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China Races to Rescue Its Shrinking Wetlands

Lotus leaves, lily pads and reeds float on on Lake Baiyangdian, North China's largest wetland ecosystem.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR
Lotus leaves, lily pads and reeds float on on Lake Baiyangdian, North China's largest wetland ecosystem.

China is facing a serious shortage of water that it fears could derail its rapid economic growth. China's per capita water resources are only one-quarter of the world average; pollution fouling China's rivers and lakes aggravates the problem. The country's wetland environments are especially threatened.

Lake Baiyangdian is one of them. North China's largest wetland ecosystem is located 100 miles southwest of Beijing. Instead of one lake with people living on its shores, Lake Baiyangdian is composed of 143 small lakes, with more than 70 fishing villages.

Traditionally, the life of the people was inseparable from the life of the lake, and that interdependence survives in a unique local tradition: fishing with birds.

Baiyangdian's wetland ecosystem also performs vital ecological functions. It catches floodwaters and moderates the weather. China's easternmost rest stop for migratory birds, it maintains the biodiversity of plant and animal species. And it cleans the rivers that flow through it, earning it the nickname "North China's kidney."

Over the past four decades, Baiyangdian's waters have shrunk by one-third, to their current size of about 140 square miles. Most of the nine rivers that used to feed the lake have run dry, due to climate, and the building of dams and reservoirs upstream. The lake receives tons of sewage and industrial waste from Baoding, a city of 10 million people upstream.

But some experts feel the damage is reversible. The Chinese government has recently announced a 10-year, $1 billion effort to clean up Baiyangdian.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.