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    Dike Blown Up to Restore Polluted Dongting Lake’s Ecosystem

    Local government says illegal levees contribute to stagnation and pollution.

    A local government in central China is taking explosive action against fish farmers who carve out their own sections of Dongting Lake with dikes, harming the broader ecosystem in the process.

    With a deafening blast, the sluice gate of the largest and costliest levee on the lake was blown to smithereens, state news agency China News Service reported Monday. The demolition, which occurred Sunday in Yuanjiang, a city in Hunan province, was part of the local government’s crackdown on the illegal construction of dikes and high fences in and around Dongting Lake. The move is intended to restore the ecology of the lake, which has been under siege by enterprising locals hoping to make a quick buck from fish farming.

    “Man-made dikes have a relatively big impact on the ecological environment of the area, and also on water quality,” Liu Ling, a hydrology professor at Hohai University in Nanjing, in the eastern province of Jiangsu, told Sixth Tone. Liu added that dike construction impedes water circulation, and consequently the water’s capacity to purify itself — which in turn affects the entire ecosystem of Dongting Lake.

    Hong Wu, who was present for the demolition, told Sixth Tone it was a relief to witness the event. An environmental activist at the nongovernmental organization Green Hunan, Hong said he has been advocating for the dike’s destruction for three years now.

    “Destroying the sluice is the most important step in demolishing the dike,” Hong said, explaining that this would allow water from the isolated section to flow freely into the wider lake once more.

    Located in the northern part of Hunan province, Dongting Lake is one of the five main freshwater lakes in China. In recent years, companies near the lake have started building dikes and fences for fish farming purposes.

    The 21-kilometer dike partially demolished over the weekend was reportedly built by local businessman Xia Shun’an, who is also a member of the Hunan Provincial People’s Congress, a regional legislative body. Construction of the dike began in 2000, and by the time it was finished, it closed off an area of 20 square kilometers, with costs totaling over 100 million yuan

    According to a 2015 article in the Xiaoxiang Morning Herald, Xia signed a contract with the local government in the early 2000s that gave him permission to use a part of the lake and develop it to grow reeds, trees, and fish. Xia told the paper he had spent 15 years building the dike before being told in 2014 that doing so was prohibited.

    The crackdown on dikes and fences is a major setback for local aquaculture, and compensation should be awarded to the people who invested substantial sums in building them, Xia was quoted as saying at a provincial legislative meeting. Xia added that it wasn’t so long ago that the local government supported rather than discouraged lakeside development as a means of invigorating the local economy.

    The environmentalist Hong told Sixth Tone that the earthen dikes and wire fences are made by businessmen who occupy public space on the lake and ban other fishermen from coming in — a tendency that causes conflict and disrupts the ecosystem.

    “In addition, fish farming affects water quality because feed and excrement lead to contamination,” said Liu. “Because of this, the density of fish farms should be strictly controlled.”

    The Hunan Remote Sensing Center discovered in 2014 that illegal dike building in the Yuanjiang area has an adverse impact on local ecological environment and hinders flood management, and the Hunan provincial government vowed last May to demolish all illegal dikes and fences on and around Dongting Lake by the end of 2017.

    However, according to Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper, the government crackdown has proved difficult to enforce, as many dikes are located in so-called blind areas of the lake — which itself stretches across several counties — over which no one entity has jurisdiction.

    At a March conference for government officials, the deputy mayor of Yuanjiang said the presence of dikes on Dongting Lake is a serious but complicated issue, and that some fishermen rebuild the prohibited structures once the government’s back is turned.

    Neither Yuanjiang’s environmental protection bureau nor its animal husbandry and fisheries bureau had responded to Sixth Tone’s interview requests by Wednesday afternoon.

    Correction: In a previous version of this story, Xia Shun’an, was identified as a member of the Henan Provincial People’s Congress. He is a member of the Hunan Provincial People’s Congress.

    Editor: David Paulk.

    (Header image: Fishermen set illegal fishing nets on Dongting Lake in Hunan province, Jan. 10, 2007. Yang Zhenhua/VCG)