Example Of Surface Water Pollution In The Yellow River, China Research Paper

Type of paper: Research Paper

Topic: Water, River, Yellow, Yellow River, China, Pollution, Government, Politics

Pages: 1

Words: 275

Published: 2020/11/20


At 3398 miles, the Yellow River is the sixth-longest river in the world. Issuing from the mountains of the Tibetan plateau at Qinghai, it merges into the Bohai Sea on the East coast of China. The Yellow River, also known as Huang He in Chinese, is named the Yellow River because an enormous amount of loess sediments has changed the color of the river into yellow. The Yellow River is also called the "Mother River of China" because its basin is the birthplace of the northern Chinese civilizations (Chinascope, 2005). However, it is also known as "China's Sorrow" because of its propensity to devastating floods that have snatched the lives of a few millions of people. The Yellow River, which is often termed as the cradle of Chinese civilization, lies at the heart of the economic, political and social development of China with 9% of the Chinese population and 17% of its agricultural land being based in the basin of the Yellow River. It passes through nine provinces and several autonomous regions, covering a length of 5,400 kilometers. Its basin area is as long as 795,000 square kilometer (Wang et al, 2012). Stretching for about 5,500 kilometers, the Yellow River provides drinking water to approximately 140 million people in China and also provides water to several farms and factories throughout northern China (CEE, 2013). However, in recent years, the water quality of the Yellow River has suffered a tremendous degradation. Owing to the base of a few thousand factories, farms, and cities on the banks of the Yellow River, a few billion tonnes of pollutants enter the river each year. The condition of the river has become so bad that 33% of the river is unsuitable for any use now. Unless some urgent actions are taken to clean the river and prevent the growing pollution of its water, the problem will grow worse. This paper would discuss the Yellow River pollution in further detail, following by some causes, effects and the possible solution to this environment issue.

The Yellow River Water Pollution

The Yellow River, which is the second-longest river in China next to the Yangtze, has been deteriorating rapidly for the last few years due to the increasing waste discharge from various factories and the drop in water level owing to diversion for growing city lines. As a result, now, the Yellow River is the second-most polluted river in China and the rapid degradation of the water quality has become a serious concern. The pollution level of the Yellow River drew attention in 2006 when a significant stretch of the river around the western city of Lanzhou became magenta (Chinascope, 2005).
The National Environmental Protection Agency of China has set a few fixed criteria to measure the surface water quality standards. As per its classifications, classes I and II are indicative of the water quality to be safe for drinking, class III indicates quality that is potentially drinkable after treatment, and classes IV and V represent the low quality of water suitable only for the use of agricultural and industrial purposes. According to International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and Yellow River Conservancy Commission (YRCC), in 2000, when the water quality of the Yellow River was measured, 40% of its water was found to be in class I, II, and III, and 24% in class IV and V (IWMI and YRCC, 2003). However, the water condition has far worsened in recent times. The Yellow River Conservancy Commission, a government agency which conducted a survey across 13,000 kilometers (8,000 miles) of the Yellow River and its tributaries in 2007, came up with the finding that one third of its water (about 33.8%) is not suitable for agriculture, drinking, industrial use, and aquaculture. Following the criteria used by the United Nations Environmental Program for the survey, it was found that only 16% of the Yellow River water was deemed safe for use in households (Daily Mail, 2008). From the statistics above, water quality of Yellow River is obvious and definitely not suitable for daily use.

Causes of Water Pollution

It is said that the water degradation of the Yellow River is the consequence of the rapid economic development of China. The first pace of economic growth in China has come at the cost of environmental pollution. The mushrooming of a few thousands of factories and industries and overcrowded cities along the river banks of China has put a strain on the big rivers of China, including Pearl, the Yangtze and the Yellow River. Lanzhou, which is one of the largest cities of the Northwest China, has been rated as one of the polluted cities in the world (Chinascope, 2005). By the time the Yellow River makes an entry into Lanzhou city, it turns muddy brownish in color for having picked up slit, industrial waste, and soil along its pathway.
There are several reasons because of which the water quality of the Yellow River is degrading. Firstly, there are 4,000 petrochemical plants constructed along the banks of the Yellow River, and therefore, wastewater discharge from the factories is the primary reason for the water pollution. According to the report of a Beijing-based NGO, the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, about 4.3 billion tonnes of waste were dumped into the Yellow River in 2005 (Chinascope, 2005). The 2007 survey result of The Yellow River Conservancy Commission revealed that 70% of the waste discharge came from industry and different manufacturing units, 23% of the same came from households and 6.4% from various other sources (Daily Mail, 2008).
Coal mining is also one of the contributing factors to the growing water pollution of the Yellow River. The middle reach of the Yellow River passes through Inner Mongolia in the north and Shaanxi and Henan regions in Western China. According to the Greenpeace investigators, open cast coal mining takes place in these regions in the name of mine restoration. At Wuhai, Inner Mongolia, the bank of the Yellow River is used like an open pit mine where heaps of slags accumulate. Besides coal mining, there are a string of coal industrial parks, including coal chemical industries and coal processing plants, stretching along 100 miles of the river (Hays, 2014). The coal industrial parks consume a lot of water in their operational processes and release a huge amount of waste water, which tips into the Yellow River. There are about 30 waste water outlets and tanks along this 100 miles long stretch of the river, and a majority of them has taken insufficient measures to prevent seepage (Hays, 2014).
Non-point source pollution from agricultural lands is another factor contributing to the water contamination of the Yellow River. Chinese farmers significantly increased the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in between the early 1980s and the mid-1990s as a result of which a substantial portion of residues penetrates the Yellow River with return flow from irrigation. A huge amount of agricultural return flow enters directly to the main river basin of the Yellow river in the upper reach. In the middle reach, much of the return flow enters tributaries like Fenhe, Weihe, and Qinhe (IWMI and YRCC, 2003). During the flooding season, contaminants picked up from the large flood plain enter the river, adding a second non-point source of pollution.
Recently in 2009, the Yellow River was further contaminated by the oil spill that took place when a portion of Lanzhou-Zhengzhou oil pipeline belonging to the China National Petroleum Corporation ruptured in northwestern Shaanxi province, and two third of the oil tipped into the Wei river, a tributary of the Yellow River and Chisui river. About 150,000 liter (40,000 gallons) of diesel fuel spilled into these rivers before entering the Yellow River (Hays, 2014).

