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Vagabond Journey

What Happens When China’s Largest Lake Disappears

How a journey to China’s largest freshwater lake ended up a hike in a mudflat.

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It’s rarely ever a good sign when a boat is marooned in an expanse of mud, far from the shores of any navigable body of water. But this ominous scene now dots the shores of Poyang Lake in Jiangxi province. Fishermen are stuck in the mud here, their boats splayed out in askance rows, some flipped upside down, out of commission for the season. Around them, grasses are growing and cows are grazing. I was standing upon what was once a lake shore, looking at these boats down in a 10 meter deep cavity that stretched out to the horizon. It was once full of water. Kneeling down next to me was a fisherman who had given up the trade for the season, he was rearranging a bundle of scrap he salvaged from the mudflats beyond.

I was in Duchang, on the eastern bank of China’s largest freshwater lake. In the wet season, Poyang Lake is a 4,000 sq kilometer behemoth that stretches from the Yangtze River in the north to the city of Nanchang in the south. In the dry season it withers up into a chubby river, and in some places disappears entirely. Large seasonal fluctuations in water level are natural here, but since the commissioning of a reservoir of the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric plant, these changes have been extreme.

Some experts also say that as the Three Gorges Dam reduces water levels along the Yangtze River, the volume of water flowing out of Poyang Lake and into the river will increase. In September last year [2007], the Three Gorges Dam started storing water at the end of the flood season. Several days later the Jiangxi Water Bureau found that 6,000 cubic metres of water per second were flowing out of the lake and into the Yangtze. At the same time, only 1,000 cubic meters per second were feeding into the lake from its tributaries. –Crisis at Poyang Lake

Each winter the reports come out about how Poyang Lake is drying up. Each year they say the dry season starts sooner, the water mark gets lower, and the lake’s surface area gets smaller than the year that preceded it. This year is no exception: in December the lake shriveled up to under 175 sq kilometers, the lowest water volume in its recorded history.

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I walked along what was probably once a beautiful lakeside promenade. The walkway was stone tiled and there were statues and big stone billboards that had pictures, poems, and the stories carved into them. Today, this park has fallen into disrepair, built and forgotten. I was alone save for a necking couple and two young women moaning about their lives. A wooden pagoda sat upon a nearby hillock that jetted out into the lake bed. Its windows were broken, its doors were kicked in, candy wrappers, pop bottles, the remains of campfires, human feces with crumpled toilet paper speckled the floor. Not many people stroll down this way anymore, and there probably is a good reason for this: the lake is gone.

Poyang was once a main transport corridor between the Yangtze and Pearl River Deltas, commercially connecting the central regions of the China with the south. It was the site of one of the largest naval battles in history. Ancient poets used to write lines about it like, “Endless water merges into the floating cloud, the immense lake looks boundless as it melts into the sky.”

Now this boundless lake has dwindled down to a swollen river, some narrow streams, and a lot of mud. As I looked out into the distance, it was difficult to believe that the sinewy rivulets that boats were struggling to chug down once floated ancient ships of war and the busy commerce lanes of ancient China.

Though its pertinence has waned in recent times, Poyang Lake is still one of China’s most important bodies of water. It’s one of China’s largest sources of freshwater, and it was once one of the country’s last reserves of clean, unpolluted H2O. In 2001, 80% of the samples taken from the lake showed category I or II water, which means that it was remarkably clean. Though by 2007 no more of these crystalline samples were to be found. As China’s manufacturing epicenters, such as in the Pearl River Delta, began dispersing around the country, many factories have found footings around previously un-industrialized places like Poyang Lake. For the first time in its history, pollution was being dumped into the lake, and the effect has, of course, been disastrous. Some have now labeled Poyang, “the cesspit of the entire province.”

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Poyang Lake is still an epicenter for an array of wildlife, much of which is rare or threatened. The nearly extinct fin-less porpoise is a resident here, and 87 bird species winter at Poyang Lake, including 11 which are endangered. Though their quantities are on the decline. It has recently been reported that over the past decade the number of birds coming here has dropped ten fold. Less water means less food, and many migratory birds are now passing over Poyang.

I continued walking along Poyang’s historic shoreline, and was soon standing near a road that cut into Duchang, a small 130,000 person city. There were long rubber hoses extending out from the city over the mudflats to the rapidly retreating lake beyond. Municipal water is still pumped in from the lake, but the hoses need to be extended farther and farther each year. This city on the bank of China’s largest lake is often left dry during the winter months, an unsettling irony.

I stood before a temple that sat upon a 10 meter high pedestal of earth sticking up out of the ground. It’s called Yinshan Island. It’s not much of an island anymore, as you can walk up to it on foot.

