Protecting China's rivers


Do you hear the siren call hailing members of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) to assist government and industry in their efforts to strike a balance between environmental protection and economic growth? The call rarely gets much louder around the world than what we've heard in the past few months from China's rivers.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) described the nearly 80-km benzene spill on the Songhua River in November 2005 as “probably one of the largest trans-boundary chemical spill incidents in a river system in recent years.” The Songhua River, which flows through Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces, merges with the Heilongjiang River (also called Amur River in Russia) and forms a natural border with Russia, eventually flowing into the Sea of Okhotsk. The November 13 blast at a petrochemical plant in Northeast China affected nearly 100 million people in downstream cities and communities and cut drinking water to 3 million city-dwellers for 4 days.

One month later, a smelting works in Guangdong province breached safety rules for treating cadmium waste, resulting in the discharge of more than 1,000 tons of cadmium waste into the Beijiang River. Local environmental protection authorities said the discharge caused the cadmium level in the river at the city of Shaoguan to surge to nearly 10 times safety levels, seriously degrading water quality in the lower reaches of the river and affecting drinking water for tens of thousands of people. The remedial response included pouring 380 tons of iron and aluminum polymer into the upper reaches of the river at the city of Yingde to induce the cadmium to settle at the bottom of the river.

And in January, the New Year began in China with a diesel oil leak at a power plant in the city of Gongyi located in central China's Henan Province, which resulted in the release of 6 tons of diesel oil into the Yellow River. The oil slick on the Yellow River, China's second longest, reached the Bohai Sea, 100 km downstream. At nearly the same time, a fertilizer plant accident dumped 600 tons of sulfuric acid into the Qijiang River near the city of Chongquig.

With reports such as these, there is little doubt that China's rivers are under tremendous pressures at a time when economic expansion in the country is occurring at a breakneck pace. It is hard to discern exactly how widespread environmental problems are in China, but the country's environmental mishaps, enormous population, and appetite for economic growth suggests that other rivers and watersheds may fare no better.

There is a proverb in China, “where there is risk, there is an opportunity.” It is especially true for China's current situation; recent environmental mishaps have, in turn, accelerated the country's efforts to integrate environmental monitoring, assessment, and management. China now has one of the world's most powerful economies, and clearly has the resources needed to begin solving its environmental problems.

Almost immediately after the November 2005 accident, the Central Government of China invested significant resources to tackle environmental problems and degraded drinking water supplies caused by the benzene spill in the Songhua River. The government has pumped 56 million yuan (˜US$7.2 m) into Harbin Province to address the disaster through round-the-clock sampling, monitoring, and remediation and forecasting of downstream water quality conditions using hydrological models. During the next 4 months, task leaders will travel weekly to Beijing and report on the progress directly to the Central Government. With the help of the army, China's environmental authorities managed in just 3 days to set thousands of activated charcoal bags in the river to adsorb and remove benzene at water intake pipes serving dozens of communities.

Additionally, the Central Government has committed 2.5 million yuan to develop a database for hydraulic and hydrological data and to establish a computer-forecasting model for predicting the fate of any pollutant discharged to rivers in the Harbin Province. With a concerted effort by top scientists in China from Tsinghua University, Harbin University of Science and Technology, and other universities, the Central Government began implementing the mathematical model and established a center for risk assessment in February 2006. The results of these efforts are expected to have profound implications for anticipated negotiations with the Russian government on compensation for communities affected by the spill on the Russian side of the border.

Increasing demand for water and electricity resources in China, leading to the proliferation of reservoirs and dams on upper and middle river basins to reserve water for drinking, irrigation, industrial use, and power generation, has led to a cascade of other serious environmental problems.

When China's State Environmental Protection Administration in Beijing announced in 2004 the closure of 52 polluting paper-making, chemical manufacturing, medicine and wine factories in the Huaihe River basin in order to stop serious water contamination in the region, one-third of the 165 factories and 30 domestic sewage treatment plants located in 21 cities and 91 counties and districts along 65 tributaries and 155 main reaches of the river did not operate properly. Two years later, water quality in the Huaihe River watershed remains poor; the Wohe, Chihe, Bei Feihe, and other branches of the Huaihe River are heavily polluted, and water quality exceeds Level III, the standard set in China for potable water after treatment (i.e., Levels I-III designate potable use, while Levels IV and V designate non-potable or polluted conditions).

In the Yangtze River, the annual mean discharge from the river to the sea has significantly decreased since 1970 due to demands for freshwater and building of reservoirs and dams (Chen et al. 2001). The reduction in river flow has, in turn, led to an increase in the rate of sea-level rise from 1.4 mm/y to between 4.5 and 50 mm/y in coastal areas during the dry season (Wang 1998). As a consequence, seawater intrusion has increased in inland areas and nearby estuaries such as those at Zhuhai and Macau where water companies could not obtain freshwater from lower basins during the dry season. In many highly populated cities, pollution in river basins is exacerbated by the reduction of freshwater flow from upstream. Considerable exploitation of groundwater resources in some regions of the country has further hindered the ability of watersheds and rivers to recharge, intensifying environmental damages (Han 2003).

Faced with several heavily polluted middle and lower river basins, the Central Government has begun to respond with a great urgency to improve the current situation through enforcement to stop the illegal discharge of untreated wastewater and encourage investments for building sewage collection systems and wastewater treatment facilities, as well as remediation of contaminated sediment and lands. In the Shenzhen Province, for example, the regional government borrowed US$2 billion in 2004 with a view to improving the water quality in 3 main rivers, including the heavily polluted Shenzhen River, over the next 10 years. In Beijing, the Central Government has reserved a budget of 26.6 billion yuan for long-term management and remediation of contaminated rivers.

Proposing solutions to such environmental problems, as well as developing environmental policy and management tools, are among the many roles that SETAC plays as part of promoting good, basic science and the integration of science and environmental management. Clearly, it is not only China having trouble with managing its water resources; similar incidents—though perhaps not with the same frequency—have occurred in Russia, India, in Europe and the United States. SETAC's global presence provides an ideal forum for scientific exchanges and environmental problem-solving among leading scientific and environmental engineering experts representing government, academia, environmental organizations, and industry.

The SETAC Asia/Pacific 2006 Conference with the theme “Growth with a Limit: Integration of Ecosystem Protection for Human Health Benefits” provides a timely opportunity for Chinese and international environmental scientists to meet. The conference will be held at Peking University in Beijing, China from 18 to 20 September ( The conference provides a tremendous opportunity for SETAC members to learn more about China's environmental challenges and initiate the scientific and engineering collaborations needed to help China assess, manage, and protect its natural resources. What better opportunity to answer the siren calls from China's rivers!