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Water Quality

Rapid industrialisation of the Yangtze region and greater use of the river as a mode of transport have significantly impacted on water quality levels in recent years. About 10 per cent of the river’s trunkline was in critical condition in 2007, according to an official report. In addition, 30 per cent of its main tributaries, including the Mijiang, Xianjiang and Huangpu rivers, contained high levels of ammonia, nitrogen, phosphorous and other pollutants.

In fact, few stretches of the Yangtze are in good condition. In 2006, just 31 per cent of the river’s water was officially categorised as being of first- or second-class quality, with 35 per cent declared worse than third class. Professor Yuan Aiguo, from the China University of Geosciences in Wuhan, warned that unless action was taken, 70 per cent of the water could be fourth or fifth class within five years. This would lead to the disappearance of many water plants and the prospect of the Yangtze becoming a dead river.

In the international context, however, concentrations of pollution in the Yangtze trunkline are broadly in line with other large rivers elsewhere in the world. This is largely attributable to the fact that, since the water discharge of the Yangtze is much larger than most other major cargo-carrying rivers such as the Rhine, it can accommodate much larger pollution loads to result in similar concentration levels. The dilution effect is particularly apparent in downstream locations, although much less so in the tributaries and connecting lakes.

However, there are no grounds for complacency. With factories, hydroelectric schemes, individual households and farmers all contributing to worsening pollution levels, it is an extremely complex problem to solve.

Central and local governments have pledged to address the problem of pollution on the Yangtze and on other major inland waterways. In September 2007, Beijing set a timetable to improve the Yangtze’s worsening water quality, vowing to restore an ecological balance to the river by 2050. By 2010, up to 70 per cent of polluted water dumped into the Yangtze will be treated before being discharged, while the river’s health would be ‘significantly improved’ by 2020. The timetable was agreed at a meeting attended by environmentalists and government officials from 14 provinces and major cities along the river.

One of the biggest challenges will be to change the mindset of the many officials who tend to downplay the scale of the problem, believing that the sheer size of the Yangtze and its capacity for self-cleaning will always enable it to cope with pollution.

More information on water quality issues can be found in Chapter 9 of Yangtze Transport 2008.
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