Three Gorges Probe

Development should take back seat to clean rivers

Shanghai Daily
September 25, 2000

Huge amounts of pollutants released by chemical companies along the Yangtze River and the Yellow River are severely endangering both rivers.

According to the online edition of the “People’s Daily” this month, of more than 21,000 chemical companies in China, more than half are either situated along the Yangtze River or the Yellow River, of which about 100 pose significant potential pollution threats to the rivers.

In 2003, 16.4 billion cubic meters of polluted water was discharged into the Yangtze River, upon which 400 million people are dependent. That is to say the river absorbed 30,000 tons of dirty water per minute that year.

The Yellow River, upon which 200 million people are dependent, took 4.4 billion cubic meters of polluted water in the same year. Water life in about one-third of the river is now extinguished due to pollution.

“The prevailing problem at present is that in many places, people only take economic factors into consideration when planning to develop chemical industries. Banks along big rivers and suburbs near big cities have naturally become ‘hot land.’ But once any environmental accident occurs, the results can be disastrous,”says Wang Rusong, researcher at the Research Center for Eco-Environmental Sciences, at the Chinese Academy of Sciences,

What is most unacceptable is that some chemical companies are located on the upper reaches of these two rivers and they do not have standard pollution treatment systems.

The most important reason behind the rampant pollution, as both Li Jianhua, professor, deputy director of Key Laboratory of the Yangtze Water Environment of Tongji University, and Wang Xi, professor, associate dean of the School of Law of Shanghai Jiao Tong University point out in their interviews with Shanghai Daily, is the ignorance of environmental protection of certain local governments.

“In some regions, especially relatively small and poor areas, the local governments concentrate solely on the increase in GDP. They barely care anything about environment protection. This has also resulted in the phenomenon that many companies transfer from big cities where there are severe controls over pollution to those small and remote areas. But the pollution continues,” says Li Jianhua.

The central government has realized the seriousness of the problem and has already listed environmental protection as one of the most important tasks into the eleventh Five-Year plan (2006 – 2010).

“This is really a good policy, since it helps to raise the sense of environmental protection of certain local officials,” stresses Wang Xi. However, the situation is still not optimistic.

“Nowadays, it is difficult to find any major river that is not polluted,” says Wang regretfully. “The Yellow River is already overloaded with pollution, and the Yangtze River is also in great danger.”

To save the rivers, Li suggests that the government establish a standard evaluation and approval system on petrochemical projects. Projects without suitable pollution abatement systems should never get approval.

In addition, Li suggests that the companies should attach great importance to technological advancements through which they can realize internal circulation of water.

In this way, companies may recycle the pollutants they release and change them into useful materials. This will not only help to save water resources, but also enable companies to reduce their pollution.

In this respect, there are already many successful models in the developed countries that China can learn from, Li says.

As to the present laws concerning environmental protection, Wang Xi believes that they are already lagging behind the times.

“Most laws and regulations on pollution control were stipulated during the period of planning economy, when the guiding ideology concentrated solely on economic development. And most laws and regulations stress only the punishment of pollution but neglect the importance of pollution prevention.”

Besides, Wang is also of the opinion that the industrial distribution in China lacks prudent overall planning. That has resulted in the present situation in which the banks of the two great rivers are crowded with petrochemical companies. This situation is expected to be improved in the eleventh Five-Year period, though.

Another suggestion Wang made was that the laws should strengthen the degrees of punishment.

At present, many companies do not attach due importance to pollution control because the costs of equipment or technical transformation exceed the fines.

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