Keeping the Yangtze clean

Updated: 2011-08-10 08:16

By Guo Rui (China Daily)

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Keeping the Yangtze clean

Zhou Gonghu collects floating garbage on the Yangtze River in Zigui county, Hubei province, on Aug 3. [Zheng Jiayu / For China Daily]

Yichang, Hubei - It is a quiet and peaceful morning at the Three Gorges section of the Yangtze River. The surface of the water is calm and mirror-like. Thin fog floats among the mountains.

It is the busiest season for Zhou Gonghu, a 50-year-old cleaner of floating garbage on the longest river in China.

Each July and August is the rainy season along the Yangtze River and is when the water level rises in the Three Gorges reservoir for the world's largest hydropower plant.

The water from upstream usually brings a huge amount of garbage, mostly tree trunks, branches and straw for Zhou and his colleagues to clean up.

Over the past five years, Zhou, who was born and raised in a nearby village on the banks of the Yangtze River, has been taking care of an area of nearly 50 square kilometers.

"I usually spend nine hours on the boat each day in this season, sometimes longer, 12 hours a day," Zhou told China Daily while standing aboard his fishing boat. The boat swings back and forth as he fishes tree trunks out of the water with a net basket fixed to a long bamboo pole.

Each day, Zhou has to repeat the simple, monotonous act more than 1,000 times.

Each catch usually weighs more than 10 kilograms, Zhou said. "It trains your arm muscles and grows callus in your palms," said the river cleaner half-jokingly.

If the garbage is too big to haul with the net, he uses his hands and at times gets help from colleagues working nearby.

But that's not the hardest part. Working in the scorching sun of the summer is like physical torture.

"The garbage steams and smells, and I can hardly swallow my lunch," Zhou said.

"I even got a corpse out of the water," Zhou continued, recalling the first time he fished out a body in 2009. "I was scared."

But after years of working in the river, Zhou has come to realize that "you can fish anything out of the water".

In the following years, he found another two corpses and was able to take care of the situation calmly, informing the local public security departments immediately after each find.

Zhou admitted that his wife doesn't like him taking the job because of its hardship and danger.

But Zhou said he likes it because this job allows him to work on the river.

"I grew up drinking water directly from the river. It tasted so sweet," Zhou said, recalling how clean the river used to be.

He also remembered what it was like before the building of the Three Gorges Dam.

"The water ran very quickly and it was very dangerous to ride a boat in it," Zhou said.

Now with the dam, the water has become very calm, causing fewer accidents, he continued.

"But you can't sail as fast as you used to in the river, as described by the great Chinese poet Li Bai from the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) in one poem, 'sailing a roundtrip of 500 km within one day on the Yangtze.'"

Zhou said he is not lamenting because he understands how much benefit the hydropower plant can bring.

But it is hard for him to see the river, once so clean, be packed with garbage.

"It used to be swept directly downstream," Zhou said.

But now it accumulates in the water area near the dam.

So in 2006, the local government started to hire people to clean up the garbage.

"It is not only for the beauty of the reservoir, but also to ensure the smooth running of the Three Gorges hydropower plant," said Tan Xiaohua, director of Zigui county environmental protection bureau. "As Zigui is where the hydropower plant is located, we are like the last line of defense for the plant against possible damage brought by the floating garbage."

Zhou was among the first to sign up as a cleaner. Before then, he worked in a material factory from 1993 to 2005.

"Though it is hard, I am interested in the job and very good at it," Zhou said.

"Besides, the pay is fine, 50 yuan ($7.75) a day for 20 cubic meters of garbage."

Zhou recalled his busiest day - the one before the Three Gorges Dam's water level hit its designed maximum capacity of 175 meters on Oct 26, 2010.

"It seemed the water was completely covered with garbage," Zhou recalled.

The local government had to send 176 boats to clean up.

After that, Zhou said he is glad to see the return of the mirror-like water surface.

"One day when I'm no longer able to work, I'd like to fish on the bank, enjoying the beautiful scenery which I helped keep for so many years," Zhou said, all smiling.

Zhou Lihua contributed to this story.