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The Water Cries

Produced by China Central Television International (CCTV), distributed by Asia Pacific Films. 2005 (Chinese), 2009 (English).

Study areas: Modern China, Environmental Resources

The Water Cries

Given China’s astounding economic growth over the past forty years including its ever-increasing role as “merchant to the world,” it should come as no surprise that the nation’s environmental problems have escalated rapidly as well.  The volume of goods pouring out of China’s factories along with equally-dramatic expansions in agriculture and massive building booms almost assures that environmental problems of all types would (and have) grown increasingly severe and complex.

Consumers throughout the world seldom associate their purchases of goods from China with the nation’s many environmental problems, but they should. Manufacturing results in air and water pollution.  Higher wages, in turn, stimulate domestic building booms, infrastructure expansions, and the rise of a “consumer culture” which thrives on greater per capita consumption of land and water. These factors conspire to expand the range, reach and complexity of the nation’s environmental problems. Despite these simple truths, China’s environmental problems are usually treated in isolation by the western press, seldom linked to international or domestic consumption of Chinese goods.

While China’s environmental problems are many, ironically, the prosperity partly responsible for these problems may also prove to be the nation’s salvation, as higher tax revenues and incomes in the past four decades have generated the funds that are now allowing the nation to address its environmental problems more aggressively. Unfortunately, far less attention is paid to the massive efforts that China has paid to mitigating these problems, especially in the last two decades, than to the problems themselves. For a variety of reasons, Chinese environmental protection efforts are seldom the subject matter of English-language newspaper articles, reports or research.  It is often true that “good news travels on foot while bad news on horseback”.  China’s effort to improve the environment and limit degradation remains a largely untold story, which The Water Cries seeks to rectify.

In terms of long-term impacts on the nation’s great population, no other issues are as pressing as those associated with water. Skyrocketing consumption, water shortages, water pollution, desertification, drought, dropping water tables, conflicts over water rights and pricing, and health-related issues are just a few of the water-related concerns that, if not addressed, will  invariably threaten the continued prosperity of this great and ancient nation. The CCTV International series, The Water Cries, offers a comprehensive review of many of the nation’s water issues and what environmentalists, government agencies, and planners are trying to do to improve and mitigate existing conditions. The series originally aired on Chinese television in 2005, and by 2009 was offered with a largely English soundtrack and sub-titles. The sixteen episodes cover six distinct topics (2 segments each on water safety for humans, water pollution/water ecology, floods and flood control, water conflicts and adjudication, inter-basin water transfer, and water saving methods and institutions). Two introductory episodes and two concluding episodes round out the set.

Episodes 1 and 2: Introduction
The first two parts, taken together, provide a summary of all the issues that are dealt with in greater detail in the subsequent episodes. The strength of these first two is the breadth of coverage; the weakness is the breadth of coverage. The real gems in the series are the tandem episodes (26-27 minutes each) that make up the heart of the series. Students and audiences will enjoy the candor and pragmatism of the many experts that participated in the series as well as often breathtaking natural scenery and cultural landscapes. This series is about water, but there is a great deal of modern China in here as well.

Episodes 3 and 4: Water Quality in Urban Areas
Turning to the “core” of the series, episodes 3-4 examine water health safety problems and mitigation efforts with examples largely from prosperous areas in eastern China (Wuxi in Jiangsu Province, and Shanghai). These two parts also include some classic international stories such as the London Broad Street Pump Typhoid outbreak in 1854, as well as an informative national study of the health effects of excessive fluoride in drinking water in 12 of China’s provinces or autonomous regions. What I liked about these parts was the honesty of the appraisals of the water crisis, and clear links between deteriorating conditions (including water quality, health of residents, intolerable noxious gases) and industrial/economic growth. I also think viewers get a very interesting view of the farmers and fishing people who depend on the historic Lake Tai in southern Jiangsu and northern Zhejiang Province. Part 4 ends with reports of a new pipeline and filtration plants, in part made possible due to the general affluence of the region. It is useful to consider that solutions to China’s water problems are closely tied to the prosperity and political influence of the regions. Wealthy areas will see problems mitigated long before poor areas; does this sound familiar?

Episodes 5 and 6: Water Quality in Rural Areas
The next two episodes continue to explore the effects of poor water quality and the impact of municipal and industrial pollution on China’s surface lakes and rivers, but the emphasis shifts to Southwest China (Dian Lake or Dianchi Lake near Kunming, Yunnan Province) and rural people and landscapes. Again, there is really great scenery and views of village life as well as interviews with locals and experts providing equally frank assessments of the sources of the pollution and scarcity problems. These two adopt a more ecological approach than in parts 3 and 4 as there is more focus on the impacts beyond those for humans. Declines in fish populations and species diversity in lakes and rivers is a recurring theme in both episodes.  International coverage includes nice historical footage of the Minamata disease outbreaks in Lake Biwa in Japan in 1957-1958.

Episodes 7 and 8: Flooding and Water Control
Parts 7 and 8 are devoted to flooding, its causes, and current efforts to control floods on the nation’s great rivers.  Episode 7 starts well, providing archaeological evidence of flood disasters that occurred 4,000 years ago. The program brings viewers to the present with some really interesting actual footage of some of the worst historic floods starting with 1933, 1951, 1975, 1991, 1998 and 2007. Given the general youthful and attractive appearance of some of the rural “victims” and “patriots” in some of this footage, I have a feeling footage from possibly “bad” flood movies of the 1970s was occasionally substituted for the “real deal,” but all in all, we get the point.  Severe floods lead to levee and dam construction and water diversions, and these efforts in turn lead to new unanticipated problems. The massive SanMenXia Dam on the Yellow (Huang) in Henan is treated as a primer for what NOT to do. Part 7 and 8 are two of my favorite episodes, and I should think these will prove to be very popular with students and teachers in western nations.  Again, there is no “pulling punches” here—many mistakes were made, and are acknowledged. Taken together, these summaries of major events on the Yellow (Huang) and the Changjiang (Yangzi) provide a really excellent summary of historical flooding and mitigation issues over time.  Viewers learn in detail about the invariable siltation caused by the construction of dams and levees with some excellent graphics depicting the creation of “hanging” rivers (including the Wei River) and the ecological impacts of China’s many water control projects.

