Rapid infrastructure and housing development in China is polluting its beautiful water bodies. S. Vishwanath says we should observe the developments and learn

As this extraordinary economic powerhouse makes giant leaps in dragging people out of poverty and into its towering, frantically built cities, India should watch with care how China deals with its water and waste-water issues. There are many lessons which can only be drawn from a think-tank carefully observing and analysing various impacts of the investment in infrastructure but here are a few anecdotal observations from travels in parts of Yunnan province.

The massive Dianchi Lake, a very large fresh water body, lies next to Kunming city. Vast stretches of property have developed around its fringes obviously for the very rich.

The lake itself is unfortunately polluted and much investment seems to be going in to clean it with few signs of success. Industrial pollution, domestic sewage and agricultural run-off all seem to have slowly strangulated the lake. Floating islands of water hyacinth spread close to the shore and though the lake looks beautiful, it remains in steady decline. You cannot pollute your way to progress and then hope to clean up your act.

Clogged sewage lines

A river runs through the city of Kunming. It is a beautiful one and in stretches it has been treated as a wetland to improve the water quality in it. This stretch is a landscaper’s delight and citizens love to walk around it but then there are vast stretches of the river which still seem to carry bad quality waste-water. Much more investment will be needed to clean this up but is there also a problem with the paradigm of centralised treatment?

Sewage lines cover many a square mile yet seem to clog very frequently and need the help of jetting machines quite regularly. Waste-water treatment plants do not deliver the results in clean water very easily. Are decentralised systems the way to go?

The taxi driver in Dali, another beautiful city in Yunnan, speaks English and is self-taught. He mentions that the famous Chang-shan Mountains have not had snow on their peaks for several years. Global warming, he says.

Are the effects of leaving carbon into the air catching up with our waters quickly? What then is to be done when springs start to dry and rivers no longer carry the same quantity of water?

We pass a stretch of river that the driver would swim in when he was a child. He is distraught to see that it now completely dry and the river bed can be seen. Hydro-electric, run-of-the-river projects catering to the insatiable energy needs of cities have left vast stretches of riverbeds bone dry. Is this the cost to be paid for development?

We visit the outskirts of the city to a small establishment trying to maintain a tradition of embroidered cloth work. We ask for a glass of water. It comes from a plastic bottle.

Most water to be drunk or to be used for cooking has to be bought from the ubiquitous plastic bottled water industry.

The culprit

We ask and are shown a beautiful old well in the building. It has water and the water is just a metre below ground level. We used to drink from this till some years back, they say; now it is polluted. Agricultural use of fertilizers and pesticides has destroyed groundwater.

Massive investments in pipelines and bottled water are therefore needed to replace this local water. Can we afford to destroy local sources of water? Is it not better to invest in preventing pollution rather than replacing through alternative and costly sources?

Extraordinary progress in beautiful cities in China are the norm, yet the costs may be hidden and be too much to deal with. A lesson from the neighbour is about the best way to learn and that would be water wisdom.