(November 29, 1999)
Chongqing municipality forced to confront its water pollution problem
After thousands of years of letting their sewage flow downstream and out to sea, Chongqing and other Yangtze cities now face the prospect of it staying in the water that laps their shores. If completed as planned, the massive Three Gorges dam will slow the Yangtze river’s flow, backing up water and concentrating sewage and modern-day pollutants in its 600-kilometre reservoir. A Chinese scientist from Chongqing predicts it will be a “huge, stagnant, stinking pond.”
Every year, Chongqing, a highly industrialized municipality of 30 million, produces about 1.2 billion tons of wastewater: 900 million tons of industrial wastewater and 300 million tons of sewage. The municipality, at the planned reservoir’s upstream end, treats only about one-third of its industrial wastewater and almost none of its sewage before flushing it into the river.
Paper, steel, silk, and chemical factories line the Yangtze, often covering the swirling waters with white foam or effluents. A 1997 study by Chen Guojie, a professor at the Chengdu Institute of Mountain Hazards and Environment, part of China’s Academy of Sciences, indicated that seven pollutants, including petroleum, mercury, lead, volatile phenol, non-ionic ammonia, phosphorus, and colon bacillus already exceed permissible standards in the water flowing past Chongqing, Fuling, Fengdu, Wanxian, and Wushan. This giant plume of greasy, polluted water is expected to spread into stagnant bays off the main reservoir after the dam’s construction.
The pollution problem along the Yangtze is not new. After the Gezhouba dam was built on the Yangtze in 1989, forty kilometres downstream of Three Gorges, visitors described a river full of sewage with garbage strewn everywhere and waste oil from ships and factories covering its surface. According to a Chinese journalist – whose account was published in the book The River Dragon Has Come! – there was so much oil on the surface of the Gezhouba reservoir at one point that “nearby farmers would skim off a few jars, pour it into their tractors, and drive off.”
The pollution problem was overlooked in the official feasibility studies for the Three Gorges dam, which critics claimed overestimated the benefits and underestimated the costs. The Chinese feasibility study, for example, failed to study the dam’s effect on the reservoir’s water quality. And the Canadian study – which was conducted for the Chinese government by five Canadian engineering firms, and financed by the Canadian International Development Agency – acknowledged the problem but failed to include wastewater treatment in their estimate of project costs.
The situation has become so desperate that Chongqing has hurried plans to build 23 sewage treatment plants with US$100 million in World Bank money. These facilities, however, will not treat all of the sewage or any of the industrial effluent.
The World Bank, which stated in 1988 that the Three Gorges dam is not economically viable, is now considering a $250-million loan to Chongqing for wastewater and solid waste treatment – the first phase of a long-term program.
(November 29, 1999)
Categories: Three Gorges Probe