JILIN, December 10, Chinadaily -- Covering an area of 500 square kilometers, Songyuan's Chagan Lake in the west of Jilin province is now the seventh largest freshwater body in China.

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Birds fish at the lake, which is home to hundreds of kinds of land animals, birds, fish and plants. Photos Provided To China Dailyf the importance of sustainable development.

That represents a major victory for the government and people of the area. In the early 1980s, the lake was only one tenth its current size, and it appeared to be dying, because a large number of reservoirs built in the 1960s and 1970s in the upper reach of the rivers flowing to it were holding back the water.

To save the lake, which had been a popular fishing and hunting paddock for royal families from the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1386) to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the local government in 1984 built a canal connecting the lake with the Songhua River, one of the largest rivers in Northeast China. Since then, the lake has slowly recovered its size and the ecology has been restored.

The lake is now home to hundreds of kinds of land animals, birds, fish and plants, and the well-protected environment is also beneficial to the local economy.

Jilin's provincial government approved the creation of a Chagan Lake Tourism Economy Development Zone in 2002, and built infrastructure, entertainment and catering facilities to attract tourists.

It is now estimated that the lake attracts 200 million tourists a year, and the output of its fishing industry and tourism industry last year increased 31.8 percent and 13.3 percent respectively, year-on-year. In the first 10 months this year, the tourism revenue of the lake hit 1.54 billion yuan ($221.8 million), up 16.7 percent year-on-year.

To protect the lake, the authorities focus in particular on dredging the rivers that flow into Chagan, restoring the original water circulation system and ecology, according to Zhao Yong, deputy director of the Chagan Lake Tourism Economy Development Zone administrative committee.

Local village heads and grassroots civil servants are appointed as river chief or lake chief to assign protection duties at an individual level, Zhao added.

Shi Baozhu, a fisherman in his 80s, has experienced the ups and downs of the lake. He recalled that the lake was famous for its large output of fish in his childhood, and the area around the lake was regarded as a virtual land of milk and honey.

"The dams built along the rivers turned torrents into trickles. The lake was almost dried up because of that lack of care. It had once become salty, alkaline land merely dotted with water. The fishermen's lives were hard, as the fish and reeds nearly died out," Shi explained, recalling the late 1970s.

In fact, the protection of the lake also went through some setbacks in the 1990s, when overfishing and the excessive expansion of the tourism industry threatened the area's ecological balance. Pollution from restaurants, hotels, breeding and irrigation contaminated the water, and the degradation of neighboring wetlands seemed unstoppable.

It was the lake becoming a provincial natural reserve in 2004 - and national natural reserve in 2007 - that put an end to such fears.

The provincial government moved more than 1,700 residents out of the core zone of the natural reserve and issued regulatory rules and protection plans for the lake.

The city government in Songyuan signed liability statements with the county governments around the lake, making ecology protection and pollution control an important index of evaluating their performance.

The planning, land, environmental, construction and law enforcement departments form joint teams to conduct constant inspections of the natural reserve, with a view to banning all construction and unapproved businesses, and to thoroughly supervise and administer the entire drainage area.

Zhang Xuefeng, a clerk of the Chagan Lake fishing tourism office and a lake chief, goes on patrol along the bank of the lake that he is in charge of every morning to look for pollution sources.

"Although I am only a village-level lake chief (as opposed to a township-level or county-level lake chief), I bear a heavy responsibility. A core part of being a grassroots lake chief is that we are obliged to protect every single drop of the water from pollution."

"Although the lake chief is not an official, the title is important as it inspires me to take good care of the lake and local ecology. It is about honor and responsibility," Zhang added.

All sewage and garbage is now properly processed in a timely manner. The protection of the local ecology is a widely beneficial solution, as it benefits not only the lake and the local ecology, but also the local economy, he said. Tourism-related industries have increased local residents' personal annual income by 20,000 yuan per household, government data shows.

Shang Ying, an owner of a homestay near the lake, said that the room-booking hotline gets busy even months before the main tourism seasons - summer, the National Day holiday in early October and the winter fishing season in December.

The winter fishing season, which dates back to the Liao Dynasty (916-1125), is recognized as one of Jilin's items of provincial intangible cultural heritage for the ethnic cultures, religious observations, traditions and craftsmanship it contains.

Closed fishing seasons are strictly observed, with regular introduction of fry, so as to make the industry sustainable. The Chagan Lake silver carp are popular in markets nationwide as a well-respected brand for wild fish.

Mr Li, a local fisherman, said the biggest change he has seen is not the ecology itself, but the people's awareness oChagan Lake project an ecological success.

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