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One not so sudden problem that Chinese media have been reporting, a serious shortage of water. Some worry that it could derail the country's rapid economic growth. China's per capita water resources are only a quarter of the world average. And the problem is aggravated by pollution fouling China's rivers and lakes. The country's wetland environments and their unique way of life are especially threatened.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn traveled 100 miles from Beijing and visited north China's largest wetland ecosystem.

ANTHONY KUHN reporting:

Instead of one lake with people living on its shores, Lake Baiyangdian is composed of 143 small lakes, with dozens of fishing villages scattered on the lakes' many islands. Traditionally, at least, the life of the people was inseparable from the life of the lake. That interdependence survives in a unique local tradition, fishing with birds.

(Soundbite of a bird)

KUHN: Sixty-year-old fisherman Zhang Shiyuan unties six cormorants from their perches near his home and hoists them into his flat-bottomed rowboat. The big birds have webbed feet and a throat pouch, good gear for fishing. With the birds riding shotgun, Zhang heads for the open water. Out on the lake, lotus leaves and lily pads form a lush green carpet. The tall reeds rustle in the wind.

(Soundbite of a bird)

KUHN: Before sending the cormorants after the fish, Zhang first ties a piece of straw around the each bird's neck so it won't swallow its catch. Zhang urges the birds on, splashing his oars and stamping his feet on the boat. The birds dive and stay under for the better part of a minute. When they surface, Zhang hoists them aboard with a pole and empties the fish from their gullets.

Mr. ZHANG SHIYUAN (Fisherman, Lake Baiyangdian): (Through translator) These birds are domesticated animals. We don't raise them for the fun of it. We used to use them to make a living, but now there are faster ways to catch fish.

KUHN: Baiyangdian's wetland ecosystem performs vital functions. It catches floodwaters and moderates the weather. It maintains the biodiversity of plant and animal species. It's China's easternmost rest stop for migratory birds, and it cleans the rivers that flow through it, earning it the nickname North China's kidney.

The channels and islands of Baiyangdian are like the broad avenues and narrow lanes of a great city. Seventy-four-year-old boatman Wang Debjang(ph) knows them all intimately.

Mr. WANG DEBJANG (Boatman, Lake Baiyangdian): (Through translator) I knew how to swim from about the same time I knew how to run and play. I played in the water all day. Back then the water was really clean. We all just scooped it up and drank it.

KUHN: Now Wang has to bring drinking water from village wells when he goes out on the lake. Over the past two decades he's seen cars driving on the dry lakebed. He's seen pollution turn the water the color of soy sauce. He's seen once plentiful Mandarin fish and turtles disappear. But he's also seen the standard of living rise.

Mr. DEBJANG: (Through translator) Life is definitely better now. Then we could barely stave off hunger. Now we have everything, rice, white flour. Back then, we only got to eat white flour at Chinese New Year.

KUHN: Over the past four decades, Baiyangdian's waters have shrunk by a third to their current size of about 140 square miles. Most of the nine rivers that used to feed the lake have run dry due to climate change and the building of dams and reservoirs upstream. The lake receives tons of sewage and industrial waste from Baoding, a city of 10 million people upstream. But some experts feel the damage is reversible. Fisherman Zhang agrees that with a little help, Baiyangdian may yet be able to heal itself.

Mr. SHIYUAN: (Through translator) The turtles and the Mandarin fish are gone, but if the water can be cleaned, they will naturally reappear by themselves. Even the most experienced fishermen can't explain this. It's just nature.

KUHN: The Chinese government has recently announced a 10 year, billion dollar effort to clean up Baiyangdian.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Lake Baiyangdian.

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