food / travel

Land Of A Thousand Artificial Lakes: Perils Of China's Boomtime Water Policy

Artificial lake of Guilin
Artificial lake of Guilin
Liu Hongqiao and He Linlin

On October 18, water started flowing along a 20 kilometer (12.4 mile) aqueduct from the Yellow River into a gigantic pit in Zhengzhou City. In two months this pit will turn into an artificial lake with a surface of 5.6 square kilometers (3.5 square miles).

It has taken two years of digging and has cost 1.66 billion RMB ($265 million) to make this hole in this stretch of Henan province in central China. Though its area is slightly smaller than the famously scenic West Lake in Hangzhou, its water storage capacity, at 26.8 million cubic meters (946.4 million cubic feet), is two and a half times greater than that of West Lake. The water will need to be changed four times a year, so it is estimated that nearly 90 million cubic meters (3.2 billion cubic feet) of water will need to be supplied yearly from the Yellow River. This represents 1/600th of the total annual flow of the river.

Zhengzhou is just one of the many cases where manmade lakes are diverting water from the Yellow River. For the past decade, Yinchuan City in the autonomous region of Ningxia, a typical northern city short of water, started to build itself into the “Venice of the East.” More than a dozen lakes have been created in recent years.

In Shaanxi, Inner Mongolia and Shanxi, all provinces located in western and northwestern China, the same sort of artificial-lake boom is under way.

Few people seem concerned that over the past decade the annual flow of the Yellow River is less than 20 billion cubic meters (706.3 billion cubic feet). In terms of the total volume, up to 70% of the Yellow River’s water is used by the people along its banks. Internationally, it is believed that humans should not use more than 30% of a river’s water, otherwise it will lead to the loss of ecological functions, and the river can even dry up completely.

Beyond the Yellow River, the construction of artificial lakes has been integral to China’s rapid urbanization in the past dozen years. Northern cities short of water strive to compete with the water-abundant regions south of the Yangtze River, and the watery southern region sets a higher target for water use.

Has this national fashion for artificial lakes spilled over the top? Have they been scientifically planned, with a sustainable water supply? China’s natural lakes are generally polluted, so how are the artificial lakes' environmental issues to be addressed?

Busy creating the lakes

In the summer, the city of Xi’an in Shaanxi Province announced a plan to build 28 large and medium-sized lakes at a cost of over 10 billion RMB ($1.6 billion). Meanwhile, Harbin, in the northeast province of Heilongjiang, has set itself the goal of becoming the “northern water town” by coming up with 18 artificial lakes.

These northern cities are often located in arid or semi-arid regions with limited annual precipitation. In some of them the annual evaporation is several times greater than the precipitation. For this reason they are unlikely to possess natural lakes. Yet the urban planners of these cities wish to remodel their landscape and change its nature by excavating lakes.

At the same time, in southern cities where rainfall is plentiful and the water system is interconnected, artificial lakes are being constructed as the best choice for the urban landscape.

After the eight lakes it created in 2010, Shanghai still has several other projects. Wuhan, Hubei Province, historically called the City of 100 Lakes, had let many of its natural lakes disappear, mainly over the past three decades, through land reclamation or filling. But now it is undergoing a “lake-creation movement”. Ironically, at the first site chosen, Mengze Lake vanished completely only over the last decade, and the excavation is precisely where the natural lake had been filled in.

In this lake-creation movement all over China, big cities like to boast of building “the largest artificial lake,” while each lake’s area and storage capacity is billed as greater than the one before.

Chaos over the costs

The construction costs of each of these lakes is eye-popping.

Take the 28 lakes of Xi’an as an example. A preliminary calculation of the cost of the investment involved is already up to 10 billion ($1.6 billion), as is Beijing’s city section of the Yongding River, a project that is composed of six separate lakes and 37 kilometers (23 miles) of canals connecting the lakes.

These figures are only the direct investment. The relative social costs of the excavation of a lake are huge. Dragon Lake in Zhengzhou required the demolition of 12 administrative villages and 37 natural villages, forcing 22,000 people to leave their homes.

In addition, a series of other construction projects is involved behind the lake project itself, such as new roads, flyovers and bridges.

Many of these lake-building projects will rely on the South-North water transfer project, a colossal undertaking that will divert water from the Yangtze River in the south to the Yellow River in the north.

There is a consensus among the experts interviewed that the greatest cost in creating the lakes is not the direct and indirect investments, but the effects on the water itself. For example, Ningxia’s artificial lakes take about 1 billion cubic meters (35.3 billion cubic feet) of water from the Yellow River. In the Central Route plan of the project for “diverting water from south to north,” the price per cubic meter (35.3 cubic feet) is nearly 10 Yuan ($1.60); cost to the region is nearly 10 billion ($1.6 billion).

Li Qilei, professor at the Water and Development Research Institute of Chang’an University, as well as a task-force member for Xi’an’s lake creation, conceded to Caixin that the current water supply to Xi’an is inadequate to support the planned 28 lakes. Only in a few years' time, when the project of “moving Han River water to the Wei River” is formally started, can the city’s artificial lakes assume the function of water regulation and have a sufficient water supply at the same time.

This kind of excessive use of water comes with an immeasurable ecological cost. The amount of water flowing from the Yellow River into the sea continues to decrease. The rate was more than 50 billion cubic meters (1.8 trillion cubic feet) in the 1950s, but today the amount of water reaching the sea has dropped below 20 billion cubic meters (706.3 billion cubic feet).

The Bohai Sea is suffering a serious imbalance of its nitrogen to phosphorus ratio. In 2008, it had a ratio of 67. In certain parts of the bay today, the ratio is more than 200 four times the ratio considered ecologically damaging.

Indeed, Bohai Sea's once abundant fishing stock has all but evaporated, while other smaller marine organisms have become extinct. Even though this situation involves excessive fishing and pollution, many experts believe that the reduced injection of fresh water probably also plays an important role.

A man-made disaster

While new lakes are being created, a series of problems of pollution, eutrophication and maintenance have already appeared in a number of existing lakes.

Completed in 1980, Xiliu Lake was once a postcard spot of Zhengzhou City. Through a lack of supervision and management, it was turned into a dumping pit for construction waste and industrial wastewater. By 2010, the pollution was so bad that a large area of the lake had dried up. The garbage and sewage seriously affect the lives of the nearby residents.

Cui Guangbai, professor of the Institute of Water Resources at Hohai University, notes that construction of an artificial lake is a very complex project. Since they are “pools” without the functions of a natural lake, the work is not finished when the lake is completed. The real challenge is to manage the lake and to maintain the water quality afterwards.

Messy accounting

Artificial lakes are not unique to China. Appropriate construction of such lakes can beautify cities and bring benefits to the public. Not all of them are unacceptable. The question is, has the lake-creation trend gone too far in China?

Several scholars when interviewed pointed out that the building of artificial lakes is “messy accounting,” with construction greenlighted solely by the local authority. There is no debate on environmental issues, no public participation, and no supervision of the costs involved.

To the local government, water resources are a hidden cost that does not need to be taken into consideration. What they are considering is another calculation. Only the cost of construction and of relocating residents is taken into account, while the lake is seen as upgrading the city and increasing land and property values. For officials this is the payoff.

Weng Lida, a famous hydrologist, pointed out that Ningxia, Gansu, and Shaanxi are all expecting to use the water that they get from the South-North Water Transfer Project to fill up their lakes. “In the context of these cities, which all seriously lack water, how to distribute the water supply is a very complex and difficult issue," Weng says. "If this issue is not solved, what’s the point of building these artificial lakes?”

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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