China's Rivers: Frontlines for Chemical Wastes

Three months after a chemical plant explosion contaminated northeastern China's Songhua River, a second large spill occurred on the upper reaches of the Yuexi River in southeastern Sichuan province, releasing toxins into a 100-kilometer stretch near the city of Yibin on February 14 and disrupting the water supply of some 20,000 people.
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Three months after a chemical plant explosion contaminated northeastern China's Songhua River, a second large spill occurred on the upper reaches of the Yuexi River in southeastern Sichuan province, releasing toxins into a 100-kilometer stretch near the city of Yibin on February 14 and disrupting the water supply of some 20,000 people. The frequency of such incidents provides a powerful example of the pollution challenges the Chinese government increasingly faces, and has led authorities to reconsider the longtime trend of locating industries along rivers.

Riverside chemical and power plants, along with paper, textile, and food production facilities, are a leading source of pollution of China's rivers and lakes, an estimated 70 percent of which are now contaminated. A recent survey by the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) showed that more than half of the country's 21,000-plus chemical plants are located along the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers. Many have not conducted environmental impact assessments and were built in locations that directly threaten drinking water supplies, groundwater, and coastal waters.

Jilin Petrochemical, the company responsible for the Songhua incident in November and China's largest producer of aniline, a benzene derivative, has discharged more than 150 tons of mercury into the river since the plant was built in the 1950s. China's paper industry, meanwhile, discharged 3.18 billion tons of wastewater into water bodies in 2004 alone, accounting for 14.4 percent of total releases. Such discharges have directly affected water quality in the nation: the tap water in downtown Chongqing, one of China's largest industrial cities, has been found to contain 80 of the 101 pollutants recently banned from drinking water under new national regulations.

Heavy industries are the primary vehicle behind China's 9.9 percent annual economic growth and are held up as the so-called "industrial pillars of the river valley." Riverside cities, keen to attract business investments, have frequently approved factories and industrial projects while ignoring the ability of riparian sites to handle the pollution. Many of these factories, including chemical plants and oil refineries, are producing above capacity as a result of surging market demand, increasing the risk of workplace incidents. The lack of pollution early-warning systems and emergency response mechanisms has also intensified the negative impact of plant accidents.

Prompted by the spate of recent chemical spills, SEPA issued a notice in February ordering that environmental accidents must be reported directly to the Agency or to the State Council (China's parliament) within one hour after being discovered. After receiving a notification, authorities must launch an immediate investigation into the incident. The disclosure system aims to provide the public with the latest and most accurate reporting, in an effort to avoid the misinformation and widespread panic that occurred following the Songhua spill in November.

Although China has stepped up efforts to clean up its rivers and crack down on plants that pose obvious environmental safety risks, progress has stalled due to a lack of funds and professional personnel. By mid-2004, for example, a five-year cleanup plan launched by SEPA in 2001 had received only one-third of the US$7.25 billion in planned investments. China has also invested $2.4 billion since 1994 to clean up the Huai River, the country's third largest and the primary water source for a sixth of the population. However, SEPA recently deemed the project a failure after a 2004 inspection showed that 31.5 percent of industrial polluters exceeded the maximum permitted discharge and 56.7 percent of water treatment plants were out of service. Moving forward with cleanup remains difficult because huge sums are also needed to relocate or shut down polluting plants.

Pollution treatment infrastructure, another key to preventing and alleviating serious contamination, has lagged in China as well. Due to lack of funds, some 85 water treatment plants along the Huai River, slated for operation by the end of 2005, have not yet been built. Wastewater processing is ineffective at several urban wastewater treatment plants, and some are not even operating. Across China, the government is keen to attract foreign technology and innovations to build and operate new water supply and sewage projects. Official statistics show that the potential commercial opportunity from these efforts could top $37 billion.

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 23, 2006