“The waters of life may turn to poison”

Half of China’s 20,000 petrochemical companies are located in the Yangtze River basin. On World Water Day, Zhang Jingping, Liu Changjie & Han Yan report on the ecological crisis facing Asia’s longest river.

On March 2, the Yangtze River Basin Water Safety Research Group put forward a proposal that heavy and chemical industries on the banks of the Yangtze River should be relocated to protect the river basin’s environmental security. It was presented by the China Association for Promoting Democracy (CAPD) to a meeting of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in Beijing.

Chen Zhenlou, the head of the research group and vice-principal of the School of Environmental Sciences at East China Normal University, was not able to attend the CPPCC meeting. However, he carried out more than a year of investigations on the Yangtze River, and his viewpoint could not be clearer. The waters of life may turn to poison,says Chen.

In July last year, Cai Shuming, a CPPCC member, and Yan Juanqi, the vice-mayor of Shanghai, suggested that the CAPD should carry out research to assess the water safety threat posed by heavy industry and chemical plants along the banks of the Yangtze River. They put together a team to carry out the investigation, combining experts, such as Chen, with local CAPD members in eight provinces and municipalities bordering the Yangtze River.

Chen Zhenlou sailed east along the Yangtze River, from western China’s Sichuan province to coastal Shanghai. The river varied in parts, but his overall reaction was one of shock and dismay. Even the stunning mountainous scenery of Jiangxi province could not lift his spirits, since Chen knew that plans were afoot for urban construction around Jiangxi’s Poyang Lake. Of China's four large lakes, only Poyang Lake has been kept relatively clean. If the plan for urbanisation around the lake is carried out, as slated at a recent provincial conference, then Poyang Lake – like Taihu Lake before it – may become filled with sewage. In contrast to Chen's emotional language, the wording in the CAPD proposal is sober. Its preliminary conclusion: “there are already serious problems with water safety in the Yangtze River basin.”

There are five large steel plants, seven oil refineries and petrochemical works for a number of cities including Shanghai, Nanjing and Yizheng along the banks of the Yangtze River. Of China’s 20,000 petrochemical companies, 10,000 are located in the Yangtze River basin. The high concentration of heavy and chemical industries means that each day the pressure on the environment – and the pollution threat – increases.

The CAPD report also shows that high levels of industrial and domestic sewage are being released into the Yangtze River basin. Sewage treatment capacity in the basin is low, with the construction of treatment facilities unable to keep up with the great increase in pollution. Ninety percent of corporate waste water is released into rivers, whether openly or covertly, and repeated attempts to stop the practice have failed. Despite the presence of 280 sewage treatment plants in the region, less than 30% of domestic sewage is treated. Levels of heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants in some stretches of the river far exceed the maximum safe limits.

The proposal claims that the irrational distribution of industry in the Yangtze River basin is to blame for the high rate of accidents that lead to water pollution. And the decreasing quality of the Yangtze River’s water does not just reduce the living standards of people; it also threatens the existence of animals. While carrying out their investigation, the survey team met up with an international group of scientists researching dolphins and porpoises in the Yangtze River. Chen was horrified to hear that the scientists could find only one finless porpoise in the mouth of the river, and not a single baiji, or Yangtze River dolphin, despite their arduous, 38-day search (at the end of the 1990s, 150 baiji still lived in the river).

Heavy industry

The economics of breakneck growth have already pushed China to a point where industrial accidents happen very frequently. The team’s proposal cites China’s State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), who claim that since the terrible Songhua River incident in 2005, one accident resulting in water pollution has taken place in China every two to three days. The chief reason for these disasters, say SEPA, is the way in which large-scale heavy and chemical industries are being located along riverbanks. The CAPD's worries are acute: “It is a matter of concern,” says the report, “that according to the eleventh Five-Year Plan, the cities and municipalities of the Yangtze River basin will continue to make heavy and chemical industries the cornerstones of their development. In all areas of industry, there are plans to enlarge highly-polluting, resource-intensive projects. And the majority of these projects will be located along riverbanks.”

The CAPD report makes clear precisely which plans will threaten the Yangtze River environment. Shanghai plans to position high-quality steel plants and chemical industrial zones near the mouth of the Yangtze River and the Huangpu River. Riverside cities in Jiangsu province will focus on the development of manufacturing, metallurgy, logistics and chemical industries. Anhui province is planning to develop manufacturing, petrochemical, chemical, building materials and logistics industries in cities along the Yangtze River. Jiangxi province is allowing the expansion of large heavy and chemical industrial giants such as JMC, Changhe, Hongdu and Jiangxi Copper. Hunan province will continue to foster the development of the steel and nonferrous metal industries. Hubei province aims to further strengthen its automotive, steel and petrochemical industries. Sichuan province also continues to put heavy and chemical industries at the centre of its plans for the Chengdu, Chuannan and Panxi economic zones.

“It is easy to see how if the provinces and municipalities along the Yangtze all locate their industries as set out in the eleventh Five-Year Plan, the environment of the Yangtze basin will suffer further and be put at even greater risk,” says the report. Chen adds that if the heavy and chemical industrial projects laid out in the plan all go ahead on schedule, then the mistakes of the past will be repeated – in three years, he says, the Yangtze River will be as polluted as the Huai River.

The Yangtze and the Thames 

Why have these eight Yangtze provinces and municipalities all, without exception, chosen to concentrate on heavy and chemical industries for their development during the eleventh Five-Year Plan? And why have they all chosen to place these industries on the banks of the river?

Chen says there are three main reasons, only two of which are publicly acknowledged. The first is that these industries consume large amounts of water, of which the Yangtze River is an abundant source. The second is that the Yangtze River provides convenient transport links and a source of energy. The third reason, which all the industries only tacitly recognise, is that the river provides a convenient outlet for waste.

Environmental protection institutions are extremely weak when faced with this threat to the Yangtze River. The CAPD researchers said the systems for monitoring and reacting to sudden pollution incidents on the Yangtze River are under-developed – in fact, they are only in the process of being formulated. There is a great lack of contingency planning and there is not the necessary technology for dealing with these emergencies. There is almost no research being done into emergency monitoring and control systems, risk management or related technology.

Moreover, in coastal areas of the Yangtze River, some local environmental protection departments are keeping silent about these issues. Chen says these local departments, driven by local interests, can no longer be trusted as a reliable source of water pollution statistics. Even a minority of the CAPD investigators, said Chen, would not reveal the correct pollution statistics in their own provinces.

In the light of this, one of the CAPD suggestions is that a national-level agency be established to deal specifically with water pollution in the Yangtze River basin. Taking into account existing water pollution and the capacity of the region's water resources, such an agency should also consider the needs of local industry and the distribution of heavy and chemical industries. They should come up with an eleventh Five-Year Plan tailored specifically to the Yangtze River basin, suggests the report.

“Self-regulation is completely impractical,” says Chen. “The Yangtze River belongs to everyone, not just to one particular province. Driven by the economics of growth and the enormous local wealth this creates, no region can be trusted to look after the Yangtze River.”

Chen sees London’s River Thames as a good example. Since the establishment of environmental regulations and agencies, the River Thames has gradually been turned from a sewage-filled environmental disaster to a clean river, admired by tourists from all over the world.


Jingping Zhang, Liu Changjie and Han Yan are reporters for the Economic Observer.

This article was first published in the Economic Observer (March 7, 2007)

Homepage photo by Kathy