Zhejiang province derives its name from the Zhe River, meaning “crooked” or “bent” river. The rivers of Zhejiang Province have long been vital for communities, flowing through ancient towns, among traditional white-walled and black-roofed houses, feeding fertile rice fields.
Yet Zhejiang is also one of the richest and most developed provinces in China. It generates around six per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product and ranks fourth among provinces for economic development. This rapid industrial development came at a cost.
Ancient houses were demolished, watercourses were damaged and river banks collapsed. Domestic and industrial wastewater discharged into water canals turned the clear waters black.
Then, during a visit to Anji County, President Xi Jinping, Secretary of the Zhejiang Provincial Party committee at the time, said: "We do not promote economic development at the expense of the environment. Clear waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets."
River chiefs: working together to reverse environmental destruction
To bring Zhejiang Province back from the brink of destruction, he launched the Zhejiang’s Green Rural Revival Programme, with ecological development at its core. The programme aimed to incorporate water management, waste management and recycling to transform the province.
Among other reforms, 61,000 river chiefs were appointed to manage all water bodies. Their role is to protect and take full responsibility for rivers and waterways throughout the region, preventing and controlling pollution, and managing ecological restoration.
Today, 97 per cent of villages in Zhejiang have transformed their polluted waterways into clean, drinkable rivers, benefitting 30 million residents. Shen Ming Quan, River Chief and Head of Anji County in Zhejiang Province, is one of them.
His county, Anji County, is the bamboo backdrop of the martial arts battle scene of the Oscar-winning film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In China, the county is heralded for its efforts to champion both ecological conservation and rich agricultural production.
"We are working on the frontline of environmental protection," he says. "We must make the right choice for our future. Together, we opt for environmental protection over development, to deliver higher living standards for our communities. As river chiefs, we are proud of the ecological benefits we have achieved for the entire community.”
Anji white tea, grown nowhere else in the country, fetches a high price and Anji’s climate is also ideal for growing alpine vegetables. As well as supporting development of agriculture and other eco-economies such as bamboo production, the county has successfully integrated responsibilities of river chiefs with progressive development.
The results of the mission to clear-up Zhejiang can be attributed to many people. Communities have come together to ensure success. In addition to the efforts of the river chiefs, multiple-channel financing, led by the municipal government, has been complemented by social funds, loans from international financial institutions and even individual donations.
New domestic waste processing systems have been installed in all villages throughout the province. Effective recycling and treating toilet sewage, kitchen sewage and washing waste water are also underway. Eighty per cent of historic buildings have been restored, with water, sanitation and electrical infrastructure overhauled to become more efficient. Waterways have been cleared, with river banks blooming into scenic spots.
"Protecting our ecology and environment is a global consensus and one of the most pressing issues of our time," says Shen. "Our communities require and demand a better life, which means combining good ecological development not at the cost of our environment, but in harmony with it."