Lakes along the Yangtze River China. Making a move towards their protection.

- 6:51 pm - August 26th, 2015

The Chinese authorities are becoming ever more conscious of the pollution problems that have arisen as the triple pressures of industrialisation, intensification of agriculture and urbanisation have adversely impacted air and water environments, including damage to economic resources, human health and well-being.   On a recent visit from UK a group of scientists and practitioners were shown some of the issues and the work being undertaken, and planned, to address the challenges.

Three lakes in central China, Lakes Taihu, Chaohu and Dongting;  all in the watershed of the River Yangtze, were visited. All have the common features of being shallow, have a large surface areas and are linked hydraulically to the River Yangtze. Yet each has its own set of circumstances which make the development of effective restoration strategies specific to each location.

The speed of urban development and the associated migration of people from the more rural parts of China (in the west) makes it difficult to identify just how many people  and how large the cities are that contribute to lake problems in this part of the country, but local populations are clearly increasing.

Sewage treatment in both urban and rural areas in China, like most of the developed world is a constant issue although city regeneration and movement of populations to new housing development areas has allowed for sewerage systems and treatment plants to be brought up to date. These are not without problems and some new issues such as wrong connections to surface water drainage systems exist as they do in the UK. It seems that the close analogies to our own (UK) development of water pollution control is something the Chinese people are aware of and wish to learn from- but do it quicker!  They regularly refer to the clean-up of the River Thames.

The rural issues however are different. There are still very large proportions of the population live in rural, less wealthy areas than the east coast cities and for large rivers like the Yangtze, the western watershed is responsible for significant contributions to the problems of rural sewage pollution and nitrification of rivers and especially on the lakes throughout those river systems.

On a separate trip to Lake Poyang in October 2014, I visited one of some 200 villages where an holistic approach was being trialled to address rural sewage treatment, using low energy, green technology. This not only used the normal low-tech treatment methods but ‘polished’ effluents by passing it through rice paddies and then local (commercial) fish ponds before being released to the environment proper. My lasting thought here was that whilst in the west we are familiar and comfortable with a line of demarcation: discharge or environment, here there was a blur. Certainly the final treatment processes were of commercial benefit, harvesting efficiently those elements which contribute to lake problems. Was this treatment or use of river water?

With some 20% of the world’s population yet only 7% of the fresh water resources, China is not surprisingly elevating the real value of water and doing something about it.

The speed and extent of urban development throughout the areas I visited is astonishing putting demands for building material, including sand, high on their agenda. This is largely coming from the dredging of lakes. Crossing a bridge over one braid of the Yangtze, I counted over 50 large scale dredgers. It is believed that this just a fraction of the dredging activity that goes on and they were in evidence right across the lower Provinces I visited. The endangered finless river dolphin, found only in the Yangtze, Lake Poyang and Lake Donting are declining rapidly and the turbidity created by extensive dredging is thought to be one of the prime contributors to their demise. This now rare and elusive mammal is unlikely to become a water champion like the panda. More likely the very impressive Siberian Crane of which some 90% over-winter besides Lake Poyang, which already has cultural significance and is revered by local people may become that very necessary icon to coordinate trans- Provincial strategy.

  Talking to senior officials in city administrations such as Nanjing and Hefei, the “Mountain River Lake Sustainable Development” staff (an NGO) based in Nanchang and scientists throughout these regions associated with the Chinese Academy of Science, it is clear that the understanding of the issues and the necessary actions is well understood. The research and monitoring of water bodies is impressive. However the interpretation of data and influencing of administrators in strategy development and then coordinated implementation is an area they are appear to be still working through. Certainly the historic problems in the UK and the way organisations work together was highlighted by them after a reciprocal visit to the UK. What the UK can and is sharing is what has been done so far in integration of watershed management and co-operation / joining of different organisations strategy.

The rapport that the UK and China enjoy, and in this case in water pollution prevention is likely to continue, but the learning is very much two ways. Both countries seek to maximise ecosystem services and are trying to put genuine values on things like human health and well- being.

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 Photograph 1 - Water buffalo cool off on the shores of Lake Dongting


Chinese Travelnotes blog: John R Pinder for