QINGDAO, China (Reuters) - 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.
By Ian Ransom
"If we don't clean this up, we're done for," said local businessman Zhang Longfei, pointing at a blanket of green weed stretching 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 and 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 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 emphasize the weed is naturally occurring and a foreign enemy, having floated in from an unspecified area offshore.
"The scientists say it is not algae produced here, but has floated in from other areas. They're now looking into where exactly it has come from," Yuan said.
"At the most you could say that this sea is high in nutrients conducive to the growth of these organisms," 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 industry, 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 hands," Hironao said.
On No. 3 beach, Zhang said his arms and hands would get itchy after a long day shovelling the weed, but the itch would disappear after washing. He had more salient complaints.
"What we need here is a real voluntary spirit," said Zhang, a barrel-chested man in his 40s wearing a khaki shirt.
"Some of these people are just show-boating," he said, glancing at volunteers pausing to take group photos on the beach.
(Additional reporting by Tan Ee Lyn and Li Jiansheng; Editing by Benjamin Kang Lim and Jeremy Laurence)