In its journey of almost 6,500 kilometres from the Tibetan Plateau to the East China Sea, the Yangtze River takes on many hues.
At its source in Qinghai province, where it is fed by the meltwater of the Geladandong glacier, it is icy blue. By the time it passes through the deep gorges of Yunnan, it has turned a deep grey-green. But when it reaches the southwestern city of Chongqing, the current is usually a silty brown.
Not last week, though, when it flowed a rich, terracotta red.
The government vowed the vivid colouring came from natural causes, after heavy rains in the neighbouring province of Sichuan washed large amounts of iron-rich sediment into the Yangtze’s waters.
But not all Chongqing residents were convinced. Their scepticism was exacerbated when the city cut off the water supply to the Banan district without giving an explanation.
“Why don’t we have any water? What is it they are not telling us,” asked one Banan resident on Sina Weibo.
“I’ll believe the water is safe when I see an official drinking a glass,” said another resident from Chongqing.
Others took it as a sign from the heavens that Bo Xilai, the former Party secretary of Chongqing, was about to make a comeback (see this week’s Talking Point for more on the detained politician).
“The river wants to sing red. Bo will return,” joshed one netizen, in reference to Bo’s introduction of public singing of Mao-era revolutionary songs.
Another wit even suggested that a group of New Leftists (see WiC145) had dyed the river red in a show of support for Bo.
But Chongqing isn’t alone in suddenly discovering its waterway has turned an odd colour. In July this year a stretch of the Quxi River in Wenzhou turned milky white after a leak from a local latex plant. And the Pearl River often takes on a deeper shade of indigo as it passes through Xintang, a jeans manufacturing hub in the southern province of Guangdong.
As one weibo user pointed out, at least you know something is up when a river bubbles up into a bright shade of pink or flows on by with a deep streak of canary yellow. More dangerous is when the water looks a normal colour, but nevertheless poses a risk to human health.
According to government statistics, 40% of China’s rivers are “seriously polluted” even at the best of times, with half of the group deemed too toxic for human contact.
Worse still, 55% of China’s ground water reserves – relied on heavily to provide drinking water – are classified as “poor” or “very poor”.
And it’s not as if China has much water to waste: water resources per capita work out at around a quarter of the global average, according to the World Bank.
Meanwhile Chinese authorities have struggled to reduce the volume of industrial effluent going into the country’s river networks. One of the worst accidents happened in 2005, when benzene and nitrobenzene spilled into the Songhua River – the water supply to the northern city of Harbin had to be cut off for four days.
On a more positive note, local authorities seem to be under clearer instructions to be more transparent with the public about contamination – as was the case after a large cadmium discharge into the Liu River in the southern province of Guangxi earlier this year.
It wasn’t always so. On the Songhua in 2005, it was only when residents of the Russian town of Khabarovsk began to report heavy pollution to the river – known as the Amur in Russia – that the Chinese authorities acknowledged the scale of the disaster.
So natural or not, the reddening of the Yangtze is a reminder of the seriousness of China’s water problems. Indeed, many environmentalists have suggested that the steady degradation of this vital natural resource is going to prove one of the stiffest challenges to China’s hopes of achieving years of future economic growth.
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