A third of China's Yellow River is unsafe, study says

The Associated Press
Tuesday, November 25, 2008

BEIJING: A third of China's fabled Yellow River, which supplies water to millions of people in the country's north, is heavily polluted by industrial waste and unsafe for any use, according to new scientific data.

The Yellow River Conservancy Committee said that 33.8 percent of the river's water sampled registered worse than level 5, meaning it is unfit for drinking, aquaculture, industrial use and even agriculture, according to criteria used by the UN Environmental Program.

The Yellow River, the second-longest in China after the Yangtze, has seen its water quality deteriorate rapidly in the last few years, as discharge from factories increases and water levels drop because of diversion for booming cities.

The river supplies a region chronically short of water but rich in industry.

A 2007 survey covered more than 13,492 kilometers, or 8,385 miles, of the river, which flows from western Qinghai Province across China into the Bohai Sea and its tributaries, a notice posted on the Yellow River Conservatory Committee's Web site said Saturday.

Only 16 percent of the river samples reached level 1 or 2 - water considered safe for household use.

Industry and manufacturing made up 70 percent of the discharge into the river, the notice said, with 23 percent coming from households and 6.4 percent from other sources. The notice did not identify specific pollutants.

The results showed pollution had gotten slightly worse since 2006, when 31 percent of the water in the river was worse than a level 5, according to an earlier survey, although only 12,510 kilometers was measured then.

"It's not surprising," said Wen Bo, of the San Francisco-based environmental group Pacific Environment.

Many polluting companies in the upper and middle reaches of Yellow River have not been well monitored by local governments, or have been protected because they gave jobs to workers, said Wen, who is the organization's China program director.

There is also no mechanism for richer provinces downstream to help the poorer ones upstream clean up, he said.

"They are just treating the river as a dumping site," Wen said. "It's basically a sewage channel for the provinces that share the river."

China's State Council, the cabinet, began a nationwide campaign to reduce the discharge of pollutants from industrial companies in the second half of last year in an effort to start solving the problem, Xinhua, the official news agency, said.

Even so, the government still faces an uphill task. For one, Wen said, it must make environmental protection a priority and allow the public and media to reveal polluting firms.

Some of the world's most polluted cities are in China, where many rivers and lakes are toxic after decades of breakneck industrial and economic growth.

In February, pollution turned part of a major river system in central China - the Han River in Hubei - red and foamy, forcing the authorities to cut water supplies to as many as 200,000 people.

In one of China's worst cases of river pollution, potentially cancer-causing chemicals, including benzene, spilled into the Songhua River in November 2005. The northeastern city of Harbin was forced to sever water supplies to 3.8 million people for five days.

Pollution in China's waterways remains "grave," according to a June report by the Ministry of Environmental Protection on the state of the environment in 2007. More than 20 percent of water tested in nearly 200 rivers was not safe to use, it said.

The ministry has tried to shut down polluting factories along China's main waterways, but its power is limited because local environmental protection bureaus are under the control of local governments.