Volunteers sweat to keep city's Mother River waters clean

Chen Huizhi
At Wujing Town in Minhang District, over 540 volunteers take turns to clear garbage from the Huangpu River and its banks.
Chen Huizhi

AFTER almost two decades, a one-man campaign to clean up the riverbanks of Huangpu River in Wujing Town has grown to more than 540 volunteers.

Zhang Haifeng, a 46-year-old factory worker who has logged about 670 hours for the cleanup effort since 2003, was honored as one of Shanghai’s top volunteers in 2017.

Huangpu River flows from Taihu Lake in neighboring Jiangsu Province and Dianshan Lake in Qingpu District into the Yangtze River, taking a right angle in Wujing. It’s at that crook where garbage tends to pile up along the western bank.

Although the stretch of river that provides water to households in Shanghai is further upstream, Wujing residents saw no reason why they had to endure the pollution in their backyard.

Wujing Park on the riverbank is now a favorite spot for fishing enthusiasts, but that wasn’t the case two decades ago.

“Fish, shrimp and crabs had largely disappeared from the waterfront by 2000, but since 2010, they have returned,” said Zhang, who lived in a residential complex next to the park for three decades.

Zhang followed in the footsteps of his father, Zhang Gengda, a nationally awarded volunteer, in his campaign to clear garbage from the town’s stretch on the Huangpu River, which Shanghai people affectionately call “Mother River.”

“At my father’s deathbed, he asked me to take care of my mother and to keep cleaning up the riverbank,” Zhang said.

Volunteers sweat to keep city's Mother River waters clean
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Zhang Haifeng pulls out garbage from the Huangpu River in Wujing Park in Minhang District.

The volunteer who initially inspired the campaign was Wang Xianming, a retiree who started to dredge garbage from the river with a rod in 1999 and soon attracted a band of other volunteers.

One of Wang’s legacies is a timetable of tides for each day of a Chinese lunar month. Volunteers still use it today.

The busiest time is the early afternoons of the first and the 15th day of a lunar month, when the water level is highest at about a meter above the silt in the riverbed.

Joining Zhang and a dozen volunteers on the afternoon of last Friday, this reporter saw rubber boots, shoes, beer bottles, gloves, porcelain cups, milk cartons and plastic foam food boxes tangled in tree trunks, branches and straw. It formed a floating garbage heap of about 20 square meters on the river at the corner of a ferry pier.

“Shoes, bottles, foam and wood are most common trash, and there were also dead cats, dogs and pigs a few years ago,” Zhang said, adding that foam trash has significantly declined in recent years.

It is a typical day for the clean-up campaigners. Zhang and a few men climb up the 1-meter-high cement wall. From that vantage point, they use long rods with a net or bent spearheads to drag garbage up from the water. Women volunteers help load the garbage into large plastic tanks. The air reeks of diesel from a fleet of barges parked near the riverbank.

Bundles of straws and bulky timber pieces soaked in water can be extremely heavy. Volunteer wake up with aching muscles the next morning.

When Zhang is ready to pull something from the water, he shifts the rod left and close to his chest before lifting slowly. He said he learned this technique from his father.

After half an hour, it looks as if about a fourth of the garbage on the water has been cleared. Then another group of volunteers takes over the rods.

The bamboo rods, 5 meters long, are made by Zhang and his fellow volunteers. “The strongest rods are those made from older bamboo, which is less likely to crack in the middle,” Zhang said. “But even those don’t last more than a year or two.”

The work was easier when the cement wall on the riverbank was lower and 3-meter rods could be used, he said.

The volunteers also work when the tides are low and they can descend a ladder to the riverbed to hand pick garbage.

Zhang said about 3,500 tons of garbage has been cleared so far.

The band of volunteers includes students, workers and retirees from all parts of Minhang District and beyond.

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