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BAIYANGDIAN, China — Here in the Baiyangdian region there is only quiet resignation among people who feel powerless to stop the drying up of lakes where the Qing emperor Qianlong once went fishing.

A local Communist Party secretary, Gao Jianpo, insists that Baiyangdian’s problems are temporary and minor, part of nature’s cyclical ebb and flow. But the villagers say something else is happening, and the experts say they are right.

“This isn’t just a natural phenomenon. It has more to do with mankind,” said Liu Changming, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, adding that less water reaches Baiyangdian because the cities, factories and farms upriver are using more. “And when there’s a drought, people use even more water.”

In the 1950s, the lakes of Baiyangdian covered more than 310 square miles. Today, local officials say 186 square miles remain under water; Liu puts the figure closer to 44 square miles.

But local officials still brag about Baiyangdian to investors looking for reliable water supplies for factories, and reservoirs siphon off water from all nine of the rivers that flow here. When rainfall is heavy, the government sometimes releases water from the reservoirs and publishes articles describing how Baiyangdian has recovered.

Another problem is pollution. In February 2000 and again in December, tens of thousands of dead fish were found floating on the lakes, apparently victims of toxic discharges from paper mills and chemical factories. Fishermen said they received “pollution relief” payments as compensation, but Gao, the local official, declined to discuss the subject.

“We should talk less about this,” he said, steering the conversation to tourism.

In Beijing, environmental officials acknowledge the Baiyangdian lakes are among the most polluted in China. One government study in the mid-1990s discovered liver and esophageal cancer rates in the villages around Baiyangdian that were three times higher than those of villages with cleaner water supplies.

The government has tried to save Baiyangdian, partly because it is so well known. All Chinese schoolchildren read an essay about how villagers here waged a guerrilla war against the Japanese during World War II, hiding in the complex network of waterways and moving underwater by breathing through straws.

As early as 1972, Premier Zhou Enlai called a special meeting to protect Baiyangdian. There have been many more meetings since, and the government says it has shut down hundreds of paper mills, tanneries, dye factories and oil refineries and spent millions building waste-treatment facilities around the lake.

But, according to Liu, 80 to 90 percent of the wastewater from the cities and farms upstream still is not treated before it flows into Baiyangdian. And because there is less water in the lakes, the pollution has a greater effect.

The lack of water and its declining quality mean the reeds are growing shorter, making it more difficult for villagers to weave the mats they export to Japan. Even Baiyangdian’s duck eggs, known for their red yolks, are losing that special characteristic.

“There’s not enough in the water for the ducks to eat,” complained Xia Huitian, 24, tending his flock of 2,000 ducks.

Copyright © 2001 The Washington Post. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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