Three Gorges Probe

Yangtze pollution is getting worse, water quality expert tells CCTV

Central China Television (CCTV)

November 9, 2007

Earlier this year, Central China Television (CCTV) interviewed Weng Lida, Director of the Yangtze Water Resources Protection Bureau, about water pollution in the Yangtze and his department’s newly-published report, Yangtze Protection and Development 2007.


Weng explains that water pollution has become so severe it threatens the health of people relying on the Yangtze for their drinking water. He calls for more attention to environmental protection before further development, and recommends measures for reducing the Three Gorges dam’s negative environmental impacts.

CCTV: How did people react to the 2007 Yangtze Protection and Development Report? Are many people interested in the report?

Weng: We got so many calls from people wanting a copy of it. Let me put it this way: the report is the first one focusing on the current situation in the Yangtze, something like a “body examination” of the river. People can now get answers to their questions about the current water situation by going over the report.

CCTV: Did you smell anything when you were approaching the pollution outlets along the river?

Weng: Yes. It smelled very strong.

CCTV: How does the polluted water effect people living nearby?

Weng: The health of the residents who get their drinking water from the river is threatened by the polluted water.

CCTV: Does the report describe the pollution problem in the [Yangtze] valley?

Weng: Yes. The volume of water pollution has been rising over the past few years. I can give you figures: 20.6 billion tonnes in 1999, 28.8 billion tonnes in 2004, and about 30.0 billion tonnes in both 2005 and 2006. What is this volume of 30.0 billion tonnes? Let me put it this way: the Yellow River in the north has an average runoff of around 30.0 billion tonnes. So it’s like the whole Yellow River’s runoff, in the form of polluted water, is pouring into the Yangtze valley.

CCTV: But we’re told that with its huge volume of water, the Yangtze has a powerful self- purification capacity. My question is to what extent can the river disperse pollutants without compromising water quality?

Weng: I have to say lots of people have been misled on that point. It’s true that the Yangtze has a huge volume of water, as much as 1000 billion tonnes annually. We should have a bigger picture of the river, however. The main channel is really wide but the polluted water is flowing only along the shore where residents get their drinking water, even in the biggest cities in the valley. Thus the pollution concentrated along the shore has a tremendous impact on the people living along the valley.

CCTV: If the polluted water is flowing along the shore, does it have any impact on the main body of the river as a whole?

Weng: The impact is significant. Just imagine that almost as much as 100 million tonnes of pollution is discharged into the Yangtze on a daily basis, resulting in a significant increase in polluted water. Our monitoring along the main channel of the river showed 27% of the sections we surveyed were polluted. This is an alarming increase compared to several years ago. As you know, the East [China] Sea has become the [country’s] most polluted region, suffering from red tide pollution. It is the pollutants discharged from the Yangtze that are contributing to the problem, which is an indication that the river’s pollution is getting much worse. Also, the incidence of algal blooms in the Three Gorges area has risen steadily in specific sections over the past years.

CCTV: You have talked about the pollution issue based on statistics. Can you please give us a greater sense of how serious the problem is by showing us photos or pictures, for instance?

Weng: Good idea, so I’d like to show you several pictures. Picture 5 shows the water hyacinth, an indication of pollution, which is growing madly in both Lake Tai and Lake Chao in the Yangtze basin. Lake Tai in Jiangsu province (south of Yangtze) and Lake Chao (north of Yangtze) in Anhui province, at least 800 km downstream from the Three Gorges dam. If no action is taken to remove the plants, they rot and contaminate the water, and release a bad smell.

CCTV: Do they have any impact on aquatic life, fish species, for example?

Weng: Yes, they do. Algal blooms kill fish. When the water is polluted to such a level, humans are unable to use it, let alone drink it. Lake Dianchi in Yunnan is a good example: people were able to swim in the lake years ago but not any more. If you touched the water, you would feel itchy and really uncomfortable.

CCTV: So the water has become poisonous?

Weng: Exactly. A similar thing happened in 2004. Hundreds of thousands of fish were discovered dead and floating on the Tuo River, a tributary of the Yangtze in Sichuan province, because of serious pollution. [Editor’s Note: The fish kill was caused by effluent from a chemical plant about 150 kilometres upstream from Chongqing city.] In the middle reaches of Yangtze, under the Wuhan Yangtze Bridge, wastewater from factories has turned the water a reddish colour which has never happened before in Wuhan’s history and now the situation is getting worse and worse.

CCTV: As your report shows, about 650 kilometres of the Yangtze has become seriously polluted. It seems to me, that is not a big problem given that the Yangtze has a length of more than 6,300 kilometres – so the problem is something like 10 percent. So people might ask the question: does the Yangtze River really have a pollution problem?

