New move aims to protect Yangtze

Updated: Sep 28, 2022 By Xu Wei China Daily Global Print
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Measures to curb pollution, restore biodiversity enacted in policy

China has scaled up policy to protect and restore the environment around the Yangtze River, putting in place measures to treat industrial and agricultural pollutants, revive the diversity of aquatic life and protect grasslands and wetlands.

A policy document jointly released by 17 central government departments on Sept 19 pledged to prioritize effort and adopt a holistic way of conserving the mountains, rivers, forests, farmlands, lakes, grasslands and sands of the Yangtze River Basin area.

It set the goal of ensuring that all water in the river basin area meets standards for second-tier classification by the end of 2025. China classifies water quality according to a five-tier system.

Other key targets include ensuring the harmless disposal of at least 97 percent of the garbage produced in Yangtze River Economic Belt counties, eliminating polluted water bodies in urban areas, recycling at least 80 percent of animal waste from livestock and poultry farms and continuously improving biodiversity.

The policy document follows a 10-year fishing ban in the Yangtze enacted by the government in 2020 in response to dwindling fish stocks and declining biodiversity, which also included measures to help ensure the livelihoods of river fishermen.

An official with the Ministry of Ecology and Environment said in a statement after the release of the document that despite improvements to the Yangtze's water quality in recent years, the rise of nonpoint source pollution — the result of precipitation that carries natural and human-made pollutants into waterways — has emerged as a major problem.

Other threats to the river's ecosystem include the shrinking of wetlands in some areas, and the imbalance in aquatic life and algal blooms in some key lakes.

Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a nongovernmental organization, said the importance of the Yangtze and its river basin area lies behind the official move to strengthen environmental protection and ecological restoration in recent years.

Data from the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences showed that the Yangtze River Basin accounts for 35 percent of China's water resources, contributes to 35.4 percent of national GDP and is home to 33 percent of the population.

Ma noted that the latest document has detailed a host of policy measures to be adopted in the next three years, involving 17 central government departments and 11 provincial regions, which demonstrated the strong level of commitment among policymakers.

The document laid out measures for ensuring the safety of drinking water for residents living in the river basin area, calling for authorities to map out conservation zones for drinking water sources at the township level.

To promote the treatment of sewage in urban areas, it stressed the need for a systemic approach, which will require the establishment of long-term mechanisms to prevent the return of polluted water bodies.

The treatment of pollution from industrial parks and the agricultural sector is another priority, as the government looks to install tighter controls over pollutants discharged by chemical factories and promote higher efficiency in the use of fertilizers and pesticides.

The upgrading of large-scale livestock and poultry farms along the Yangtze will also be given priority so that animal waste can be recycled at a lower cost and through mechanization.

Ma said that the measures represented a shift in the focus of pollution treatment measures from urban areas to rural areas, from industry to the agricultural sector and from areas that are easily accessible to the hinterlands.

"The measures show that a stronger emphasis has been placed on preventing pollutants such as waste, pesticides and fertilizers that threaten the environment of water bodies," he said.

He noted that the policymakers have paid particular attention to treating phosphorus runoff, a major cause of algal blooms in freshwater bodies, and heavy metal pollution.

Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Environmental Planning said in a research note last year that phosphorus has emerged as the top pollutant in the Yangtze, with the area's many phosphate mines and chemical plants the major source.

The document called for Hubei and Guizhou provinces, regions with a large number of phosphate mines and plants, to devise stringent requirements for the discharging of phosphorus. It also set out requirements for monitoring and treating the dangers resulting from manganese, cadmium and other heavy metals discharged by industries.

Ma said the large number of tailings dams — large embankments built to store mine waste — that can be found in the upper and middle reaches of the Yangtze pose another significant threat to the environment, describing them as "potential time bombs".

The government has set a target of sharply reducing the number of these dams before the end of 2025, and of completing pollution control of all tailings dams located within 3 kilometers of the river by the end of next year.

Li Haisheng, a researcher with the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences, wrote in a co-authored note in May that rare and endangered aquatic animals, including the Yangtze finless porpoise and Yangtze sturgeon, are facing an existential crisis as a result of pollution, dwindling lake areas and a fewer food sources.

He highlighted the need to reconstruct habitats for aquatic life in reservoirs to mitigate the influence of dams on river ecosystems and resume the connections between lakes and rivers to protect biodiversity.

To restore the diversity of aquatic life in the Yangtze, the document said the country will establish a monitoring system for endangered animals and devise an action plan to save them.

The restoration and protection of key habitats will be reinforced, and more work will be done to enhance the connectivity of rivers, as well as unblock channels that are key to the spawning and migration of fish stocks.

Ma said that participation from the general public, especially in terms of sorting waste and blowing the whistle on those responsible for pollution, are key factors that could determine the success of the campaign.

"With the use of big data, digital technology and more information disclosure, the public can play a role in helping preserve and protect the river," he said.

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