Cleaning A River To Enhance A City

Zhou Ke, a factory worker and mother, grew up on the banks of Suzhou Creek, the narrow waterway that winds its way through the center of Shanghai and out into Zhabei, the suburb where Zhou still lives. And for Zhou, a lively, good-humored woman, many of her fondest childhood memories revolve around the creek, which flows into the Huangpu River and later into the mighty Yangtze. "When we were young kids, we used to swim in Suzhou Creek," says Zhou. That would have been in the 1970s, given that Zhou is now 35. When I met Zhou recently, she and her 62-year-old mother were sitting on tiny stools outside their house, shelling beans for that day's noontime meal. Nearby, Zhou's 10-year-old daughter and several friends giggled at the sight of a foreigner.

Sadly, when she reaches her mother's age, Zhou Ke's daughter is unlikely to have any similarly idyllic memories of the tributary that passes in front of the Zhous' front door. For Shanghai's rapid rise in recent decades has been the creek's demise. From the 1950s onward, more and more industries were pouring untreated waste into the stream. And as the city's population swelled--Shanghai and its suburbs now count more than 13 million residents--too many people used the creek to dispose of night soil and trash. The plant life and fish died, and the water gradually turned black. By the mid-1980s, swimming had become too dangerous. The air rising from the creek was so foul that it would make those living nearby sick, Zhou Ke's mother tells me.

"IMPROVED." None of this is hard for me to imagine. Friends tell me how unpleasant it was just to take a bus that passed over the creek. By the time I arrived as a correspondent in 1998, however, the smell had vanished, and the water had gone from black to brownish green. It's still unwise to swim in the creek and will be for years to come--if, indeed, it's ever again anybody's idea of a fun dip. At this point, plant life has returned, even if it is only the greenish scum that grows on the surface of oxygenated but still polluted water. "In the last three to four years," Zhou Ke tells me, "things have really improved."

Credit the Shanghai government for that. Since 1996, it has spent nearly $400 million to clean up the creek. Last January, the city launched the first phase of a new cleanup project that is intended to cost $2.4 billion by the time it's finished in 2010. The driving force is the city's health, but let's understand that notion two ways. For one thing, the Huangpu River, where the creek empties, is the city's main source of drinking water. As it is, the Shanghainese boil their tap water or drink bottled water. For another, reviving the creek is considered essential to the city's economic future. The plan is to make prime real estate out of the land alongside the 53 km of the creek inside city limits. "If we can't improve Suzhou Creek, our city can't progress," says An Chengyao, the 49-year-old deputy director of the Shanghai Suzhou Creek Rehabilitation Project.

CLEAR SKIES. An's austere office is a block from where the creek meets the Huangpu at the Bund, the much-photographed street lined with neoclassical and baroque buildings Europeans built in the 1920s and 1930s. And so far, his progress has been a bit choppy. When Shanghai's trade plunged during the Asian economic crisis in the late 1990s, An's funding dried up. This year, however, Shanghai expects its economy to grow 10% (while China's could top 8%), and An's undertaking is getting top priority. Indeed, the city government considers it the centerpiece of a drive to give Shanghai China's "bluest skies, cleanest air, and greenest ground," as An puts it.

That is no small deal. Zhou Ke and her family in Zhabei are unlikely to go anywhere, but millions of Shanghai residents will be displaced before the project is over, especially those in the densely populated creekside land near the Bund. You get an idea of what's to come from looking out the window of a factory worker named He, near the mouth of the creek. Parks with grass and trees line the opposite bank. A few blocks away, an old five-story hospital awaits demolition.

Walk a few blocks in another direction, and you come to the Riverside, twin towers of luxury apartments being built by a Hong Kong developer called Tianan Group. Two more residential towers are planned next door. A model of the development shows lawns surrounding the complex. Images of neon lights and tall buildings suggest a cityscape that resembles Bangkok. Gone are the expanses of old, low houses visible from the Riverside's 31st floor. In the model, all that is replaced by plexiglass figures meant to designate office blocks. At the same time, sepia-tinted photos from the early 1900s show the creek clogged with flat-bottomed boats, so close together that you could have walked from one to the next. So the past figures in the creek's future, at least in this version of it. "Change Suzhou Creek and bring in the sightseeing boats!" urges a billboard in front of the Riverside.

Shanghai, indeed, is eager to make itself something to see. New housing, according to regulations passed last year, must have green space equal to 35% of the project's total area. By 2002, Shanghai aims to make more than 25% of its 6,340 sq. km into green space. It's a radical change for people such as He--radical but generally welcome. Although scenic when viewed from the top floor of the Riverside, at ground level old Shanghai is less than charming. Garbage blocks an alley leading to a lovely, carved archway. The air smells faintly of sewage because many homes in the old part of the city, with its narrow lanes and red-tiled rooftops, still have no indoor plumbing. He, 53, has lived in a tiny, ground-floor room next to the creek for more than 30 years. "Yeah, it'll be less convenient," he says when contemplating his move to a suburb. "But it'll be nicer."

Not all Shanghainese are so sanguine. Cleaning up the water is worthwhile, says art critic and art-gallery owner Wu Liang. On the other hand, some of the flavor of old Shanghai is being lost. "So there is a contradiction," says Wu, whose gallery is currently showing photos of life along Suzhou Creek. And the cost means higher water usage fees. Although An Chengyao claims a survey found widespread acceptance of the fee hike if it would mean cleaner water, the local press finds plenty of people like Wu who are irked by the change.

GREEN THINKING. For others, the emphasis on Suzhou Creek is puzzling, given that the city is ignoring other polluted waterways. "There are lots of little streams in other parts of Shanghai whose water is the same color as my eyes," says a cab driver. Chen Anwei, who owns a small mobile-phone shop alongside Suzhou Creek, says the city is "sweeping the other problems under the rug." Still, he admits that rehabilitating the waterway will be good for business.

Cleaning a River to Enhance a City (int'l edition)

It will be good for China's environmental consciousness, too. Green thinking isn't prevalent among the Chinese. Even as An endeavors to improve the city's drinking water, passengers on a ferry crossing the Huangpu throw trash over the side. Teaching people to respect the environment is the biggest difficulty he faces, An admits: "We have to change their habits."

That may be coming. In Zhabei, Zhou Ke and her family say they now put all their refuse in the public rubbish bins. "If we throw our trash in the river, we're fined," she says. Well, it's one way to raise the tone in this sprawling, ever-ambitious city.

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