China Pollution

Red Yangtze

(September 17, 2012) China’s famed golden waterway turns a disturbing red in the southwest region’s largest industrial centre. Speculation as to why runs the gamut from industrial dye dumps to an omen of biblical doom. 

By Lisa Peryman for Probe International

The Yangtze River, China’s once golden transportation highway, gave residents of  Chongqing in the country’s largest southwestern industrial and commercial centre, quite a start last week when it turned from its usual brown to a reddish-orange, as though run through with dye. For now, the cause remains a source of speculation.

The most likely culprit is industrial pollution, say scientists, who have already dismissed the possibility of ‘red tide’ — a marine, salt-water event which only occurs near oceans. However, according to China’s state broadcaster CCTV, industrial and sewage pollution have already been ruled out by Chongqing’s environmental protection bureau.

In an update for the Huffington Post, US-based media artist and computer scientist Rama Hoetzlein produced an infographic (see below) using Google Maps that reveals the colour of the Yangtze, quite apart from the recent discolouration event, changes many times at different intervals along its length, as it flows east. Hoetzlein notes that each time the river, the world’s third longest, passes through an industrial area, it turns red or brown.

“Between cities, tributaries along its length dilute the red and turn it back to bluish…. At every point where two rivers meet, such as Chongqing, there is a unique mixing boundary as fresh water enters polluted water,” he writes.

While at certain points, the river’s colour change is dramatic, it falls within the range of industrial pollution overall, he says.

Altered images greatly exaggerating the Yangtze’s discoloration were passed off as real by ChinaFotoPress and Barcroft Media.

Adding to the initial confusion over the Yangtze’s colour change, manipulated images quickly appeared online to suggest China’s famed waterway had become tomato soup. These hoax images were soon shown to be the work of commercial media shock specialists, although they remain in circulation. In reality, the river is less lurid and best described as ‘distinctly redder’ at certain points, although one Chongqing boatmen claimed: “The water colour is within the normal range. For us boatmen, the colour just means the river is washing its water.” He did add that the colour this year is “redder and darker” in intensity.

As officials continue to investigate the Yangtze’s red invasion, speculation runs high as to its cause: although, ruled out by Chongqing’s authorities, dye dumps from chemical factories (as was the case with the Jian River, in northern China, last December) remain a popular alleged culprit. An upstream influx of silt or red clay from steep hillside areas, perhaps caused by flooding, is another possibility. More ‘creative’ options have also emerged. China Post, an English-language newspaper in Taiwan,  mused, tongue-in-cheek, that the discoloration and other recent events of either a bizarre or disastrous nature were linked to China’s leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping not having been seen in public for two weeks. He has since reappeared. Various online blogs are even circulating biblical scenarios that cast the red Yangtze as an omen of doom – officials are not investigating this as a possibility. Meanwhile, some tourists to the area say, the Yangtze is ‘a dump’ to begin with.

“It is no exaggeration to say that this river is one big garbage dump,” claimed one visitor after a 4-day Yangtze cruise from Yichang to Chongqing last year. “I have never in my life, ever, seen so much trash floating along the whole time we were on the boat. It would be no surprise to me to find out this is industrial pollution. We witnessed first-hand raw sewage flowing out of huge pipes directly into the river. To make matters worse, we were being served fish from the river to eat on board the ship.”

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