Facing the Truth and Making a Concerted Effort to Solve Problems: The Story of the Construction of a Reservoir for Drinking Water at the Upper Reaches of Heishuitan River

The water basin of Heishuitan is very polluted.

By Lu Yinchun (Programme Assistant, Chongqing Public River Environment Protection Cultural Centre)

Editor's note:

Taoziping is a community at the upper reaches of Heishuitan River in Chongqing City’s Beibei District. The community sought help from Chongqing Public River Environment Protection Cultural Centre (CPREPCC), a local partner of PCD, to build a reservoir for drinking water.  However, CPREPCC discovered that the lack of basic facilities, such as a reservoir, was not the only problem the community was facing with regard to drinking water. The little creek at the headwaters of the river was filled with garbage, resulting in the downstream reaches river becoming badly polluted. The issue of ecological health had to be addressed before the villagers could have access to clean drinking water. This article is an account of and reflection on the discovery of the pollution of the water source and the actions the community took to alleviate the problem.

PCD began to support CPREPCC at the beginning of 2013, to conduct a survey on the problem of polluted river basins. CPREPCC subsequently launched community activities focusing on river conservation and garbage management. Taoziping, which is located at the upper reaches of the Heishuitan River, has been chosen as the site for a pilot scheme on waste separation that aims to encourage interaction between communities in the upper and lower reaches for river conservation and waste separation in this small river basin.

A Water Source That Villagers Are Proud Of

+ Click thumbnail to enlarge photo
Map of Heishuitan River showing its geographical location.
The water basin of Heishuitan is very polluted.
Villagers clearing garbage in Zhongzuiguo.
Villagers separating waste in their community.

Building the reservoir together.

A new reservoir for drinking water.

At the upper reaches of Heishuitan River in Jindaoxia in Chongqing City’s Beibei District, there is a small creek called Zhongzuigou. It is 1.5 km long and flows through the villages of Mazaowuji and Taoziping, joining Lannigou, another small creek, before it flows into Heishuitan. Don’t look down on this small creek! It's the source of drinking water for nearly 40 families! Now let us hear the story of Zhongzuigou and the villagers.

I remember that when we first came to Taoziping, located on the bank of Heishuitan River, we found it incredible to hear villagers complaining that there was no tap water. Being so near to the city and a national tourist spot with a 3A rating, how could it be possible that there was no tap water? However, the villagers said lack of tap water wasn't really the problem. The problem was that there was no reservoir. “If we have something to save up the water, we won’t be short of water during the dry season,” said one. “Actually the water that we are using now is even cleaner than the water from the taps on the street. There is no pollution. It comes from the springs in the mountain.” The water the villagers were talking about flows from Zhongzuiguo.

It is true that Zhongzuiguo is covered with vegetation and there is always water in the water basin, but was the water really clean and hygienic?

The Surprisingly Polluted Creek

Experience tells us that rivers in the rural area often suffer from all sorts of pollution. We asked the Taoziping elders whether the water from Zhongzuiguo was polluted or not. They insisted that the quality of the water they had been drinking for decades was absolutely fine. However, Mr Ou, the village head, agreed to go with us and some villagers to Zhongzuiguo to have a look.

No one could have believed that a casual visit would reveal such a large amount of everyday garbage at the creek. The further we walked up the stream, the more unhealthy it looked. When we were at the upper reaches, we saw a few piles of garbage on the side of the creek. There were plastic bags, torn clothes and shoes, rotted pomelos, and even containers and bags used to hold chemical fertiliser and medicine. It seemed that Zhongzuiguo was also faced with the problem of non-point-source pollution (pollution of a large area caused by pollutants) and a siege of everyday garbage! We found out that in the village of Mazaowuji, a few dozen families lived on the bank of Zhongzuiguo. Since their village was far away from the main road, they dumped their garbage into the creek.

Tang Xianjiu, the villager who had been most confident about the quality of the water, seemed to have suffered a big blow and remained quiet. Other villagers looked helpless too. “We had no idea that the water we had been drinking was so dirty,” one villager said. What was to be done to solve the problem of drinking water?

Discussing Plans to Solve the Problem

Even after they found that Zhongzuiguo was very polluted, a discussion among the villagers still ended in a request to build a reservoir. For the villagers, solving the problem of insufficient drinking water during the dry season was more pressing. They also thought that the reservoir should only be used to store groundwater, and that surface water should be prevented from entering the reservoir. They hoped to improve the quality of the drinking water in this way. Finally, they believed that the pollution created by the garbage dumped by the Mazaowuji villagers could be prevented by the intervention of the village administration.

