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First public hearing over environment
By Qin Chuan, Li Jing (China Daily)
Updated: 2005-04-14 05:43

A right royal row over a once royal park has led to China's first public hearing related to the environment and highlighted the country's water shortage problem.

Beijing's Old Summer Palace, or Yuanmingyuan Park, which was burned down in 1860 by British and French troops and further destroyed in 1900 by the allied army of eight foreign countries, is considered an historical relic. But it has been in the spotlight recently because of a very modern crisis - a 30 million yuan (US$3.6 million) project, now largely completed but never sanctioned by the environment authorities, to cover the park's lake beds with plastic sheets.

Guan Cheng, a student journalist, interviews a delegate at a public hearing on Yuanmingyuan Park in Beijing April 13, 2005. [newsphoto]

These are supposed to prevent water seeping away, but experts and environmentalists have blasted the scheme, saying it will damage the ecosystem by cutting off the link between lake water and underground water.

Park management officials argue it is the only way to stop the park from drying up but have admitted they have plans to increase boating activities.

The dispute reached a climax yesterday at a public hearing on the environmental impact of the project, held by the State Environmental Protection Administration.

There have also been concerns over plans to "renovate" the park's grounds, replacing old shrubs and trees with rockeries.

More than 120 people including some from the Yuanmingyuan Administration Bureau, non-governmental organizations (NGO) and research institutions, attended the meeting in Beijing.

Vice-Minister of the State Environmental Protection Administration Pan Yue said it was the first time the administration had held a public hearing on how the environment is affected.

According to Zhu Hong with the Yuanmingyuan Administration Bureau, the project was a "must" because the park has been suffering from a serious water shortage.

At the public hearing on April 13, 2005 in Beijing, a short program about the Yuangmingyuan is played to show its water system. [newsphoto]
Many plants, trees and animals have died. After a year of research, the park decided to go ahead and cover the lake beds with plastic to conserve water, she said.

The hearing heard that the project did not undergo the required environmental impact assessment.

The scheme began in November with a planned cost of 30 million yuan (US$3.6 million) to cover 133 hectares of lake beds.

Bo Zaiheng, an expert with Tsinghua University, told the hearing the beds must be covered in order to keep water in the lakes, then other measures will be taken so the ecosystem is maintained.

She suggested plants be planted on the mud above the plastic covers.

She added: "Even if we do not cover the lake beds, can we be sure that plants and animals in the water can survive as water is seeping away?"

Workers lay plastic on the bottom of a lake at the Yuangmingyuan. The project, now virtually completed, is supposed to conserve water but has been slammed by environmentalists. [newsphoto]

Possible ecological damage

Other experts disagreed. Zhang Zhengchun, with the Life Science School of Lanzhou University, Northwest China's Gansu Province, said the project might turn "living water" into "dead water."

Then the ecosystem and biodiversity of the park could be damaged too.

Li Hao, with NGO Beijing Earthview Environment Education and Research, said ancient records show the average water depth is about 0.8 metres.

However, the project aims to make the water 1.5 metres deep, which adds to the demand for water, she argued.

Li said the covers must be removed and rain water and purified waste water be used to meet the water demand.

Li Dun, with Tsinghua University, said those responsible for the covers should be punished.

Li, who majors in law, said the project was illegal because it was not approved by the relevant departments.

"Behind the project is the park authorities' business orientation," he said, referring to the bureau's plan to expand boating activities.

"The park needs to be protected, not developed," he added.

Li said the environment authorities have failed in their duties.

"They need to strengthen law enforcement," he said.

Betsy Damon, founder of the US-based Keepers of Waters, who has been studying water resources in Beijing, suggested the park could have its own supply of clean water by purifying waste water collected from nearby buildings.

There are many ways to do this and they work well, she said.

Meanwhile, the park needs to reduce the size of its lakes, she told China Daily.

Qian Yi, also from Tsinghua University, said people should pay attention to the core issue - the serious water shortages in Beijing and around the country, rather than simply considering the small case of Yuanmingyuan.

"We need to save water, treat waste water and develop more ways of getting water," she said.

More importance should be attached to the Law on Environmental Impact Assessment, she added.

According to Zhu Hong, an environmental impact assessment of the project is being conducted.

In late March, the State Environmental Protection Administration halted the project, saying it broke the law.

Zhu Xingxiang, head of the administration's Department for Environmental Impact Assessment, said a conclusion will be drawn once the assessment report is submitted.

Pan said government bodies should listen to experts and the general public when making decisions on such projects.

He said the administration will continue to hold hearings on key environment-related decisions.

The hubbub over the park's project echoes other controversial projects.

In 1998, massive schemes to line rivers, canals and lakes with cement were started as the city wanted to plug leaks and tackle water pollution.

Environmentalists and NGOs said this would prevent natural water circulation and cut off the replenishment of ground water.

However, a public outcry failed to stop the work.

Water canal

The Beijing-Miyun water diversion canal, the lifeline of the city that sends water from the Miyun Reservoir in the northeastern suburbs to downtown Beijing, was one of the "victims."

Local water authorities justified the 2000 project saying it could save 80 million cubic metres of water annually from oozing into the ground.

They said the amount of water saved was one-sixth of the total water supply from the canal, so the project was of great significance for the thirsty city.

All the excuses sound similar to those that the Yuanmingyuan administrative office noted this time.

A couple of years later, deplorable results began to emerge at the canal. An environmentalist, Li Xiaoxi, was quoted in a local newspaper as saying, "In summer, the cement river bed makes the water temperature climb rapidly and accelerates evaporation. In winter, the water temperature plummets and fish in the canal can hardly survive. Water quality did not get better. On the contrary, water in the canal lost the function of self-purification."

She said constant public outcries against lining rivers with cement have seen a good result; the Beijing Water Resources Bureau said in 2002 that it would no longer use cement to cover river beds.

"But now, plastic covers have taken the place of cement," added Li.

(China Daily 04/14/2005 page3)

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