A byproduct of locally produced biogas is manure used for organic fertilizer at the Anlong Organic Farm. 

Business is booming for Xiong Qiaorong’s family guesthouse.

Nestled under a canopy of trees beside a flowing stream, it’s one of many places where Chinese urbanites can come to shake off the hustle and bustle of Chengdu, the capital city of 11 million people in the western Sichuan province. Some weekends, thousands have passed through the area, which now offers a network of bike trails and pavilions where visitors can enjoy outdoor refreshments.

Though she claims it’s just a home, not a nongjiale – the official term for the million-plus farm guesthouses that attract local tourists across the Chinese countryside – Ms. Xiong knows a lot about the business. Her family started with tea service, then added meals, but her biggest selling point is the house’s bucolic appeal.

That’s one reason the family invested the equivalent of one month’s salary into a constructed wetland installed by the World Wildlife Fund to purify wastewater before it’s returned to the environment.

Basically a large, muddy cistern carved out of the bank, the wetland offers a natural filter for “gray water” that flows down from the guesthouse’s sinks and bathrooms after being separated from solid waste. The plants growing inside it oxygenate the water, absorbing nutrients, boosting aesthetic appeal and helping trap pollutants.

Environmental benefits aside, the family has seen an immediate payoff.

“More swimmers come to our family because they see the water purification system,” Ms. Xiong said.

Her place is part of a pilot project the WWF ran with the local government, which has since expanded it to other guesthouses in the area. It’s one solution for “non-point pollution,” which happens in rural areas where no sewers or centralized waste collection systems exist.

The project is also a part of a broader commitment by the WWF and its partner, Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co., to tackle environmental problems in the world’s largest and most polluted river basins. In 2007 they launched The Yangtze Partnership, into which Coke had invested nearly $5 million by 2012.

The partnership focused on restoring wetland ecosystems, protecting source water in the upper Yangtze and improving sustainable farming methods. Most of the work has concentrated on the Min and Jialing rivers, tributaries which flow southward into the Yangtze. 

In Pi County, just northwest of Chengdu, lies one example of how they’ve tackled that third objective, building out multiple projects that have impacted an estimated 7 million people, either directly or through media or volunteer exposure. 

The Yunqiao artificial wetland mimics the role of its natural counterpart, filtering water that runs from nearby villages into streams, eventually ending up in the Min River. Instead of polluting chemicals, farmers can use this purified water to nourish their produce. At the same time, the wetland creates a tiered habitat that allows a diversity of birds, frogs and insects to thrive.

Last year, walking among the hyacinths and lotuses planted by volunteers from Coca-Cola’s Chinese bottling partners and other corporate teamsLiang Haitang, former head of WWF’s Chengdu office and now a senior adviser to the organization in China, told Global Atlanta why the government cares about such a seemingly remote project.

More than 80 percent of Chengdu’s drinking water originates in Pi County, which has designated by the government as source-water protection area. Chengdu has paid farmers to make room for wetlands and has sought to discourage rampant industrial development by sharing revenues with the county government, Ms. Liang said.

“Now more and more officials are to realizing the importance of the wetlands,” she said, noting that WWF and Coke have played an integral role in demonstrating the value of wetland projects. “The governments want to do (conservation), but they need more fresh ideas for conservation.’”

Farmers are also integral to the success of water initiatives, especially in a country as agriculturally oriented as China. One WWF-Coke project taught them how to make biogas from pig waste, reducing runoff into streams while providing a usable fuel for cooking and heating. The byproduct, in turn, is manure that can be used as fertilizer on organic farms like the Anlong Organic Farm, which abuts a water education center supported by Coke and WWF. 

In a country often racked with food-safety scandals, farmers with organic produce can fetch hefty prices from city buyers, up to six times higher than conventional in some cases, according to one visitor

Ms. Liang told Global Atlanta that the farmland was given to 10 families to operate two- to three-hectare plots. They now grow more than 40 types of fruits and vegetables, including watermelons, cabbage, eggplant, cucumbers and much more. At the outset in 2007, the Yangtze Partnership helped film a documentary on the growers that aired on screens in buses around Chengdu and now operate on a community-supported agriculture model where buyers can input orders through a remote reservation system and drive out to the countryside for pickup.

“When people understand the quality, they are willing to pay higher prices rather than rely on the supermarket,” Ms. Liang said.

For Coke, all this is not a simply a choreographed corporate social responsibility campaign. It’s a business imperative for a company that relies on clean water and thriving communities of consumers, said Jasmine Tian, director of sustainability for Coca-Cola in China, the beverage giant’s third largest market by volume.

“We really see ourselves as a model of how business and NGOs should be working together,” she told Global Atlanta in a phone interview. “We are water. Water is us as a company.”

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...