Zhang Zhengxiang highlights the need to protect the environment surrounding Dianchi Lake by displaying specimens of butterfl ies indigenous to the area on the awards ceremony of the TV show People Who Warm the Chinese Heart broadcast on CCTV on Feb 11.[Deng Jia/For China Daily]
One man slowly winning battle against industrial pollution
KUNMING, Yunnan province: Every day before sunrise, Zhang Zhengxiang leaves home to walk along Dianchi Lake, one of the major attractions in Yunnan province.
The 62-year-old retired farmer carries a camera, tripod and telescope to record the pollution encroaching on the country's sixth-largest freshwater lake.
During weekends, Zhang collates his observations and sends letters to the local government, informing them of the growing pollution.
He has been doing this for 30 years.
"I grew up by the lake and its marine life. I won't allow anyone to pollute it," Zhang said.
Zhang was orphaned when he was seven. He lived alone in the forests near Dianchi for seven years, in what he called a paradise of trees for his bed, with fruit and fish for food. At 14, he headed for Fushan village near the lake and became a fisherman.
"I can still remember those happy times. No one could stop singing at the sight of beautiful Dianchi," he said.
Dianchi Lake, located in the provincial capital of Kunming, was once regarded as the "pearl" of the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau with its crystal-clear waters.
But things started to change in 1992, when investors flooded to the area for the rich mineral resources underground. They brought noisy steam shovels and towering cranes to the tranquil lakeside.
"The lake became covered with meter-deep blue algae and dead fish. Dianchi could become a cesspool in 10 years," Zhang said.
Zhang did not return to the forest. He decided to stay and fight the pollution brought by the development.
Zhang's nightmare began when villagers busily began selling their land, which was rich in phosphate, to the mine owners.
But Zhang knew selling land near the lake meant polluting the freshwater body and losing the town. So he asked villagers to stop selling their land.
Zhang went to villagers' homes to introduce the idea of environmental protection. He told them if they did not protect Dianchi, a slew of environmental problems such as mudflows and landslides would destroy their homes.
But the investors' thundering machines drowned out his voice and the lure of economic benefit buried people's conscience, he said.
Almost one-third of the economic output of Yunnan - a largely impoverished province with a population of 44.5 million - is concentrated in the drainage area of Dianchi, provincial authorities said.
Zhang's passion to protect the beautiful attraction initially branded him a troublemaker in the eyes of some people, including rogue factory bosses, illegal quarry owners and timber thieves. They threatened Zhang with violence and he had to send his wife and daughters away for safety.
Zhang became the lone fighter against what he saw as profit-driven groups. His only weapons were his pen and camera.
Taking notes on the deterioration of the lake and shooting photos became his main activity every day. He sent thousands of letters, at least every week, to the local environmental protection bureau.
His efforts slowly began to pay off.
In 1998, the local government shut down six mines near Dianchi because of his warnings.
In 2003, 56 large and medium-sized mines, chemical factories, and fertilizer and lime plants were closed.
Since 2008, the local government has invested about 12 billion yuan ($1.7 billion) to clean up the lake. But the water is not expected to recover its former sheen until 2020, by which time authorities would have spent more than 100 billion yuan to clean up the pollution, said Li Kunmin, director of the city's Dianchi Lake management bureau.
Before the first wastewater plant was built in 1990, Kunming used to pump 90 percent of its wastewater directly into the lake. Between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s, water quality deteriorated from Grade 3 (safe to drink) to below Grade 5 (too dangerous for human contact).
"More people understand and support what I am doing. Even some mine owners have changed their attitude," Zhang said.
In June 2004, the Dianchi Lake management bureau employed Zhang at 600 yuan a month to observe the pollution in the lake.
A year later, Zhang was selected as one of 10 outstanding grassroots environmental activists. In 2007, he became a member of the Chinese Society for Environmental Sciences.
Last year, he was selected as one of the 20 people who have warmed Chinese hearts.
Zhang said he would like to continue working with the local government to protect Dianchi and show his appreciation for what the government has done to improve water in the lake.
"As a grassroots environmental activist, I hope I can help the government do better to protect Dianchi," Zhang said.
"I no longer want to fight alone."