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Waterkeeping in Beijing

Updated: Mar 21, 2022

Once again I’m back on the train. This time from Hangzhou to Shanghai. Seems like this is the only time I have to concentrate for more than 15 minutes. We’ve been having an incredible time, and all this running around leaves us both exhausted at the end of the day. Of course after dinner is the time I plan on sitting down to write, so it gets put off ‘till the morning, which starts earlier than expected and so the cycle continues until we’re back on the train. So enough with the prologue, let’s get back to the story.


For Saturday we had arranged to join the local Waterkeeper group for a river walk along the South Beijing Canal. They had even arranged for a translator to help us our as well. Andrew is an American student doing some research and work with the environmental NGO community in Beijing. He’s actually a Virginian as well (Arling-xandria area).

As we walked out to the main road to catch a cab Andrew introduced us to the joys of Beijing roadside cuisine. Skip the carts & mobile stands, but pop into any interesting looking food stall or open garage bay and you’ll be presented with some mysterious culinary masterpiece. It’s not gourmet, but these hard working cooks take pride in what they turn out. If you have no idea what to order, it helps to simply smile & look American. Chances are they’ll pull out a sample of their best dish and offer it to you. This morning it was meat and vegetable dumplings hot out of the steamer. This had to be the best $1.25 breakfast I’ve ever eaten.

Our cab driver stayed true to form and whisked us around the city with complete abandon. Chinese taxi drivers earn their reputation for having a passionate disregard for road signs, other cars, pedestrians, and any other obstacle that’s unfortunate enough to be in their way. While I never felt like we were in danger, I was glad to have a seatbelt. When the cab dropped us off at the subway station we had gone from running 10 minutes behind schedule to being early by 15 minutes. While we waited for the rest of our team to assemble we kept ourselves entertained by trying to find shelter from the biting wind that was whipping through the city. We knew that it was going to be cold in Beijing in November, but we happened to land in the middle of a major cold snap. The snow on the ground this time of year wasn’t unprecedented, but it was far from a regular occurrence.

As the Waterkeeper volunteers arrived Andrew kept us in the loop with the conversation and the rest of the guys flexed their English skills, happy to have the opportunity to practice. Before we knew it there were a dozen of us heading off to the river where we were met by a group of about 15 students who were joining us today to learn about environmental issues and what they can do to be part of the solution.

The South Beijing River runs in concrete banks for dozens of miles (maybe 100’s). This once wild waterway has been transformed into a frightening metropolitan drainage that collects water from everything from factories to the runoff from the outdoor markets that fill dirt lots around the city. While we did some ducks pausing for rest on it’s surface, this is not a river I’d want to jump into. Judging from the caution used in collecting water samples, I don’t think that I was alone in this opinion.

We spent about 2 hours along the banks of the canal, taking pictures of sketchy pipes and debris piles, collecting water samples, and talking to the students about why we do what we do. All in all is was a great way to connect with the local community and see a part of the city that we would never have experienced. Oddly enough it made Beijing feel more familiar by breaking down the colossal metropolis to one of it’s core challenges - water. Societies around the world share these challenges. How do we get enough clean water to meet our needs? What do we do with the water we use? What do we do when we get too much water all at once? Today Beijing was dealing with all of these, and the Waterkeepers were there to see how the city was meeting the challenge. If the bright colors of the test tubes in our water testing kit are any indication, they’ve got some work to do.

Towards the end of our walk Xian, one of the Waterkeeper staff members I had been e-mailing with, arranged for us to have dinner with Wang Yangson, arguably the most influential environmental activist in China. This is the same woman who I was supposed to meet yesterday, so I was doubly grateful for the opportunity to get together and explain the snafu. But we’re not meeting Yangson until 8:00 and we’ve got a whole afternoon to run around the city. We ask Andrew for directions to a good outdoor market and he points us toward the Dirt Market. Sounds like it fits right into our budget, and one of the volunteers even offers to get us there. Perfect!


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