams per liter, 1.3 times higher than the acceptable standard, according to the Ministry of Water Resources. To further complicate matters, the water quality of the Shendinghe, Jianghe, Sihe and Jianhe rivers, which all flow into the reservoir in Hubei, is below Grade V.
China grades water quality according to six levels: Grade I to Grade V and "inferior to Grade V," the worst grade. Water below Grade III is undrinkable, and that below Grade V is the most polluted.
Experts said that with most factories shut down, farming is the only means of livelihood for a great many rural residents in the vicinity of the reservoir, with widespread use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers leading to residue problems.
"We tried to bring in some non-polluting IT firms but, situated in this rural backwater, one of them had to leave because they could not hire enough technicians," said Wu Lianggang, deputy director of the economic bureau of Danjiangkou City.
Local officials in the three provinces also told Xinhua that the newly-built pollution control facilities are not fully used because operation costs are too high. Sewage and garbage are directly discharged into the reservoir in some counties that lack treatment capacity.
Wang Xing, chief of the development and reform bureau of Danjiangkou City, said the sewage treatment plant in the city center costs 10 million yuan a year, more than three times its earnings, and maintaining its operation adds to the city government's financial burden.
"Of the 13 towns in the city, only one has a sewage treatment plant. What's worse, it treats, at most, 75 percent of the wastewater because it can't make ends meet," he said.
As the deadline for the transfer draws near, efforts to maintain water safety standards are becoming more urgent, with authorities struggling to ensure that water quality does not decline before 2014.
The State Council, China's Cabinet, has approved a funding package worth 12 billion yuan to boost efforts to treat pollution in the Danjiangkou Reservoir and its upper reaches from 2011-2015. Included are plans to build pollution control facilities in most towns bordering the reservoir in the provinces of Hubei, Henan and Shaanxi.
But some officials have warned that local debts may pile up as cash-strapped local governments find they have to bear part of the expense of the new projects.
A group of experts from the Chinese Academy of Sciences said the headwater regions should be compensated not only for the cost of pollution control, water and soil conservation and reservoir immigration, but also for the economic opportunities they have had to forego.
They added that more preferential policies and technological support are needed to encourage these regions to change people's way of life and mode of production.
"It is impossible to alleviate mass poverty and protect the environment at the same time if most people earn their living from traditional farming," said He Jiali, an economics professor with Ankang University in Shaanxi. "The headwater regions need to shift their focus to ecological agriculture and environmentally-friendly industries."
"Protecting the green mountains and clear water is one thing," said Fang Weifeng, Party chief of Ankang City, "but we still have to eat, live and develop."
"People here have a strong desire to develop the local economy. They don't want to rely on compensation handouts. A population of 10 million is a big responsibility," he said.