The lyrics could have perfectly captured Li Yunli's life in her youth. She remembered joining her family every day to go fishing and return with the boat filled with bounties of the lake.

The 58-year-old also remembered when this tranquil life ended in the 1980s for her and others who depended on the lake for their livelihoods. Rapid urbanization and industrialization began to lay waste to the lake's environment and ecosystem. After a mere decade, Dianchi became one of the most polluted lakes in China, with the water quality rated "inferior to Grade V," the worst level in the national grading system.

"The water was murky and smelly," Li recalled. "The lake's surface was blanketed by a layer of blue and green algae. And you can't even move your paddles in some areas where the algae was very thick."

Li Yunli (L2), the team leader of the all-female salvage team in Xishan district, Kunming city of Yunnan province. [Photo provided to China SCIO]

To help reverse the environmental damage and restore her mother lake, Li joined a new family – the all-female salvage team in Kunming's Xishan district. She and other women on their salvage rafts began contributing to a 30-year effort around the lake to return it to its former splendor.

In 1986 when fishing in Dianchi Lake became more and more untenable, the men in generational fishing families in the area dropped their gear and went elsewhere to earn a living.

But for Li and other women who were born near the waters and have lived there all their lives, Dianchi Lake was their hope. A team was formed that year by volunteers to clear the algae and pick up the garbage. Li joined in the early years of the team's formation.

"I grew up here near Dianchi Lake; the clean-up job is for our mother lake, for myself and also for the good of our next generation," she said.

The all-female salvage team on their rafts clearing the dead water plants on Dianchi Lake. [Photo provided to China SCIO]

For the past 30 years, multiple generations of the all-women salvage team worked away on the lake. When a mother left, she passed the baton to a daughter. They replaced fishing boats with more maneuverable rafts, and used their hands and simple nets instead of the larger fishing nets.

"The job is tiring and dirty, but I feel gratified as what I do can contribute to the pollution treatment of our mother lake," Li, the current leader of team, said with pride.

As early as 5 a.m., Li would get up and prepare food for the day. She would spend 10 hours on the raft when the pollution was heaviest in the 1990s, and had her lunch on the lake surrounded by smelly and murky water.

"Each raft can salvage 250 kg to 300 kg of rubbish at that time, including the dead water plants, water hyacinth, moss and white garbage," Li said. "The work is so heavy that we need to squeeze out time as much as possible."

Despite the hardships, members of the salvage team kept up their work and more women began to join. From about 10 people at the very beginning, the number grew to more than 100 at the highest, with the youngest being 38 years old and eldest 62 years old.

Since 1995, the local government began ramping up efforts to restore Dianchi Lake. According to state media reports, authorities have so far spent about 50 billion yuan (US$7.77 billion) on clean-up work and environmental treatment.

To prevent waste water from entering the Dianchi Lake basin, Kunming city built nearly 100 kilometers of pollution interception pipes along the bank of the lake and 28 waste water treatment plants in the towns and villages of the city. All waste water had to be carefully processed before being reused or discharged into the lake.

In recent years, a shift in restoration approaches took place from point-pollution control to integrated rehabilitation of the lake's ecosystem. A 200-meter-wide green wetland belt was created around the lake. Huang Yuhong, deputy director of Kunming Dianchi Plateau Lake Research Institute, said the wetland can effectively purify the water before it flows into the lake.

As massive manpower and government resources poured in, the workload of the all-women salvage team became less stressful. Nowadays, the number on Li's team stays around 30.

Huang said that, in addition to the strong government involvement, the active participation of citizens like Li's team is also highly important. "[The women] have a strong attachment to Dianchi Lake," she said. "They believe the protection of their mother lake is in their long-term interests."

In a pond at the Baofeng wetland near Dianchi, schools of golden-line barbels swirl and dart among fresh water mussels and water plants with delicate white flowers floating on the surface. The barbels are native to Dianchi and had previously disappeared during the height of the lake's pollution.

A fish pond at the Baofeng wetland located near Dianchi Lake in Kunming city, Yunnan province. [Photo by Cui Can/China SCIO]

The return of the endangered fish species is one of the definitive signs for the major environmental improvement over the years, and other animals are coming back as well. According to ecological experts in Kunming, a number of species known to be sensitive to environmental degradation are returning. Furthermore, the number of plant species around the lake has increased from 230 to 303 in the last eight years.

A little egret flies above the water of the Baofeng wetland located near Dianchi Lake in Kunming city, Yunnan province. [Photo by Zhang Wei/Beijing Review]

Another key marker is the lake's improving water quality. In 2019, the water in Dianchi Lake received the rating of Grade IV, indicating that it is suitable for industrial use but still not drinkable.

So for the daughters of Dianchi, their mission continues.

"As long as we are needed for cleaning up Dianchi, we will carry on with our work," Li said.