A river in ruins
China is paying a hefty price for its economic miracle as it sinks into its own waste. Mary-Anne Toy reports.
CHINA'S mightiest river begins high in the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. Here in China's far west the Yangtze is fed by melting glaciers and known as the Tongtian He (Travelling Through the Heavens River).
Tamed but not humbled by the equally gigantic Three Gorges Dam, the Yangtze surges through eight provinces, one autonomous region, two city-states and some of China's most spectacular natural geography, including the 192-kilometre stretch of the Three Gorges, before spilling into the sea at Shanghai.
For decades China has taken the "mother river" for granted. But this week experts warned that the Yangtze's ability to soak up increasing industrial, agricultural and shipping pollutants had reached its limit and unless urgent action was taken the river could be dead within five years.
The blunt report from the official Xinhua newsagency quoted Lu Jianjian, a professor at Shanghai's East China Normal University, describing the river as "cancerous".
Lu said the drinking water of 186 cities along the river, including Shanghai and Nanjing, China's second and third biggest cities, was under threat. Lu, who is also a member of the Government's national policy advisory body, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, said animal species living in the river had dropped from 126 in the mid-1980s to 52 in 2002.
Yuan Aiguo, a professor with the China University of Geosciences at the Yangtze port city of Wuhan, said up to 70 per cent of the Yangtze's water could be unusable within five years. "Many officials think the pollution is nothing for the Yangtze, which has a large water flow and capability for self-cleansing, but the pollution is very serious," Yuan says.
The appalling state of China's rivers has been well known for years, but the sheer size of the Yangtze has always seemingly insulated it. However, scientists have been warning for several years that the river is not immune to the devastation wreaked on the rest of China's waterways. Three-quarters of its lakes, those which haven't dried up entirely, are so overgrown with algae they are unable to sustain life, and 90 per cent of urban water resources are polluted to some extent.
Environmental campaigners say the Yangtze is just the latest, biggest example of the flipside of China's "economic miracle" and that the Three Gorges Dam, by slowing the river's flow, will worsen the pollution.
Economic growth averaging 9-10 per cent a year for the past quarter century has enabled China to lift 400 million people out of poverty. But industrialisation has also created what Nicholas Lardy, a senior fellow at Washington's Institute for International Economics, calls an "ecological implosion", with air and water pollution and water shortages threatening human health, industrial production and crops.
The outspoken deputy director of China's understaffed and underfunded State Environmental Protection Administration, Pan Yue, has said that environmental degradation is costing the country nearly 8 per cent of gross domestic product.
Covering just a fifth of the country, the Yangtze River Delta is home to one-third of China's population. The Yangtze links four of the country's most important industrial centres - the 30 million people megatropolis of Chongqing, Wuhan, Nanjing and Shanghai.
But it is also the country's biggest sewer, absorbing more than 40 per cent of the country's waste water, about 25 billion tonnes a year. It could probably cope, but for the fact that more than 80 per cent of the waste entering the river is untreated.
Chinese-Australian scientist Liu Guangzhao has spent decades studying waste-water treatment since moving to Melbourne in 1983. He set up his water-treatment technology company in Shanghai in 1992 and has spent years lobbying Chinese authorities to take pollution seriously. He is finally being heard.
His company's technology is to be used in the Songhua River in north-east China, the site of a massive and much publicised toxic spill late last year, and a RMB4.9 billion ($817 million) pollution control project in Yunnan province.
Part of the problem is that China doesn't have enough sewage treatment plants and many of the ones they have were built in the 1950s and 1960s, Liu says. Efforts to clean up rivers often just move the problem elsewhere, he says, citing the much-lauded $US1 billion clean-up of Shanghai's fetid Suzhou Creek, which flows into the Huangpu River. "Although Suzhou Creek looks clean now, the wastes have gone to the Huangpu River and Yangtze instead. The Yangtze won't bear such a burden if every city does the same."
Despite tough rhetoric from the President, Hu Jintao, and the Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, about paying more attention to the environmental costs of economic growth, reversing decades of neglect will take time, money and political commitment. For local and provincial officials who have to enforce anti-pollution laws, there has been little incentive to do so because economic growth has been the sole determinant of whether they keep their jobs and get promoted.
Work on a "green measure" of gross domestic product has apparently been dumped, three years after it was first requested by China's leaders worried about the rising public unrest over environmental degradation.
The Financial Times reported last month that the National Bureau of Statistics had killed the idea, saying it was impossible to calculate, pitting it against the state's environmental watchdog, which is insisting that without a way to judge the performance of local officials charged with delivering sustainable development it simply won't happen.
All this is news to Yuan Geng Ling, 65, a fisherman who lives on his boat on the Yangtze with his wife and son. But he's not surprised. The Yuans' small boat is moored with three other vessels owned by relatives in the shadow of the booming port city of Zhangjiagang, 200 kilometres upstream from Shanghai.
"The pollution is becoming more serious. Sometimes we can see directly the factories discharging waste water - usually it's the chemical factories - and sometimes we see small shrimp or fish dead, floating on the river. There is less and less that we can catch," Yuan says.
"Some of the chemical companies aren't allowed to be built overseas, so they come to China."
But the factories are less blatant these days about illegal discharging - the pipes are buried, but the locals know where they are.
Yuan says even the tough and poisonous hetung - which is favoured by the Chinese and, like the Japanese fugu fish, requires great care in its preparation - is disappearing. He hasn't seen another type of fish he called shi yu for 20 years.
His son, Yuan Wen Yong, 39, takes the Herald to where a fabric-dyeing factory is illegally discharging into the river. The discharge pipes are hidden beneath a landscaped road and an expanse of weeds, but the colour, a dark stain on the brown Yangtze, is unmistakable.
"When we drag our nets too close to this area, they get stained [by the discharge] and you can't wash it out," he says.
Zhangjiagang, a prosperous city with broad, tree-lined boulevards and a free trade zone that has attracted many domestic and multinational firms, ironically has the reputation as one of China's greenest and most pleasant cities due to its superior air quality and a civic campaign dating back to 1993 to promote itself as a model city.
At the entrance to the offending fabric-dyeing factory are several big banners promoting health and worker co-operation for prosperity. One of the signs reads: "A healthy environment depends on everybody."