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Damming the Yangtze's polluters
By Liang Chao (China Daily)
Updated: 2004-08-12 11:45

For thousands of years, rubbish and other pollutants have been lazily piled up along the banks of the Yangtze River in the Three Gorges Dam while sewage flowed untreated into the river.

A file photo taken last June shows garbage floating on the water in front of the Three Gorges Dam after the reservoir began to fill water one month earlier. [newsphoto/file]

But despite the amazing engineering work of the vast dam and the benefits it should bring, little has changed even though there is the war on waste.

During the annual flood season, the tons of refuse are still being washed away by the rising waters which then drift downstream.

The great clean-up began in earnest but latest surveys show the number of those complying with green policies is woefully low. But there are some success stories.

Standing by operating treatment tanks owned by the Fuling Sewage Plant, manager Shi Benggao proclaims: "Fuling no longer has to discharge sewage directly into the Yangtze and its tributary, the Wujiang River."

The plant, which cost 320 million yuan (US$38.5 million), is capable of treating 140,000 tons of sewage per day when fully completed, Shi told China Daily.

Fuling is a district of Southwest China's Chongqing Municipality and fronts a section of the huge Three Gorges reservoir.

In Wanzhou, the largest district of Chongqing, two sewage treatment plants have been operating since last year and treat 50,000 tons of domestic sewage per day or 85 per cent of the total within its service area.

Meanwhile, a refuse disposal plant with a daily capacity of 400 tons is also operating in Wanzhou to have all local household rubbish treated, Wu Zhenglong, a chief official of the district, said.

Fuling and Wanzhou are two areas among the Three Gorges Reservoir area's Chongqing section.

Such measures are working but far more needs to be done. Over the coming years, at least one such facility is to be built in each of the 19 counties or cities and over 100 towns.

The reservoir started filling last June and water level is now standing at its planned 135-metre level.

To maintain good water quality of the Yangtze since the damming, the Chinese Government has implemented a 40-billion-yuan (US$4.8 billion) plan aimed at building more than 320 facilities to dispose of sewage and waste discharged upstream during 2001-10 period.

When all the facilities are completed, 85 per cent of the sewage and waste in the reservoir area will be disposed of and treated, according to Zhang Shaozhi, director of the Chongqing Municipal Environmental Protection Administration.

Currently, 81 per cent of the waste and 61 per cent of the sewage produced in Chongqing, the largest city on the upper reaches of the Yangtze with a population of 30 million, are handled by 30 waste and sewage disposal factories.

Before the Three Gorges Reservoir began to store water last year, nearly 4 million tons of household garbage and industrial waste had been thoroughly disposed of and all medical waste from over 600 hospitals and clinics had been burned while 5 million square metres of sewers had been disinfected in the Chongqing part of the reservoir.

Last year alone, 28 major urban sewage plants were said to have been built to keep water clean in the reservoir area, according to the State Council's Three Gorges Project Construction Committee.

By the end of last year, 19 new garbage disposal plants were required to be put into full operation in cities and towns along the reservoir. Spadework for four other projects designed for dangerous industrial wastes was also launched, the committee said.

The projects are expected to control garbage, sewage and industrial and sanitary waste, the major sources of water pollution threatening water quality in the reservoir.

Green thinking

Environmental concerns have been an issue hovering over the 660-kilometre-long reservoir area since it started filling water last year.

Workers from Hubei environmental protection administration collect floating garbage in Xiangxi River, one of the main tributaries to the Yangtze River, last July. [newsphoto/file]

A year later, Cao Guangjing, vice-general manager of China Three Gorges Project Corporation, told the media that "there has been no major changes in water quality of the reservoir."

Last year, water at the site mainly stayed at grade three or the minimum standard for sources of drinking water, said the China National Environmental Monitoring Centre.

This year, the authority confirmed that the water quality of the reservoir's Chongqing section has remained sound, with only the content of bacilli, oil and phosphorous slightly exceeding set standards in its tributaries.

Although authorities were confident that water of the reservoir can be kept clean, critics fear China has long way to go to effectively control pollution.

The water quality of tributaries on the lower reaches became worse as water tends to flow slowly when a reservoir starts to function. This has reduced the self-purification ability of the tributaries, Chongqing officials conceded.

There are other problems. The public ignorance about proper and effective environmental protection together with insufficient funds for protection are compounded by the failure of some official watchdogs to fulfill their basic environmental monitoring tasks. Planned industrial projects may also add to the problem if environmental decrees are not properly enforced.

Meanwhile, soil erosion upstream and from tributaries has failed to be checked and is contaminating water downstream, according to Zhang.

The State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), the nation's top environmental watchdog, is urging further improvements to pollution control.

Four months ago, SEPA found 51 of the 147 pollution treatment projects yet to begin construction.

Meanwhile, 206 of the 304 small-sized enterprises, such as leather and paper plants, blamed for polluting the water courses and ordered to close are still operating.

Worse, only 15 of the 242 large-sized companies emitting pollutants have managed to meet strict environmental protection goals. SEPA has repeatedly demanded they speed up the implementation of green policies.

Now the environment watchdog has given offending companies and authorities until the end of the month to implement new standards and complete assigned pollution treatment projects.

SEPA is threatening to shut down large enterprises which fail to meet pollution-control requirements.

Wastes from ships

Land-based polluters are not the only offenders. Tens of thousands of cargo, transport and tourist vessels ply the waters discharging untold amounts of untreated sewage and other harmful waste into the Yangtze. Experts are calling for urgent action and want owners and staff of these ships and boats to clean up their act or face punishment.

State regulations demand all ships passing the Three Gorges area to treat all waste products to proper standards before discharging them into the river. Solid waste must be dumped in designated areas on the shore.

But an investigation by Xinhua News Agency found nearly all - 99 per cent-watercraft navigating the river discharge their sewage and oil waste into the Yangtze River without treatment.

About 100,000 watercraft navigate through the Three Gorges area each year on average, producing 42,000 tons of rubbish, 7 million tons of human waste, 15 million tons of sewage water and 100 million tons of oily waste water, local environmental protection departments estimate.

This poses a serious threat to the environment of the Three Gorges Reservoir, experts warned.

They urged authorities to take immediate and resolute measures to prevent environmental pollution and warned it would be too late to save the environment if measures were taken after the Three Gorges project is finally completed in 2009.

Race against time

"The situation remains grim and arduous work has to be done," said Zhang, head of Chongqing environmental protection administration.

However, unlike Zhang, Lu Youmei, the former head of China Three Gorges Project Corporation and now an academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, is confident "water pollution in the reservoir can be controlled."

Lu said: "The reservoir is now holding 12.3 billion cubic metres of water, but it does not hold dead water in a closed pond as some thought." The water can be refreshed 36 times each year by the 450 billion cubic metres of water flowing through the dam of the Three Gorges project.

"Such water changes can occur at least 10 times per year even after the entire project is completed in 2009. Then it will hold a total of 39.3 billion cubic metres of water, once levels reach the required and planned 175 metres," Lu explained.

He agreed that environment protection around the reservoir and upstream should be further improved to prevent the reservoir from chronic pollution.

Meanwhile, Zhang, also a deputy to the National People's Congress, together with other experts are appealing for a special legislation to allow integrated management of the reservoir so as to ensure the safe operation of the mammoth water conservancy hub.

If the Three Gorges project is to provide clean water and this important environment saved, tough and urgent measures are needed - and soon, he says.

"Only through legislation can the duties of the reservoir's main administrator and the other parties concerned be clearly defined," he added.

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