A new edict has come down from the government of Yunnan's Dali Prefecture (大理州), one with the potential to shutter 1,000 service industry businesses for more than a year. Effective immediately, all companies operating in close proximity to the shores of Erhai Lake (洱海) must conform to updated sewage disposal requirements or close until they do.
The order covers all commercial operations located within a 100-meter "core area" surrounding the lake, most of which are hotels, guest houses, restaurants and bars. A ten-day period of inspection began April 1, during which government officials will check each company's health, sanitation, and hygiene certifications, as well as a slew of other documents needed for an establishment to function legally.
Those businesses found to be lacking the proper government-issued documentation will be forced to close, possibly for 15 months. The reopen date coincides with the July 2018 planned completion of a new water and sewage treatment plant currently under construction. In the meantime, shuttered establishments are expected to procure their needed certificates, update their plumbing if necessary, and connect to the 235 kilometers of newly built sewage lines.
All of this activity is focused on the scores of food, beverage and other hospitality outfits that have appeared up and down Erhai Lake's coast over the past five years. Government officials believe "several hundred" of these businesses are opened each year. Many of them are suspected of depositing sewage, food waste and other detritus — knowingly or not — directly into the lake because of a basic lack of water treatment infrastructure.
Such dumping in the Erhai basin, coupled with contaminated runoff from agricultural and livestock operations, has today led to a "50 percent higher 'pollution load' affecting the lake" annually, according to government statistics compiled between 2004 and 2016. The result is a body of water ripe for outbreaks of cyanobacteria, which in turn lead to algal blooms that can cripple a lake ecosystem.
Erhai is Yunnan's second largest lake, and each year its waters bounce between Class II and III of the national Environmental Quality Standards for Surface Water. The former designation indicates a healthy water source capable of supporting fragile or endangered wildlife, while the latter is acceptable for human swimming.
The worry in Dali is that without increased oversight of local businesses, the lake water could quickly slip to class IV — which should "not directly be touched by humans" — effectively destroying one of the region's prime tourist attractions. The Dali valley experienced more than 38 million "visits" in 2016, a 170 percent increase over five years ago. This explosive growth in the tourism economy has dramatically influenced the local economy, but also revealed enormous holes in the region's infrastructure. And so the government has instituted the new business freeze. Reaction has been mixed, with many locals shrugging off the pending business closures.
The new guest houses and bars, they argue, are owned by already wealthy Sichuanese and people from northeast China who moved in to take advantage of the tourism boom, polluting in the process. However, business owners such as Mr Zhao, who spent six million yuan (US$870,000) to open a guesthouse, worries about his livelihood and those of his employees. He blames government inaction and "hasty decisions" for the entire situation, saying:
Why have I lost my confidence? Who doesn't want to protect Erhai? Who doesn't want the lake to be more beautiful and attract more and more guests? We all support the good governance of Erhai, but when we [business owners] go to get the proper permits, they won't give them to us.
Zhao expects the required upgrades to his three-story boutique hotel will cost him a year of lost revenue and one million yuan (US$145,000) in cash. He is considering cutting his losses and perhaps moving to another Yunnan travel hotspot, Tengchong (腾冲).
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