Cars now drive around on the lake bed by its foot, kids zip around on bicycles, livestock grazes on newly sprouted grass, and farmers have seized the opportunity to grow crops in the newly revealed soil. Fishermen now have no fish to catch, and while the local government claims to pay them subsidies, most actually haven’t received them in years. So now these men and women who come from a long lineage of fishing families stomp around in the mud of the lake bed, salvaging long lost steel propellers and iron rudders that they can sell as scrap. Duchang sprouted up because of this lake, and the people who live here still rely on it. This is no different now that the waters have receded, though new methods of deriving sustenance have been created. Though selling scrap metal and farming mudflats are pathetic substitutes for fishing and transport.

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Yinshan Island in the dry season

yinshan-island-with-water-poyang-lake_DCEYinshan Island in the wet season

Though the people that I talked to here did not seem overtly worried. Some still come down to the river bank to take pictures of the mud or to gawk at the pedestal of land that used to be an island. “Next year there will be water,” many told me confidently. “The government will fix it,” others cheered.

“They are getting out the bad,” one local resident said as we looked out over the place the lake used to be.

“The what?”

“The bad,” he said again, as though his statement both made sense and was factual.

“It is like this every year,” another guy who grew up in Duchang told me.

“So the water went away like this when you were a kid?” I asked.

He then thought for a moment and had a change of heart. “No,” he replied, “it didn’t. This year is worse than ever.”

But nobody I talked to would blame the lack of lake on anything other than natural factors. While the international media isn’t shy to claim that human actions are the cause for the drying up of Poyang Lake, the people who live on it are not so convinced — or informed. I asked them about whether the Three Gorges Dam could be to blame, and most just looked at me funny, as though they’ve never heard the suggestion before.

“No, it is not because of the dam,” one local resident exclaimed, “it is because this year Jiangxi doesn’t have much water. The weather is very bad.”

“For how many years has the water dried up like this?” I then asked.

“Five years,” was the reply.

Five years is roughly how long the dam’s reservoir that sucks water from Poyang has been in operation. But this fact is not generally shared with the people who live on the lake. It’s more of something that’s whispered among the fringe that’s active in such debates, not something that the general populous cares to waste breath discussing. What would be the point of this? It’s far less grueling, I imagine, to just shrug. For all intents and purposes, for all that the people of Poyang Lake can do, the problems may as well be 100% natural. The government will fix it.

But of course the issue here is more complex than just the Three Gorges Dam draining the lake. Four rivers feed Poyang, the Gan, Fu, Xin and Xiushui, and due to drought and the siphoning of water along the way, they all continuously bring in less and less sustenance. The South-North water transfer project, a colossal endeavor designed to feed the power plants in China’s water depleted, heavily industrialized north with water from the south is also having an impact. Combining all of this with global warming and sporadic rains, and the largest freshwater lake in China is facing a continual challenge for existence.

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The government of Jiangxi province has proposed a plan to preserve their lake by installing sluice gates at its mouth, reducing the outflow to the Yangtze river in the dry season. But this would only send the crisis farther down stream — and downstream is Nanjing and Shanghai. The threat of seawater back flow is real here, and China may soon be facing an inter-province water war.

Though this has not discouraged the local government in Duchang from rapidly redeveloping their lakefront. The renders of the final project show a sparkling new city tightly hugging a glistening blue lake. The present reality is that the lake is a brown pit of mud for much of the year. Not dissuaded by this, Duchang has pumped in water and built their own little lake on the opposite side of a levee. The effect is disorienting when you look out towards Poyang and see the dried-up lake bed, then turn around to find a new city replete with parks and temples growing up around a separated off artificial lake. A typical Chinese solution.

This is a country that put a one and a half mile long dam across the world’s third longest river, removed hundreds of mountains, sends electricity enmasse thousands of kilometers from its west to its east, built hundreds of new cities, installed a nationwide high speed rail network, laid a 22,000 mile highway grid, shuffled 400 million people into cities, turned its air into a poisonous miasma, its soil into a heavy metal repository, toxified much of its drinking water, saw hundreds of millions rise out of poverty, and became a global superpower in twenty years of rampant development. China seems to view nature as an obstacle at best, something to conquer at worse, and in the process has placed trophies on the shelf of human achievement as well as serving up some of the most heinous examples of wholesale environmental destruction. Environmental calamities — catastrophes even — are so common here that it is difficult to regard them as anything other than routine. This fact alone is almost as startling as the drying up of Poyang Lake.

Additional photos

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Yinshan Island Poyang Lake with Water

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poyang-lake-dried-up (2)

anchor in sand

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Filed under: Articles, China, Environment

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 89 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3490 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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