CHINA / Regional

China's Pearl River smells, but mayor vows to swim
By Simon Montlake (Christian Science Monitor )
Updated: 2006-05-06 09:24

The mayor of China's top manufacturing city is hosting a "swimathon" this summer in the local Pearl River. Cleanup efforts to reverse years of industrial pollution have been so successful, claims mayor Guang Zhangming, that the Pearl is once again safe to swim. To prove it, he plans to don a suit and join the 10,000 other swimmers whom he hopes will take the plunge.

But after looking into the filmy water and smelling its foul wafts, other officials are said to be begging off. Three vice-mayors told a local newspaper that they couldn't swim.

After decades of rapid industrial growth, China has reached a moment akin to America in the 1970s: Pollution has become too obvious to ignore, sprouting a new environmental consciousness and official efforts to start cleaning up.

One of the early environmental campaigns is focusing on the Pearl, a 1,375-mile river which rises in the Tibetan foothills and empties into the South China Sea. Around one-third of Chinese exports are manufactured on the Pearl delta, exacting a steep environmental cost. Billions of dollars have been spent on new sewage treatment plants and moving heavy industry out of major cities. As a result, river quality has improved in cities like Guangzhou, where riverside walkways are thronged with families and couples on bicycles.

But the river, like the rest of the country, still has a long way to go to reach standards of air and water quality achieved in the West or other wealthy Asian countries.

After a long day's work driving a truck, Mr. Huang leans back on a concrete riverbank balustrade. Huang and his childhood friends recall spending much of their youth playing by, and in, the river.

"I'm not brave enough to swim in the river now, not even if you paid me," says Huang, chuckling with his buddies.
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