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A Clean Mother River
The Yangtze's environmental protection is paramount regardless of its economic development
By Wang Hairong | NO. 7 FEBRUARY 18, 2016

A section of the Yangtze River in Zigui County, Hubei Province (XINHUA)

The Yangtze River, flowing more than 6,300 km across China, has been witness to many epic events, inspired numerous idyllic poems, and nurtured a large number of booming towns during the country's long history.

While boosting the growth of the Yangtze River Economic Belt has become a major regional development strategy, President Xi Jinping recently called for reformative and innovative methods to protect the unique ecological system of the Yangtze.

Speaking at a high-profile meeting in Chongqing on the upper reaches of the Yangtze in early January, Xi said that for quite a long time into the future, restoring the river's ecological environment will be an overwhelming task that requires large-scale protection, and no large-scale development will be allowed.

The Yangtze River Basin holds 40 percent of China's available fresh water resources, and serves as a source of drinking water for 400 million people, according to official statistics. The basin has abundant fishery resources, whose freshwater catch accounts for about 60 percent of the country's total. It also contains one fifth of China's total wetland area, and is home to many rare wild animals and plants.

Improving water quality

Nonetheless, China's rapid economic development in the past decades has paid a heavy toll on the Yangtze. The river has been polluted and aquatic creatures have suffered.

For example, the Yangtze River dolphin, a freshwater dolphin species endemic to the river, was declared "functionally extinct" in 2007. Also, the finless porpoise, known as the last surviving mammal in the Yangtze that is rarer than the giant panda, has become increasingly harder to spot. Scientists estimate there are only about 1,000 finless porpoises alive today. Even the sturgeon, once abundant in the river, is also on the verge of extinction.

Measures to clean up the Yangtze have yielded significant results. "The quality of water in the Yangtze is improving year by year," said Xu Deyi, a spokesman for the Changjiang Water Resources Commission of the Ministry of Water Resources. The commission is responsible for water administration and other issues in the Yangtze River Basin.

More than 90 percent of the length of the main river, and 77.4 percent of the entire drainage basin had water quality at Grade III or better in 2014, Xu said at a press conference held in December 2015.

Water at or below Grade III can be used as a source of drinking water, according to the five-grade classification by China's Environmental Quality Standards. Grade IV water quality is safe for general industrial and recreational use involving no direct skin contact. Grade V is safe for agricultural use. Water given a higher rating than Grade V is unsafe for any use.

In 2000, only 67.4 percent of the main river had water quality at Grade III or better, and in 2006, the figure for the entire drainage basin dropped to 66.7 percent, he said.

However, Xu revealed that lakes along the Yangtze River remain quite heavily polluted. In 2014, only 23.1 percent of lake areas met national standards.

"The Yangtze River Basin is subject to a heavy discharge of pollutants because it is a densely populated area with a relatively rapidly growing economy," said Yang Yongde, Deputy Director of the Yangtze River Water Resources Protection Bureau under the Changjiang Water Resources Commission.

According to him, monitoring data in 2014 showed wastewater discharge in the Yangtze River Basin totaling 33.88 billion tons, an increase of 210 million tons from 2013.

"Encouragingly, the growth rate has begun to decline since 2008," Yang said. "Due to continuous improvement in wastewater treatment, the concentration of pollutants in the discharged wastewater has also been reduced, so the river's water quality has improved."

In 2014, 12.7 billion tons of wastewater--including 3.68 billion tons of industrial wastewater and 9.02 billion tons of municipal sewage--was poured into the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze, according to the 2014 annual report released on January 20 by the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP).

The report revealed that chemical oxygen demand (COD) discharge to the river in 2014 totaled 3.66 million tons, of which 38.5 percent was from agricultural production and 48.2 percent was from municipal sewage. Agricultural production and municipal sewage were also the dominant sources of ammonia nitrogen discharge.

