In China's Olympic co-host city Qingdao, sea breezes
that usually bring relief from baking summer temperatures
now bring a cloying stench from a massive algae bloom
that locals fear will harm the city's bucolic image
during the Games.
"If we don't clean this up, we're done for" - said
local businessman Zhang Longfei.
A blanket of green weed stretches far out to sea at Qingdao's
No. 3 Bathing Beach. "You think tourists and Games visitors
want to see this?" - Zhang said, taking a break after lugging
a sack full of green weed onto a growing pile offshore.
Zhang is one of an army of troops, marine officials and common
volunteers battling to clean Qingdao's shores as the host
city for Olympic sailing events enters peak tourist season
and puts the final touches on Games preparations.
Local authorities say 30,000 people have now been drafted
into the cause and have drawn a line in the sand demanding
that the algae - which invaded Qingdao in mid-June - be completely
expunged from sailing competition areas by July 15. On beaches
usually packed with sun-seeking Chinese tourists, khaki-clad
troops and sweaty volunteers strive to shift mounds of green
weed washed in by the tide.
The epic battle is winnable, officials insist, at least within
the confines of the sailing competition area, currently being
reinforced with 32 km (20 miles) of marine fencing.
"I'm absolutely confident that our government can take effective
measures to clean - not only the venue area, but also protect
the beautiful beaches" - Yuan Zhiping, assistant to the
president of the Qingdao Sailing Committee, told Reuters.
Sailing events are scheduled to start on August 9.
Sailors, who a few days ago were tacking to avoid large clumps
of floating weed, said that clean-up efforts were yet to completely
clear their training area. "Now that they've broken up most
of it, there are still some random bits floating around. At
one stage, we felt our boat was a bit sluggish and we found
some had got caught on the rudder" - Saskia Clarke, racing
in the 470 class for Britain, said.
Officials have been at pains to emphasise that the weed is
naturally occurring and a foreign enemy, having floated in
from an unspecified area offshore. "The scientists say that
the algae is not produced here, but has floated in from other
areas. They're now looking into where exactly it has come
from" - Yuan said.
Qingdao residents - proud of their picturesque town of German
chalets and leafy boulevards - are less convinced of the official
line. "It's clearly related to pollution" - said Yang Lingwu,
who brought her family and colleagues to help clean the No.
3 beach. "There are a lot of phosphates and a lot of
industries - like chemical factories - near Qingdao that discharge
into the sea."
While algae blooms can develop offshore and move according
to currents, the sea needs to be rich in nutrients, which
invariably come from "agricultural run-off and urban drainage"
- according to Hironao Kataoka, an associate professor at
Tohoku University, and an expert in marine biology.
"I felt pity for the people who are removing the algae bloom
by hand" - he added.
On No. 3 beach, one resident said his arms and hands would
get itchy after a long day shovelling the weed, but the itch
would disappear after washing.