Kunming: mending Lake Dian

Leyan from the Blacksmith Institute kindly introduced me to Liu Yun, who is working for YEDI, (Yunnan Environment Development Institute. She suggested we meet when I’m passing through Kunming.

I’m really glad she did, as talking with her really consolidated so many of the various threads of discussions I’ve had over the past few weeks. Her role isn’t easy: the clampdown by the provincial government on environmental projects linked to heavy metal pollution means that she has some tricky ground to negotiate. To publish data on contamination the samples have to be processed through a governmental certified laboratory – this step doubles as the portal for censorship.

We discuss cities like Gejiu, and she tells me she has just come from a meeting about this topic, how to reduce the reliance on natural resources in remote places. In Yunnan in particular she says,  there is a lot of work to be done on making income from these resources in a sustainable way. This requires vision, and perhaps some entrepreneurial spirit from those involved.

As with most people I’ve met, I ask her what she thinks the main barriers are for clean up and management of pollution. She deftly manoeuvres her car around a crater in the road and says definitively: it isn’t a question of money, nor technical resources, but a question of policy and implementation. She thinks there is a real need for a roadmap though, a clear strategy as to how China can develop sustainably so that people know where to start.

We go to the Yunnan Institute for Environmental Science, a research institute where they have been working on Lake Dianshi, which, rather like Lake Taihu has a distinctly green problem. Diffuse point sources have been pouring waste into the lake for years, decimating biodiversity, and leaving the water unfit to drink . It is estimated that it might take over a decade for Dianshi to recover. In the meantime, the city composed a symphony to tell the story.


Siberian seagulls started making Lake Dian their annual migration destination in 1985.

I meet Dr Zhou, a postdoctoral researcher who has spent some years comparing the trends between the two lakes. Lake Dianshi has some clear differences though, thanks to the temperate climate there’s pretty much a bloom year round. Since Kunming is situated at altitude, UV levels are higher, which they believe plays a part in influencing bloom composition.He looks at the effect of shading, and also the effectiveness of compounds such as peroxide to defeat the bloom (no spoiler: they are only temporary fixes, and the algae bounces back).

Together we drive down to the lake and look at some of this test sites, as well as other experiments on nutrient uptake by plants. Yun tells me that the government has spent a lot of money reed beds and wetlands, and a disastrous attempt to introduce water hyacinth which ended badly when the plant became highly invasive. Now the lake is still green and people are wondering if the money has been well spent. There’s a diversity of solutions being trialled and deployed, but there is now a government Dianshi Lake Project who are collating data.

With researchers from YIES at Lake Dianshi

With researchers from YIES at Lake Dianshi

On the way back, Yun tells me one of her other roles is to mentor university students who are developing NGO project ideas. She says so few have had exposure to the real world, they are unrealistic in what they plan to deliver. In her experience, you should start small, and concentrate on making a difference, even if it is to a single individual. Her words are spoken with both pragmatism and care. Too many NGOs come and go. She wishes that more young Chinese had the opportunities afforded to the German or American placement students that they host, she’s a big believer in not only the skills, but the cultural exchange. Her words echo, I’m fortunate to travel.


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