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“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.

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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

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评论 comments

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

强制

如果出台了治理长江的新方案,那么我们都希望省政府能够采取切实可行的措施来确保方案的有效执行。如果对那些视长江污染而不顾,盲目追求经济利润的违规企业缺乏强制处罚的力度,那些唯利是图的企业不但会继续污染长江水域,而且也有效的制约了当地政府实现他们“地方利益”目的。

Enforcement

If a new Yangtze River directive were to be brought in, let's hope that provincial governments could enforce it properly. Without the ability to impose significant penalties and criminal liability on companies that flout regulations, it may remain profitable for corporations to keep polluting the river - and therefore remain in the "local interest", effectively binding local governments also. SL

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

黄河

黄河的污染其实更严重

Yellow River

Actually, the pollution in the Yellow River is worse than that in the Yangtze River.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

期望

还中国一片清山绿水

Expectation

We expect the return of green mountains and clear water to China.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

法制与利诱

对于污染企业,没有强硬的法制或者诱人的利益,所有环保的警示和宣传都无济于事。永远不能靠企业家的所谓社会责任感或者道德良心,根本也靠不住。在现阶段,环保和企业的短期利益还是比较矛盾的,所以利诱就算了。因此我建议用韩非子的办法来搞环保,宁愿狠毒一点遭今人抱怨,也不能姑息纵容让后人唾骂。

Laws and lure

To companies that pollute, talk of environmental protection and propaganda are useless without a tough law enforcement or tempting lure. It is not reliable to depend on the morality and conscience of entrepreneurs or their responsibility towards society to protect environment. At the present, environmental protection and the short-term interest of companies are in conflict. Hence, I strongly recommend that it would be better to use the method of the ancient philosopher Han Feizi to protect environment, that is to say, using very tough punishment to deal with polluters. I would rather be criticized by offspring than tolerant of current bad deeds by the polluters.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

不要夸大挑战

管理长江的污染是一项挑战, 然而确是可实现的。川流欧州多国,并且途径规模最大型石化工业的莱茵河,与泰吾士相比下则是更好例子。该河流的情况在过去十年来显示着巨大的改进。以其分散和逃避这一项挑战,那为什么不授权于长江委员会来承担这一被忽视的任务呢?Marusemi

do not exaggerate the challenge

Managing pollution of a great river is a challenge but it can be done. A better example than the Thames is the Rhine which flows through many countries and passes the largest petrochemical industries of Europe. Its condition has improved dramatically over the past decades. Why not empower the Yangtse Commission to take on this oversight role rather than dispersing and hiding the challenges?

marusemi

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

环境影响评估何在?

我们的环境影响评估法已经出台数年,环保风暴也已起了数次,为什么这样的劣性规划不能在前期被制止呢?为什么法律的尊严没有办法维护,为什么大多数人的生存利益总是博弈不过政府的发展利益和企业的经济利益呢?

Where is environmental assessment?

Our laws and regulations on environmental assessment have been released for many years. And the environmental movement has also experienced several peaks. But why these poor plannings can't be stopped in their early stages? Why laws and regulations cannot be fully enforced? Why the survival needs of the majority are always less powerful than the development interests of the government and the pecuniary interests in the business world?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

环境问题原因很复杂

中国的环境问题背后涉及到多方面的问题,地方经济的发展,国家的产业政策,环保监督管理执法能力,及很多中国化的错综复杂的关系,中石油中石化的很多项目都是沿江沿河建设,可是污染整治的对象却是一些小企业,私企。要想根除中国特色的环境问题,光是借鉴国外的经验是不够,国情不一样,在别处行的通的,在中国未必走的通,还需要很多的努力,很多的经验,很强的法制,对发展中国家来说其实是相当不容易的。

Environmental problems have complex causes

In the background to China's environmental problems are problems in many areas, such as regional economic development, national industrial policy, the ability to legally enforce environmental management and supervision, and complex, Chinese-style networks of relations. Many Sinopec and CNPC projects are constructed along rivers*, but it is small companies and private enterprises that are on the receiving end of pollution measures.
If we are to eradicate environmental problems with Chinese characteristics, it is not enough merely to refer to experiences of other countries, as the situation in each country is different; what works elsewhere may not work in China. What is needed is a lot of effort, a lot of experience, and strong legal controls, which, in a developing country, is not easy.

*Both CNPC, and Sinopec's parent company, are state run enterprises

Translated E Macdonald