Weng: Let me correct you. The 650 kilometres of river section you referred to is not the total length of the river that is polluted. This refers only to a pollution belt concentrated along the shores of the cities along the river. The total length of shoreline in 21 cities along the river is 790 kilometres, 650 kilometres of which is polluted. This is more than 80 percent, which of course is a really high percentage.
The degree of pollution in the river can be demonstrated with another fact: Last December, a team of 25 experts from 6 countries went on an inspection trip along the Yangtze, with a focus on sighting the Yangtze River Dolphin. To their great disappointment, they found nothing during the 38-day journey.

Host: Did the report mention anything about the aquatic life (which is impacted by the pollution) in the river?

Weng: Yes. The Yangtze has a reputation for its special species, such as the Yangtze Dolphin and Chinese Sturgeon, which are world-class rare species. There are also other rare species in the river such as the Paddlefish and Rouge fish. It’s true it would take a relatively long time, 50 years perhaps, to determine if a species was extinct. But in the case of the Yangtze Dolphin, when using the most advanced equipment and traveling a long distance of 3,300 kilometres, these top experts in the research field didn’t get a trace of the animal. I have to say, it gives us a clear message, there is a danger that we are unable to find the animal any longer.

CCTV: That makes us sad. Are any other human activities impacting the rare species in the river other than pollution?

Weng: Yes. Over fishing is one of the reasons and the use of illegal fishing methods is another, such as electric shock, poison, explosives, and so forth.

CCTV: Do any normal economic activities such as shipping and building hydro dams have an impact on them?

Weng: That is a good question. More and more hydro projects have been and will be built in the Yangtze valley, along its upper reaches in particular. Before building the dams, however, what we should do is designate reserve zones for the fish after developing a sufficient understanding of the species, including their habitat, breeding areas, living conditions, and so forth. Equally importantly, this should be taken into account in the operation of the reservoir. For example, it would be beneficial for species laying eggs in late April and early May to make man-made floods. It would also help the species laying eggs if we did something to keep the water temperature in the Three Gorges reservoir above 18 degrees Celsius in late May. Some species have difficulties laying eggs in an environment below this temperature. So we professionals in environmental protection, together with fishery experts should contribute our opinions and suggestions in creating a protection plan, so that the reservoir can be operated in line with the plan.

CCTV: We just talked about aquatic life in the river. How about the people living in the basin? How are they feeling about the change in the water quality?

Weng: Definitely they have feeling about that. As a matter of fact, there is no shortage of water in many areas in the Yangtze valley in terms of the natural resource. It’s the pollution that causes the water shortage problem. In Shanghai, for example, the residents feel the quality of water is worse than other places along the valley, for two reasons: intrusion of the sea and serious problems with pollution in upstream regions.

CCTV: It’s interesting to note that the report edited by you and others is called “the protection and development report on the Yangtze”. Why did you put “protection” before “development”? Does it mean you give more weight to “protection” than to “development” somehow?

Weng: This question was raised by somebody before. We believe both are equally important but after years of high-speed development (of water resources) in the valley, you know, we believe it would do much more good to the environment to put “protection” before “development”.

CCTV: You have done a great job in looking at the river as a whole. Of course the Three Gorges project is too important to ignore. What’s your assessment on the dam project?

Weng: I agree with you that the Three Gorges dam is a key project built on the Yangtze. One of its major functions is flood control, which will benefit the environment in the valley for sure. Already the project has played a role in controlling floods and generating electricity. Now what we should focus on is measures to reduce the project’s negative impacts on the environment, in order to bring its positive aspects into full play and benefit the Chinese people.

CCTV: The report has hundreds of pages. Is it possible for you to describe how healthy the Yangtze is in a really simple way?

Weng: There is no reason to be pessimistic about the health situation of the Yangtze, which is doing a little bit better than the Yellow and Huai. However, the pollution in the river is much more serious than twenty or thirty years ago. The Yangtze Dolphin, as I mentioned above, is nearing the edge of extinction. Therefore, all of us should pay more attention to the Yangtze, and to protecting it. As everybody knows, the Yangtze is not only an extraordinary river but also our mother river, which is the most important water source of the country. If our generation harms the Yangtze irreversibly, we will be terribly shamed and compromising future generations.

Translated by Three Gorges Probe.
Weng Lida is the Director of the Yangtze Water Resources Protection Bureau, a division of Changjiang Water Resources Commission and editor of the 2007 Yangtze Protection and Development Report. This interview was originally broadcast on CCTV in April 2007 and reprinted in Three Gorges Project Construction, a magazine published by the Three Gorges Project Corporation on July 23, 2007

Categories: Three Gorges Probe

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