CPREPCC arrived at the Heishuitan riverbank with the aim of mobilising the inhabitants of the river basin to address the problem of agricultural non-point-source pollution and everyday garbage, and to restore the ecology and culture of the river basin. However, it turned out that what the villagers most wanted was to build a reservoir for drinking water. A bigger capital fund would be required for such a project. Should we support the villagers? We recalled our encounter with the villagers of Taoziping. Because of our ongoing survey, we had been having exchanges with the villagers for a long period of time. We had never promised to support them in the building of a reservoir. In spite of this, Mr Ou, the village head, stressed that we would always be welcome guests, regardless of whether we helped them build the reservoir or not. The villager Tang Xianjiu said: “You treated us as though you were our sisters, we are of course willing to be your friends.” And Chen Side, who had always been very helpful, liked to say: “You come so far from the city to help us protect the environment and to clear the garbage. There is no way that we don’t participate.” We also remembered that the villagers always praised the village head for being just, fair and efficient. After discussions with the villagers, we finally decided to support the villagers’ plan to build the reservoir.

Clearing the Garbage in the Creek Together

Water flows, and dirty water can sink into the soil. If the problem of garbage in the creek was not addressed, the villagers' drinking water would still be dirty.

In our minds, we had hoped that the villagers were concerned not only with their own problems but also with those of others, and that they would take part in addressing and solving these problems together.

Activities such as 'Voyage to Discover the Community' and 'Community Walk' were therefore launched to encourage villagers to observe and to recollect the changes in their everyday life and surroundings. We hoped that they would become aware of what was threatening the water source and their living environment. Villagers said that awareness should be raised among the inhabitants of the upper reaches of the river to stop them dumping garbage into the creek. However, this was only one aspect of the issue. We suggested that the garbage in the creek should be cleared before the reservoir was built.  We should ensure that the water source is clean before we address the problem of insufficient drinking water.

A village subcommittee on environmental protection was formed with five members, including the village head. They were responsible for clearing the garbage in the creek, from the upper reaches all the way downstream. As they did so, they spoke to the nearby inhabitants, telling them not to throw garbage into the creek because people downstream of them used it as drinking water.

After clearing garbage several times while educating the nearby villagers, a positive change was observed among families living along the creek. The inhabitants being contacted and educated at the upper reaches agreed not to throw garbage into the creek anymore.

Planning and Building a Reservoir for Drinking Water

CPREPCC held a number of meetings with the villagers on building the reservoir before a consensus was reached. Taoziping’s villagers organised a management committee to take up the construction work while everyone took part in discussions about the construction plan. The villagers also reached agreement on how to manage the reservoir after it was built.  Construction work started on July 15, 2013, with the support of CPREPCC. All villagers took part in building the reservoir. With a common purpose in mind, the villagers shared all the tasks and worked together. A reservoir with a capacity of 60 m³ of water was built in less than a month. It was a great success because it solved the twin problems of insufficient drinking water and water pollution, and the villagers of Taoziping benefited directly.

Follow-up Actions on Cooperation Between the Upstream and Downstream Settlements

Apart from solving the problem of insufficient drinking water, the programme was also designed to encourage the villagers to become concerned with environmental problems in their everyday life. The Heishuitan River flows in front of the villagers' homes. In the past, all activities of the villagers’ everyday life—washing, cooking, drinking and irrigation—depended on it. But more recently, the river was a place where villagers dumped their garbage and a channel for its transportation downstream whenever there was a flood. Because of the building of the reservoir, however, the villagers are now concerned with garbage produced in everyday life and have come up with ideas about how to improve the health of the river. To set an example for upstream and downstream communities, Taoziping has also started to practice waste separation.
Building a reservoir is relatively simple. What follows is reservoir management. An important issue is the coordination and cooperation between inhabitants of the upstream and downstream settlements to prevent pollution of the shared water source. To achieve this goal, the reservoir management committee has begun to raise the awareness of the people living upstream. They hope to encourage these people to practice waste separation by setting an example themselves. The impact of their effort is gradually becoming visible, but there are still challenges. To sustain villagers’ motivation, support has to be provided in many aspects and from many perspectives to stimulate villagers’ love for their home environment and for life.