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Bringing Suzhou Creek back to life

LIU Zu'e never thought that she would again live near Suzhou Creek, which used to be Shanghai's notoriously dark and smelly "mother river."

That was 30 years ago, and no one wanted to live near the dead river befouled with industrial and other waste.

Today, the 72-year-old former school teacher lives just a few steps away from the site of her old home - last week she moved into her grandson's apartment building along the river.

"I've heard how Suzhou Creek is so clean now and I've always wondered how that could be possible and what it looks like now," she tells Shanghai Daily.

Today, after 12 years of rehabilitation in three phases, the once toxic mother river runs clearer and cleaner - some fish swim about. Trees have been planted along the river banks, expensive apartment buildings have gone up, along with trendy spots like the art hub M50 on Moganshan Road.

So far, the city has spent 14 billion yuan (US$2.1 billion) on the cleanup and revival of Suzhou Creek.

There's a long way to go to improve water quality and a fourth rehabilitation phase is needed.

Still, the water quality of Suzhou Creek has been dramatically improved and it now qualifies for aesthetic environmental use, the goal set 12 years ago, says Zhu Xipei, deputy director of the Shanghai Suzhou Creek Rehabilitation Project.

If you scoop a handful of water from the 54-kilometer stretch reach inside the city (you would never dare dip your hand in before), there's no smell. The water is much clearer and you can even see fish, which would have been killed by the poisonous old river.

By the end of this year, the office will resume its project to dredge and remove about 1.3 million cubic meters of sludge from the riverbed, the result of years of industrial and residential dumping. It has been suspended during the World Expo.

Liu's grandson, 29-year-old IT consultant Zhang Li, still remembers his childhood along Suzhou Creek where he used to visit his grandparents once a week.

"In the summer, you just couldn't open the windows because the stench was unbearable. And my parents always made me take a shower right away after coming back from my grandparents' because the place was so dirty," recalls Zhang.

At that time, residential waste and sewage was dumped into the river and more than 900 factories discharged waste directly into the waters.

The situation was a scandal.

In the early 1990s the municipal government launched a major project to clean up the creek, first by removing the sources of pollution. Families, including Liu's, were relocated.

Liu moved to suburban Songjiang District in 1997 and never visited the river again until she moved into the new apartment last week.

"It was sort of love and hate for me with the river. On the one hand, I miss it because it was where we lived for more than 40 years. On the other hand, we were so disturbed just thinking about the stink that we would never want to experience it again," she says.

"The memory was like the fear of a small black room from your childhood, but now I can see the clear water and nice trees. It's a pity we can't go into the water yet."

The first phase of rehabilitation, from 1998 to 2003, mainly focused on eliminating the black color and foul odor caused by sewage and factory discharge. Environmental regulations were strengthened.

"Most of the factories decided to move because discharge regulations were stricter and there was little room for expansion," says Zhu from the rehabilitation project.

"Those factories finally realized that moving to suburban or countryside areas could actually bring them more profit so they just took the compensation and went away."

A water lock was installed between Suzhou Creek and the Huangpu River so clean water from the river would flush the polluted creek with the tidal action.

Running water does not get stale, goes the Chinese saying.

Oxygen was injected into the dead river to change the eco-environment. Before the rehabilitation, the creek's oxygen content was less than 2 milligrams per liter, so few creatures could survive.

The content now is almost 4 milligrams per liter and fish such as mullet have been spotted.

The second phase maintained and stabilized the water quality, which was a tough job.

"There are many tributaries of Suzhou Creek, both inside and outside of Shanghai, and most had also been polluted," says Zhu.

The volume of the tributary flow was enormous and water had to be controlled through gates on the streams.

The third phase created conditions for the eco-environment revival and dredged the sludge from the bottom. The dredging will resume later in the year.

"After that, we will mainly focus on the ecological revival of the river," says Zhu, who calls this much tougher than all the other treatment. The goal is to establish a stable, self-sustaining biological environment for the river.

The fish that have been spotted are transients - the eco-system is not yet good enough for them to spawn.

Homeowner Zhang, Liu's grandson, visited the river many times before deciding to purchase the apartment and has been disappointed he hasn't seen many fish.

"I was always jealous of my uncle, who said he could swim in the river with fish when he was little. That's part of the reason why I want to move back along the river."

"I hope my child will be able to swim in the river soon."

But that will take time.

Most of the water in the urban area is quality level 5 in China - that's the water for landscaping only, not for household use. Swimming requires level 4 or above.


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