So what are the Seven Big Activities to protect Erhai?
According to a document published on the official Dali website, the Seven Big Activities comprise the following:
The last few years turned Erhai's once sleepy waterside towns and villages into teeming tourist spots, with seemingly every building that could conceivably boast a 'lake view' room turn into a guesthouse, a restaurant or both. Particularly Shuanglang 双廊, only a few years back a small town where it was hard to find accommodation and anything to eat after dark, turned into Yunnan's new 'must see' destination. At the latest count, Shuanglang had over 600 hotels and restaurants.
While villagers certainly cashed in, it was mostly outsiders who brought the capital and the tourist experience to open nearly 2000 hotels, guesthouses and restaurants around the lake. But often they opened without a complete set of the required permits, something that they came to regret.
With the water quality of the lake deteriorating sharply and a bloom of blue algae underway in the middle of winter 2017, the Dali authorities, spurned on by a visit by Chinese leader Xi Jinping in January 2015, where he urged to protect the lake, declared a Erhai Core Protection Area where the guesthouses and restaurants without full license and complying with sewage regulations were to be closed without delay, without exception and without compensation.
As new licenses had not being given out for a while in an ineffective bid to slow down development, with regulations opaque and difficult to follow, essentially all establishments found themselves missing one document or violating something else. In Wase 挖色, on the lake's eastern shore, out of a total of 220 tourist establishments, only 11 had the full set of licenses all in order. Everyone else became one of the Two Forbidden 两违, the two referring to restaurants and guesthouses, and summarily closed in early April 2017. Blue signs on windows and doors setting out: 保护洱海自行停业 Protect Erhai Voluntarily Closed.
What seemed a romantic investment to many fleeing the big cities for a quiet life as a guesthouse host turned overnight into a nightmare of staggering losses. Often rents had been paid a decade ahead and large investments made into building ever nicer rooms, some of them never to open.
But even some of those who thought themselves far away from the shores of Erhai were caught up in this policy. The Erhai Core Protection Area includes the direct vicinity of all major tributaries to the lake: not only the eighteen streams coming down from Cangshan, but the area all the way up to Fengyu in Eryuan. The once thriving spa town of 下山口 in Eryuan county turned into a ghost city just as much as Shuanglang on the lake's north-eastern shore. Even inside Dali Old Town 大理古城 those establishments to close to a stream were forced shut.
Strict controls have been implemented within this core area: no new buildings apart from environmental and public facilities, with existing guesthouses and restaurants only able to reopen once all permits are in place. The punishment for offending the rules: never to reopen.
While the policy suggest that at the end of the rectification campaign, guesthouses and restaurants will be able to restart business, the stated policy is also to permanently limit the number of tourist facilities. More than a hundred illegal houses and more than 40 guesthouse will be torn down. As of August 2017, not a single guesthouse or restaurant seems to have resumed business.
Untreated sewage and rubbish became the second target of the campaign. While sewage facilities had reached most villages and rubbish collection had improved over the last years, often convenience and ignorance left facilities deteriorated and unused.
May 2017 saw the arrival of thousands of small septic tanks to be installed by every single household. Roads that often had only been recently built or resurfaced were dug up again to improve sewage facilties and connect houses. Residents were told not to leave rubbish outside but to take it to collection points. With typical Chinese speed, this part of the work seems to be largely completed around Erhai, with deliveries of septic tanks now reaching villages far from the lake.
The many septic tanks that have now been installed are only the first step. Their outflows are to be connected to the sewage system that will soon connect to the giant ring sewage system under construction around the lake: not a single drop of sewage is meant to reach the lake once everything is completed. Everywhere drainage hole have been plugged, pit toilets have been connected to pipes, sewage ditches drained.
Dali's agriculture, a major contributor to lake contamination through exessive use of fertiliser and pesticides, was not spared from intervention.
The immediate vicinity of the lake has been marked as off-limits to any form of agriculture while animal breeding farms have been prohibited in the wider area, with the goal to control and reduce animal rearing. The whole Erhai area is to turn to enviromentally friendly agriculture with a focus on reduction of water usage, reduction of pollution and a landuse that is sustainable. Farmers on television are talking about using organic fertilizer 有机肥 in the future.
One major culprit was identified for the recent deterioration of Erhai's water quality: garlic. Requiring about 100kg of fertilizer per 亩 (667m2), this profitable product expanded in recent years to be grown literally everywhere in winter. No more.
Farmers are being compensated for the loss of their farmland, but some worry how long the compensation will be paid.
What the new policies mean for both the important dairy industry, mostly up near Dengchuan, and for cultural products like 乳扇, an air-dried cow-cheese eaten fried at special occassions as well as used in rituals and traditionally made in small family workshops, remains to be seen.
The fourth activity is to restore the water ecosystem around the lake by removing large areas totally from agriculture and returning them to wetlands in order to improve the self-regulation of the lake. This policy reverts hundreds of years of efforts of turning swamp lands into fields.
Even over the last decades villagers drained more and more land, turning once half-aquatic fields into permanent agricultural dry-land, requiring irrigation. Villages that once abutted the water during the rainy season are now hundreds of meters away from the permanent lake shore. While this seems normal now, a hundred years ago large parts of what is now Xiaguan where still swampland. Only at Eryuan's West Lake 西湖 can the old, variable water-level form of agriculture still be seen.
Now the process has been set into reverse, if this is at all possible. The old wetlands in Fengyi have become the industrial area of Xiaguan East, while the tourism-attracting Erhai Ring Road 洱海环路 is acting as a permanent barrier to expansion of the lake during the high water season.
However, the area around the lake is being ecologically regenerated, areas declared off-limits, trees and shrubs are being planted. Every few hundred meters, artificial pond systems have been constructed to reduce the nitrate level in farm run-off before the water reaches the lake.
The wetlands along three rivers reaching the lake from the north are in the process of being restored. The process of rewilding, as some in the west might call it, seems to have a pretty quick impact with once protected fields already swamped and wildlife returning, particularly along the small river draining from Fengyu 凤羽. But strangely, a river channeling project in the Fengyu basin is still being completed even though totally at odds with the water policies just a few hundred meters further downstream.
Grey area water use through bore-holes and wells, popular with the local population for avoiding the (pretty low) water fees (of maybe 100元 per year per person) is to be curtailed in the future.
The construction of a large scale ring sewage system, stretching all around the lake, has been accelerated. Focus of all policies is on speed as the government fears the lake does not have much time left for a regeneration.
As of August 2017, the ring sever, its pipes as large as 1m in diameter, seems complete, but the treatment plants are still under construction. A TV program suggested that in Wase, water treatment is already in operation.
While for the last few years controls around the lake seem to have been lax, the new policies now reverse this totally: party and government are both called to control the implementation of the policies with zero tolerance towards offenders. Who violates the current regulations faces permanent closure. No one in the Dali region seems to doubt this, no one is openly flouting the law.
As the last big activity, joining in the protection of Erhai has been made the responsibility of all, with slogans to protect the lake everywhere and little dissent to be heard. While in private some people, particularly those with monetary losses to grieve, moan, publicly there is no dissent to be heard.
Those who lament Chinese environmental policies has to concede: if the Chinese government sets its heart to something, it is pretty effective in getting things done. One might now agree with everything the new policies bring and even the government concedes that some measures are experimental, but we can agree on something:
洱海清大理兴 If Erhai is clean then is Dali happy.