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17 Women Are Key Link in Shanghai's Outdated Sewage System

China: As huge city prepares to update its sanitation, wooden boats continue to do some of the dirty work.


SHANGHAI — This is the most populated city in the most populated country in the world. What happens when all these people answer nature's call?

The government would rather you never ask. They hope you never stray beyond Shanghai's impressive landmarks. Or stumble across the small detachment of women in the gutter of the city, still performing backbreaking labor in a landscape completely at odds with the popular image of modern Shanghai.

A $2-million project is in the works to make sure that no one else will catch sight of these 17 women and their seven antiquated boats.

They are the last of their kind. Their job is to transport human waste. Their methods are no fancier than that of water buffalo plowing rice paddies.

When it comes to sewage treatment, much of the city of 14 million has been living in the pre-industrial age. Every day, about 19,000 tons of trash and 4,700 tons of feces still travel to processing stations and landfills by boat, via the region's Venice-like creeks and canals.

In the last few years, Shanghai has invested in larger, mechanized vessels and covered up the cargo with blue tarps. The waste they haul is now virtually undetectable to pedestrians who frequently spot the boats from Shanghai's fabled waterfront, along the Huanpu River.

Officials had forgotten about the old boats still inching along Shanghai's backwaters, far away from the tourists' gaze--until early this year, when the local press found out about the women. Since then, city officials have been doing their best to deflect more negative publicity.

"These boats are bad for our image; their disappearance will be sped up," said Zhao Jin, an official with the city's waste disposal agency.

The waters, offshoots of the notoriously polluted Suzhou Creek, cut through Shanghai like a permanent oil spill. A recent cleanup effort has helped, but the smaller tributaries are still choked with debris. Parts of them are so shallow that motorized vessels, and at times simple rowboats, cannot float.

To reach their destination, the women plunge homemade bamboo poles into the creek bottom, using the full weight of their bodies to move the wooden vessels a few feet at a time. The process is so slow that, where possible, the women jump to shore and drag the boats with nylon ropes tied around their backs.

The new sanitation system, which will pump sewage directly into processing plants, is expected to start operation in June.

Until then, the women continue to work, knowing that, like the cityscape around them, their way of life is changing.

"We work hard for our money. We don't steal and we don't cheat. Why should we be ashamed of what we do?" said Xu Gendi, 44, as she prepares for the long day ahead.

Every morning at 4 o'clock, 70 tons of the city's waste arrives from nearby neighborhoods on trucks; by 7, the boats are loaded, with the women using yellow construction hats tied to bamboo sticks to evenly distribute the cargo and balance the boats. Then they push off, the early sun shining pink on their wind-whipped cheeks.

All the women are natives of Shanghai. They were born on boats and raised by parents who sailed the waterways like their parents before them, first as fishermen, then as sanitation workers. The water was once relatively clean and plentiful. All along the shores, crops grew in fields of green, readily absorbing urban excrement as organic fertilizer.

As Shanghai plunged into a growth frenzy, farmland vanished and with it the traditional waste destinations. Factories went up. Industrial and residential waste tumbled into the water. Parts of the streams shrunk to just 10 feet wide and a few feet deep.

Some days the water is so shallow the boats scrape bottom and cannot move at all. Other days, the water is too high. The only way to get past a web of low bridges is by filling the cabin with slimy river water.

"We are the antithesis of a spoiled Shanghai lady," says Xu Chunhua, 44, her body leaning at a steep angle as she walks along the shore dragging her boat through the water. "We work like this in the rain, in the wind and 100-degree heat."

Coming upon a steep incline, all the women leap to a bridge to help pull the boats from the top of the bridge, one by one. The rope cuts into their wet rubber gloves. It snaps. The women fall. Laughter breaks out.

Women traditionally held this job because it was considered easy. Today it is tough, even for men. The journey has grown to about 18 miles round trip and lasts anywhere from seven to 15 hours, depending on the conditions.

The women make about $150 a month, a decent sum that earns them rare displays of affection from their husbands.

Three times a week, Xu Gendi's spouse, Wang Sanbao, waits for his wife by one of the stone bridges on his way home from a graveyard shift as a security guard. When her boat passes beneath it, Wang hops in and offers his wife a break.

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