Swimming in Pearl River was once a must activity in the summer for people in Guangzhou, the capital of south China's Guangdong.
But since the 1970s it has become a risky pastime because of increasing amounts of consumer and industrial waste in the water.
With clean-up efforts well under way, however, plans are being made to celebrate the better quality of the river by holding a mass "swimathon" in the summer for 10,000 people.
Five years ago, the Guangdong Governor Huang Huahua, who held the office of Guangzhou's vice-mayor at that time, first raised the idea of holding a swimming event in Pearl River, and planned to hold the activity in 2005.
The plan was not settled until last week, when Zhang Guangning, Guangzhou's mayor as well as a deputy to Guangdong People's Congress, promised to realize the plan this year.
"The real purpose of the activity is not solely to swim, but set a schedule to related departments, pushing them to get the water clean as soon as possible," he said.
Liu Jiangnan, director of Guangzhou Sports Bureau, said: "We are expecting to hold the activity between June and August, but the certain date will be fixed according to the weather and water tide.
"We are going to initiate about 10,000 residents to join in the activity."
Since the number of swimmers is so large, people will swim for only 20 minutes, and the whole activity will last 2 hours, according to Chen Zhongming, the director of Guangzhou's Water Sports Center.
From the late 1990s, reducing and controlling the environment pollution to Pearl River has become a key task of governments of provincial and municipal levels.
Guangzhou has 231 channels connecting with Pearl River, with a total length of 913 kilometers.
Local governments spent 9.5 billion yuan (US$1.17 billion) into reducing and controlling sewage discharge into the channels last year. Another 18 billion yuan (US$2.2 billion) will be added to the cost this year.
According to environmental guidelines, more than 90 percent of the channels should be sewage-free by 2010.
"The last time I swam in the river was three decades ago," Huang Zhenqiu, a retired government official in Guangzhou, said.
He said he was excited at the possible opportunity to swim again.
Places for the proposed swimathon will be limited.
"We will choose swimming aces to participate in it, and the basic requirement is that they can swim continuously for at least 1,000 meters," said Chen, from the water sports center.
Many departments of Guangzhou municipality have engaged in the preparation work for the upcoming activity, including environmental protection, water source, and sports departments.
They are dealing with a range of affairs, including shutting factories' sewage discharge pipes and cleaning existing pollution in the river.
According to a report in Guangzhou-based Yangcheng Evening News yesterday, the government is planning to dump a large amount of chemicals into Pearl River to sterilize the water ahead of the event.
But some people have raised concern at the plans.
"I personally disapprove of dumping chemicals into the river," Du Da'an, a medicine professor at the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in Guangdong, told China Daily yesterday.
He said the chemical would be chloride, which is commonly used in swimming pools.
"A river is not the same as a swimming pool, however, as the water in a river flows and lots of organisms are living under the surface," he said. "The ecological environment will be disturbed."
Du appreciated Guangzhou's achievement in reducing and managing the pollution in Pearl River, but insisted that it was not necessary to hold such a "gala."
Xiao Bin, a professor from Guangzhou-based Sun Yat-sun University, said he was pleased at the government's efforts in controlling pollution.
But he added: "I hope the swimming activity will not cause related departments and people to lose their focus on pollution."
(China Daily March 1, 2006)