RIVER MERCHANTS: A waterway in Suzhou teems with cargo vessels in 1993
It's a common scene to see Chinese and foreign tourists eagerly snapping photos of Suzhou's riverside scenes as they drift along the city's serpentine waterway in a wooden boat, the boatman, dressed in traditional outfit, singing a sweet melody.
Renowned for its beautiful stone bridges, pagodas, tranquil gardens and winding waterways, Suzhou is a major draw for sightseers.
"It certainly wouldn't be a pleasant experience to tour the channels if there were still noisy and smoky cargo-vessels shuttling in the water passages," said He Duhui, Deputy Chief of the city's channel management station. In June, the local government decided that 18 of its 27 navigable channels in the city proper should be retired and returned to natural rivers, in which cargo ships are no longer allowed to travel.
It was the first time the city had ordered such a large-scale change in its river cargo transportation system. The 18 channels, making up two thirds of the city's overall channels and adding up to a total length of 58 km, were transferred from the jurisdiction of the local transport bureau to the water bureau. "They are only allowed to pass small cruise ships after the adjustment," the channel station official told Beijing Review.
Suzhou, on the lower reaches of the Yangtze River and on the shores of Taihu Lake in the province of Jiangsu, has a strong water transportation tradition with its crisscrossed network of channels, which develops the city into a commercial and trading center in southeast China.
In the early 1950s, many industrial enterprises in the city established their docks by the side of the channels. Until the 1980s, water transportation accounted for more than 60 percent of the city's total volume of cargo movement, contributing significantly to the region's economy, according to local transportation official Shang Qingcong.
"The channel adjustment is just part of the city's overall planning, according to which the center area of the city is supposed to focus on the tertiary industry and tourism," Shang said. Following the urban planning blueprint, factories began to move out of town and large and medium-sized coal and steel plants were relocated in the suburbs by the side of the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal.
Two large wholesale markets for agricultural products in the southern part of the city were also ordered to move out of town, said Shang. In 1991 the Shangtang River, one of the city's oldest navigable channels, reached a cargo volume of 4.9 million tons. "Nowadays there are no ships at all on the river except for a few tourist boats," he said.
"As cargo distribution centers were relocated out of the city, some of the channels within the city lost their transportation value. So, it is time for them to retire."
Water transportation capacity will not be affected with the retirement of these 18 small channels, according to He. "Though they make up two thirds of the city's overall channels, they account for just one third of the total length of the navigation routes," he said.
The majority of the 18 retired channels are small ones, whose shipping capacity is very low and cannot satisfy the needs of large-scale cargo transportation, he added.
These small channels cannot be widened or upgraded due to bridges and riverside architecture so the city has resorted to using larger channels outside the city center.
"As early as 1988, the city changed the location of an 8-km course of the Grand Canal from the inner city to the suburbs. It achieved an enormous economic benefit at a small cost and guaranteed a current capacity of passing ships in the 500-ton class," He said.
In 2006, the city worked out a plan to integrate and build a network of main water channels, featuring high-class navigation channels that cater to the trend for large-scale shipping. Statistics show that the Suzhou part of the Grand Canal has achieved a cargo volume of 22 million tons of coal and 4.6 million tons of building materials in 2007.
"I think it's a good move to let the channels retire from cargo transportation. Now I don't have to keep the windows of my house closed all the time to stay away from noise any more," said Suzhou native Zhu Kun. He has lived by the side of Shantang River for 50 years.
The retirement of the 18 channels will improve the urban environment, in terms of noise reduction and water quality, said Shang Qingcong. Tests have showed that cargo ships can produce noise that exceeds 100 decibels and spreads as far as several kilometers. The noise was a
problem for riverside residents and affected their daily life. Since the 1980s, the city government has begun to ban night voyages along the Shantang River to ensure that nearby residents get a good sleep.
"It was really a disturbing experience when you wanted to sleep, but the noise kept bothering you. Sometimes the babies woke up because of the noise and cried so loud that it was very difficult to calm them down," Zhu recalled.
Zhu opened a small home restaurant several years ago at which the customers can sit by the river.
"The water is getting cleaner and there are no more noisy and smoky ships. My customers like it when a tourist boat quietly passes by. They say hello to the tourists on the boat, " Zhu said.
Apart from banning cargo vessels on some of the city's waterways, the local government has taken other measures to enhance the river environment. These include sewage reduction, silt clearance, water diversions, and flood control.
The city's overall planning blueprint (1996-2010) sticks to the principle that the traditional look of the old town should be preserved while its infrastructure, living conditions and public services should live up to modern standards.
"As an outsider, of course, it's the old and traditional look of the city that attracts me most," said Li Qinghe, a migrant from Yangzhou City in Jiangsu Province. She runs a teahouse by the riverside in Pingjiang Road. "Water is the soul of the city. If you love the city, you have to protect its water."
The city's transportation bureau has submitted a list of another 100 or so channels to be retired to the municipal government. These channels involve six county-level cities of Suzhou. "If everything goes as planned, these rivers can be officially retired by the end of this year," said He.