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Cleaning up the lower reaches of the Yangtze

Xinhua, June 21, 2016 Adjust font size:

Liu Gujun might have been a millionaire, had he not in 2003 dissolved his successful ferry company to collect trash on the Yangtze River.

That year, the Three Gorges Dam reservoir, located on the upper middle-reaches of the Yangtze, began storing water. As the water rose, mountains of trash and other debris found their way into the river. The garbage was so thick in some places that people could walk across it.

The garbage threatened to disrupt the flow of water and block water traffic from Liu's hometown in Wanzhou District in southwest China's Chongqing Municipality.

The seasoned captain volunteered to clean up the trash. "I was obliged to do so: I grew up in a river town, fed by the Yangtze," said Liu.

Liu's father was a fisherman, as were many in his extended family.

Liu himself, a bachelor of engineering from Chongqing University, was then managing two ferries that carried hundreds of sightseers along the Yangtze every day.

Backed by the local government, Liu gathered some 20 men and 10 boats, including his family's two ferries and two fishing boats, to clear the trash from the Yangtze.

He was one of 500 cleaners on the Yangtze in Chongqing Municipality.

"I knew it was impossible to make big money, but as we would be on the government payroll we would enjoy a decent reimbursement package," said Liu.

That government support, however, was not in place in the first three years of the cleaning campaign. To retain his team, Liu had to pay their wages, which totaled more than 200,000 yuan (30,440 U.S. dollars), out of his own pocket.

"I scraped together all my savings," said Liu. "I even used my son's New Year's gift money."

The job was tiring and tedious. Each day, Liu and his colleagues spent at least eight hours casting nets hundreds of times a day.

Summer is their busiest season, when torrential rains bring large quantities of waste into the river. Temperatures are very high and almost every boatman has suffered sunstroke.

Starting in 2006, wages were paid on time, but the meager amount was anything but attractive. Liu still only makes around 2,000 yuan a month and his wife, who cooks three meals a day for the entire team, earns 1,000 yuan.

A seasoned captain like Liu can earn at least 7,000 yuan a month.

At 50, Liu's receding hairline, weathered brow and tanned skin give insight into his hardships.

"My own hardship is nothing compared with my son's losses," said Liu. During the child's teenage years, Liu had no time to care for him and they barely talked.

Liu Jinyang, 24, remembers these years bitterly. "Other kids used to laugh at me and call me names, saying I was a worthless trashman's son."

In an outburst of rage, he beat up one of his tormentors and was questioned by the police, a disgrace that haunted him for years.

When other children enjoyed their summer vacation, Jinyang was asked to help onboard his father's boat. "My father said I could think of it as a sightseeing tour."

After graduating from college, he secured a driver's job, earning 3,000 yuan a month. The income is below average in Chongqing, but equivalent to his parents' wages put together.

Jinyang said he loved his father, but refused to follow in his footsteps. "My father is doing a great job, but he has had to sacrifice too much."

At his father's request, Jinyang trained as a captain and holds a license, as is the family's tradition.

Liu sometimes worries about lack of people to take over his job. He is relieved to see the Yangtze becoming cleaner, thanks to the concerted efforts from all the cleaners and improved public awareness of the water environment.

In February, China announced a plan to improve the Yangtze's water quality as part of wider measures to balance economic activity and environmental protection.

In the years leading up to 2020, local authorities will work to ensure that more than 75 percent of the water in the Yangtze economic belt meets at least Level III standard, according to the National Development and Reform Commission, the top economic planning agency.

China classifies water quality into six levels, from level I, which is suitable for drinking after minimal treatment, to level VI, for water that is severely contaminated.