Episodes 9 and 10:Agricultural Water Use
Episodes 9 and 10 address issues related to agricultural water use, irrigation, and water conflicts. 9 starts with predictable international footage from Israel and Palestine setting the stage for an appraisal of water conflicts in China. However, the episode heats up quickly with a fascinating case study of the Jiang River (Jianghe) that separates parts of Hebei and Henan Provinces. Along the Jiang, fights over diverted water for irrigation have caused many injuries and considerable property destruction over the years. As water becomes scarce, these conflicts have intensified. I thought this was one of the stronger and more evocative sequences and I am sure my students would not expect that reports of such a conflict would be freely presented in a Chinese film—or that water could arouse such passions.  In addition to the impacts of water shortages on human activities and lives, these episodes also cover wetland and subsequent species losses as groundwater levels decline.

Episodes 11 and 12 : Water Transfer Projects
Episodes 11 and 12 are simply the best summaries of the reasons, benefits and dangers of the three “South-North” Water Transfer Projects currently under development in China that I have seen. These diversions are highly controversial at home and more so abroad and they should be. In a clever twist, these “pipeline” projects are compared to the all-but-ignored but common use of water transfer tunnels in the US such as the CAP canal that supplies Tucson, Phoenix and many other southwest cities or the recently completed (2009) Southern California Water Tunnel that cost billions of dollars and was twenty years in the making. Are inter-basin water transfers always bad, or does it depend on which nation is building them?

Episodes 13 and 14: Water Conservation
The foci for episodes 13 and 14 are the wide range of water conservation efforts that China has used or is in the process of adopting to address water scarcity and water pollution issues. While most of these segments are less visually appealing than others, these segments are some of the most interesting and certainly provide the most novel information. The footage of the ancient karez of the northwest (underground tunnels in use for thousands of years) is great, but my students will react most to the conundrum framed by China’s greater prosperity AND the need for greater conservation.  We hear clearly the frustration in the voices of environmentalists trying to get students in Tianjin to use a card that tracks and charges individual water consumption at 21 of the city’s colleges and universities. Can you imagine folks, even college students, using such a card in the US? The underlying question is how to convince and coerce China’s increasingly stratified population to conserve water, even when they can pay for it. We also learn of new canals, special “deep wells, and many other water-saving technologies.

Episodes 15 and 16: Conclusion
The final two episodes really do conclude the series. While some parts of these episodes can stand on their own, there are many references to issues raised in previous segments so I am not sure how these will fare if used in isolation. Further, part 15 is given over to considerable footage showing the impact of the “good life” on water supplies, and bemoaning the growth of “consumer culture.”  Sure, sure, but to put it bluntly, the Chinese are mere “pikers” when it comes to over-consuming so I am not sure if the shock value for these segments will be as great in the US or Australia as in China. Recall, many watching these segments on television in China when it originally came out were poor and can be properly outraged by hotel fountains and swimming pools that cater to the rich. The same will not be true for US audiences. Still, parts 15 and 16 do offer a review of the major themes of the series and clearly show China’s water woes are still growing and cannot be solved without new technologies as well as personal sacrifices.

Nothing is perfect, and reviews however enthusiastic, should have the “problem” paragraph. As with almost all documentaries there are some production issues such as out-of-focus maps, incomplete English language sub-titles, and odd translations in places.   For several of the above “paired” episodes, there is a bit too much overlap between the first and second parts. For example, almost 7 minutes of part 10 is also presented in part 9.

Further, there are topics that are not covered that should have been. The construction of dams on “international rivers” entering Southeast and South Asia with headwaters originating in China is contentious—and I do not think Chinese citizens realize this. There is no mention of exactly how “polluters” and “water hogs” are prosecuted. When fines are levied, where does the money go? Given all the strengths noted above, these few concerns are easily overlooked. The program is already nearly eight hours long. More to the point, this is one of the few opportunities that English-speaking students will have to see how China’s water problems and their solutions are presented to domestic audiences, and The Water Cries has no equal among the Chinese environmental films that I have seen and used in past years.

As noted above, there are sixteen “parts” to the program.  The price for educational institutions is $150 for a license to stream one of the sixteen programs for three years.  Alternately, an educational institution can license the entire 16 part series for three years for $1,000. The license allows all students and faculty members of the university round-the-clock access to the series (or program). These prices include performance rights, as long as the program is shown on campus and is free to the public. More information is available by contacting

Gregory Veeck is a professor of Geography at Western Michigan University who specializes in agriculture and rural development in East Asia with a focus on China. He has been working in China since 1985, and is the co-author of "China's Geography: Globalization and the Dynamics of Political, Economic and Social Change" (2011).

The Water Cries is distrubuted in the U.S. by - an Asia Pacific Online Film Library

Price: $150.00 for an educational institution license to stream one of the sixteen programs for three years. 

$1,000 for an educational institution license to stream the entire 16 part series for three years.

Includes institutional public performance rights.



Last Updated: October 14, 2011

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