Dark waters

The river sweats oil and tar, wrote TS Eliot – and often worse in China

Dark waters

What lies beneath?

It all started for Huo Daishan with photographs of dead fish.

Huo was a newspaper photographer on an assignment at China’s Huai River. He remembered how blue the water was in his youth. Now a purplish foam covered the surface. Beneath it, the water appeared black.

The river – which has it source in Henan – is contaminated along its lower reaches by the discharge from chemical, paper and leather tanning factories. That’s a problem when 150 million people live alongside it. So Huo founded an organisation called the Huai River Defender to monitor water quality – with the help of a team of 1,083 volunteers – as well as lobby factories to clean up their discharge.

Being a guardian of clean water can be a dangerous task – as Huo told Global Times, he once got beaten up so badly, he couldn’t go home for a week for fear of alarming his wife.

Sadly, the Huai River is only one of many polluted water systems in China. The Ministry of Environmental Protection released a report last month analysing the country’s seven major rivers – including the Huai – and found that nearly half of their surface water is “seriously polluted”.

Then there’s the lakes. Southern Weekly reported earlier this month on a satellite image of Anhui province’s Chaohu Lake. Three large areas, covering 33 square kilometres, are choked with blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria. Such algal blooms kills lake wildlife, absorbing dissolved oxygen so that fish and acquatic insects cannot survive.

The newspaper reports that cyanobacteria is not a new problem. Dianchi Lake in Yunnan has been contending with algal blooms since 1992. More than Rmb13 billion ($1.89 billion) has been spent on its clean up but Mei Nianshi of Green Kunmin says the cyanobacteria is still present. The Southern Weekly agrees that the outcome is “not satisfactory”.

The newspaper goes on to ask academics why water management in China has often proven so unsuccessful. The answer: too many different ministries whose responsibilities overlap, leading to internal conflict and loopholes.

Water management variously comes under the aegis of the Ministry of Water Resources, the Ministry of Environmental Protection, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Forestry Ministry.

In the case of Dianchi Lake a special bureau was set up to concentrate responsibility in the hands of the Dianchi Administration Bureau. However, even this approach has not been a success. For example, 70 rivers flow into Dianchi but the bureau only monitors 35 of them. Plus it only has 40 people to enforce environmental policy across a body of water with a lengthy 163 kilometres of lakeshore.

So time for the nation to get its acquatic house in order? China now has a range of potential solutions to improve water use efficiency and reduce water pollution, writes Xie Jian of the World Bank. “However, as a result of China’s weak water management system, the extent of adoption and implementation of these programmes are very limited,” worries Xie.

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