Other major pollutants dumped into the river included 38.5 million tons of petroleum, 60.7 tons volatile phenol, 31.1 tons of cyanide, and 127 tons of six heavy metals, including lead, cadmium, mercury, chromium and arsenic.

Compared with 2011, wastewater, COD and ammonia nitrogen from industrial and agricultural sources had all dropped, according to the report.

Tighter supervision

The Yangtze River Basin is home to a huge number of industrial enterprises as well as livestock and poultry farms. Many sewage outlets are located along the riverbanks.

In recent years, Internet-based technologies have been increasingly used in pollution monitoring. Environmental authorities in Hubei Province on the middle reaches of the Yangtze have monitored pollution sources online. The Changjiang Times , a daily newspaper published in Wuhan, capital of Hubei, reported on October 13, 2015, that environmental authorities in the province had, since 2014, imposed penalties on 106 enterprises that were found discharging more pollutants than permitted.

In November 2014, the Wuhan Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau detected a printing and dyeing company trying to dodge online monitoring by diverting wastewater away from the automatic monitoring devices. An examination of the historical data showed the automatically recorded pollution data was far below the normal levels for the printing and dyeing industry. An inspection revealed that untreated wastewater was being diverted through a hidden pipe to escape monitoring. A heavy fine was subsequently imposed on the company.

The water quality of key sections of the Yangtze and some wastewater discharge outlets are monitored online in real time, the Changjiang Daily , another newspaper in Hubei, reported in December 2015.

During the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20) period, the Changjiang Water Resources Commission will further strengthen supervision, set a higher standard for applications to set up sewage outlets along the river, and urge enterprises to save energy and reduce emissions, according to Xu, the commission's spokesman.

Stronger policies

Although progress has been made in preventing and controlling pollution in the Yangtze, some problems still linger.

A drinking water crisis occurred in Jingjiang, Jiangsu Province, on the lower reaches of the Yangtze, on May 9, 2014, when a strange odor was detected in the drinking water. The city quickly shut down its water supply, which triggered the panicked buying of bottled water. The Yangtze provides 80 percent of Jiangsu's drinking water, according to official statistics.

In March 2013, thousands of pig carcasses were found floating on a tributary of the Yangtze River, the Huangpu River. The Huangpu supplies 22 percent of Shanghai's drinking water.

Faced by these kinds of incidents, the government has stepped up its efforts to control water pollution. On April 16, 2015, the State Council, China's cabinet, published the Action Plan for Water Pollution Prevention and Control, a comprehensive strategy to reduce water pollution and promote water conservation.

The plan identifies specific measures in 10 areas, including economic restructuring and upgrading, boosting scientific and technological support, giving full play to the role of market mechanisms, clarifying the responsibility of various parties, and encouraging public participation and supervision.

It requires that more than 70 percent of the water in the drainage areas of the nation's seven major waterways, including the Yangtze, should meet the surface water standard of no worse than Grade III by 2020. The end of 2030 should see the percentage increasing to more than 75 percent and also the elimination of untreated sewage in urban areas.

By 2016, small factories in sectors such as paper, insecticides and tanning, which heavily pollute water, should be shut down, according to the document.

Meanwhile, clean production methods should be adopted in 10 industrial sectors such as non-ferrous metals, papermaking, coking, agricultural products processing and electroplating.

The plan also requires clusters of industry to have wastewater treatment facilities completed and automatic online pollution monitoring devices installed by the end of 2017, while the deadline given to clusters situated in economically advanced regions such as the Yangtze River Delta was set at the end of 2016.

From 2016, the government will publish a blacklist of companies that have received warnings or been ordered to close down for discharging excessive pollutants.

The MEP is formulating detailed rules for implementing the plan, and designing methods for evaluating results, which will be released this year, according to a report by Beijing-based Economic Information Daily.

An unidentified MEP official said that the ministry will sign performance pledges with local governments, detailing their water pollution control targets and tasks. In case of any default, relevant departments and their leaders will be held accountable.

Copyedited by Calvin Palmer

Comments to wanghairong@bjreview.com

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