I have been asked a couple of times if there’s anything I crave from home. Although I sometimes wish it were easier to find a juicy cheeseburger or a tall man here, in general the answer is still no.
But on a hot day, walking around the heavily polluted Green Lake or Dianchi Lake, sweating in the afternoon sun, there is one thing that I do seriously, painfully crave: fresh, clean water to swim in. One of my favorite indulgences is to jump in a cool river, lake or ocean on a hot summer day. There are few crueler jokes the world plays than to dangle people in front of bodies of water that they cannot swim in or drink.
Of course, I’ve lived in New York City for five years, so the feeling is not entirely new to me. I’ve felt it while running along the Hudson River or playing softball at Randall’s Island. But in the U.S., at least I know where to find clean natural water. Last summer, I remember swimming in a river in Northern Michigan, spending a splendid weekend at a friend’s cottage on a Massachusetts lake, and of course taking trips most weekends to Long Beach on Long Island. When I traveled to Israel last December, my friends laughed at me as I swam in every body of water that we passed: the Mediterranean, Sea of Galilee, Dead Sea and Jordan River.
In China, I have not been so lucky. Green Lake and Dianchi Lake (which used to be one lake until the government decided to fill them in for the sake of urban development) look like split pea soup. They are full of algal blooms, which are basically just mad overgrowth of algae. I’m not a marine biologist, but I believe that these can be caused in part by certain types of human pollution in the water, which provide nutrients to certain algae, which then over-produce and dominate the environment. Some algal blooms are toxic, killing anything that feeds on them. Others do damage by blocking out the sunlight and thus starving organisms below the surface.
Thanks to this and other forms of pollution, people wanting to enjoy the lakes are reduced to rolling over the water in giant bubbles (see above photo) or paddling through the muck on a rented boat, and hoping not to tip.
Dianchi Lake used to supply Kunming’s drinking water. Those days are over. In fact, most people here buy their drinking water by the jug. I asked my roommate yesterday how much the 5-gallon jugs cost and she told me 8 kuai, or about one U.S. dollar. Not bad, I remarked.
She frowned. “Yeah, but if the tap water was clean, it wouldn’t cost us anything.”