As the rising sun over the rippling Erhai Lake suffused the clouds with splendid hues, tourists walked along the lakeshore to find the perfect spot to capture the view, with the twittering of black-headed gulls embellishing the pleasant aura.
The picturesque scenery is now a common sight at the once heavily polluted lake in southwest China's Yunnan Province thanks to its improving environment that has attracted more wintering birds in recent years.
Located in the province's Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture, Erhai Lake sits at some 2,000 meters above sea level and stretches more than 250 sq km. A major tourist draw, the ear-shaped freshwater lake has attracted tens of millions of tourists every year since local tourism began flourishing in the 1990s.
However, the booming tourism, coupled with rapid urbanization, took its toll on the lake, causing water quality degradation and toxic blue-green algae blooms.
President Xi Jinping visited the lake during an inspection tour of Yunnan in January 2015, stressing ecological protection of the lake and calling on residents and the local government to protect the lake's natural beauty forever.
During his visit, Xi, also general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission, emphasized the priority of ecological and environmental protection.
When it comes to ecological protection, "we cannot afford to be penny wise and pound foolish, or catch one and lose another," he said. "We should also not live beyond our means or be more interested in the here and now while ignoring our long-term interests."
In response to Xi's call, the local government launched a series of ecological projects in 2016 to prevent and control pollution and restore the environment of Erhai Lake.
More than 2,400 lakeside guesthouses and restaurants were asked to suspend business so that sewage treatment facilities could be upgraded to prevent the discharging of untreated wastewater into the lake. Algae treatment facilities were established around the lake and a waste disposal factory was built to turn animal wastes into organic fertilizers.
The cultivation of garlic, which entails the use of large amounts of chemical fertilizers, was banned in the lake basin.
An Nan, who owns a lakeside guesthouse, had halted his homestay business for more than a year to make way for the conservation projects.
"We owe our business success to Erhai Lake. As long as it is well protected, we don't have to worry about our livelihoods," An said. "What's the point of having suites with a lake view if the lake itself is dirty and stinky like before?"
Official data showed that more than 20 billion yuan (about 3.1 billion U.S. dollars) has been poured into lake restoration projects in the past five years.
The arduous efforts have paid off. In 2019 and 2020, the surface water quality of Erhai Lake remained between Class II and Class III, indicating good water quality, according to the Yunnan provincial department of ecology and environment.
"A cleaner Erhai Lake is bringing more tourists to Dali, which is a boon for my business," An said.
Chen Jian, Party secretary of Dali, said the prefecture has been following a path of green development.
"With the improving water quality of Erhai Lake, we have more time to adjust our industrial structure and further promote green development," he said. "The protection of the lake is bringing more economic benefits."
"Mountains and rivers green are mountains of silver and gold," Xi has reiterated on several occasions. The dialectical words, known as the "two mountains" concept in Chinese, are a key component of Xi's thought on ecological progress.
During another inspection tour of Yunnan in January 2020 when he visited Dianchi Lake, a plateau lake in the provincial capital Kunming, Xi stressed abandoning the old way of achieving economic development at the cost of the environment.
After learning about the conservation efforts at Dianchi Lake as well as the improvement in its water quality during that visit, Xi urged continuous efforts to restore the ecology of the lake.
The largest freshwater lake on the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau, Dianchi Lake used to be one of the most polluted lakes in China, with its water quality graded Class V for a long time in the 1990s, the worst level in the country's water quality grading system.
Years of restoration efforts by the government and the public, including pollution control, water replenishment and wetland restoration, are helping the lake regain its lost luster.
Its surface water quality improved to Class IV in 2018, the best in 30 years, and has remained at the level over the past two years, according to the Dianchi Lake administration bureau.
The water quality of 17 rivers, making up nearly half of the waterways entering Dianchi Lake, reached Class III level or even better in 2020, compared with just five rivers in 2015, statistics from the Kunming municipal ecology and environment bureau showed.
Fu Wen, head of the Dianchi Lake administration bureau, said they will follow Xi's instructions to step up pollution control, ecological restoration and intelligent management of the lake to further improve its water quality.