Poisonous yellow bubbles surfacing on the Yellow River due to oil spill (Hays, 2014)

The Yellow River is also prone to flooding owing to which a few devastating floods had hit China in the past, claiming the lives of a few million people. The flood of 1931 alone claimed 1 million lives in the Yellow River. Each year a few hundred people lose their lives in the flood. Besides, there are many people who commit suicide in the river. The dead bodies of murdered people are also dumped into the river. The sight of decomposed bodies floating in the river is not uncommon. Apart from humans, the dead bodies of animals and birds are also found to float in the river (Chinascope, 2005). The decomposed remains of humans, birds, and animals, thus contaminate the water of the Yellow River further.

Effects of Water Pollution

The water of the Yellow River is used for various purposes. The hydropower dams use its water to produce electricity, the mining and energy industries use its water to maximize their production, farmers use it for irrigation, and several cities use it for daily living (Larmer, 2008). As a result of this over usage of water from the Yellow river, its water capacity has reached a point of exhaustion, which has created a condition of water shortfall in the river. Aside from this, the melting of Tibetan glaciers and global warming are also drying up the river. In recent years, severe droughts have been experienced by people of Henan, Shaanxi and Inner Mongolia provinces with over 2 million people being affected (CEE, 2013). As per the prediction of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, cities along the Yellow River will experience an alarming water shortage in 2015. The source of the Yellow River on the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau has also constantly been receding since 2009, as per the report of Green Earth, an environmental NGO. According to Wang Yongchen, the founder of Green Earth, the source of the river has receded to more than 3.5 meters farther from its original geographical location (Hays, 2014).
The high toxicity of the pollutants in the Yellow River is also posing a threat to the marine life and wildlife. About 30% of all species of fish found in the Yellow River have turned extinct owing to falling water levels, dams, over-fishing and pollution. Fish catching in the Yellow River has reduced by 40%. The condition of the water in the river has become so bad that it is dangerous to swim or eat fish caught from the river. In fact, it is a common sight to see marine life, birds, and animals floating dead near the waste water outlets of different industrial parks that throw waste water into the Yellow River. The picture below highlights the same occurrence:
Ducks dead from the toxicity of the pollutants near a waste water outlet that discharges waste water into the Yellow River (Hays, 2014)
Not only is the Yellow River, two other big rivers of China, the Yangtze and Pearl, are also suffering from the same deterioration. 50% of the Yellow River is deemed to be biologically dead. The high levels of poisonous toxins have led to an increase in cases of birth defects, cancer, and waterborne diseases in the cities along the river banks (Larmer, 2008). Since the Yellow River is the source of drinking water for millions of people, its pollution threatens the survival of China as a nation. Already, two other major rivers of China, the Yangtze and Pearl are suffering the same fate as the Yellow River.
The Yangtze River has become polluted with 40 million tonnes of sewage and industrial waste. Since half of the country's 20,000 petrochemical factories are based on its banks, about 25 billion tonnes of waste, almost 40% of the total waste generated in China, tip into the Yangtze, which is on the verge of becoming a 'dead river' as it is unable to either provide drinking water or sustain marine life (Hays, 2014). The condition of the Pearl River is also in the same state. A portion of the Pearl River in Guangzhou is so dark, thick and soupy that it seems as if one could easily walk through it (Hays, 2014). In such circumstances, if efforts are not taken to save the Yellow River from the growing pollution level, then it too would become completely unusable like the Yangtze and Pearl. Besides, owing to growing level of water pollution in China, pollution-related protests have increased in number. In 2005 alone, some 51,000 protests took place across China, and unless the government is able to bring some solution to the growing water pollution problem, these pollution-related protests may snowball into social unrest (Larmer, 2008). If any of these conditions remains unchecked for long, then it could obstruct the growth of China in the future. All the facts taken together, the long term effect of the Yellow River water pollution could be far more devastating than one could imagine.

Possible Solutions

Over the years, the Yellow River has played a crucial role in the growth of Chinese civilizations. However, due to severe degradation of the surface water quality of the Yellow River, those dependent on the river is facing huge challenges. Not only individuals living on the river basin are impacted, but also irrigation and business that rely on the Yellow River water are affected. As a great many industries depend on the water from the Yellow River, implementing strict policies by the Chinese government may directly impact a huge number of industrial plants, thereby potentially hurting the Chinese economy (Hays, 2014). It is, therefore, important that water policy makers implement policies in a way that balances the economy and ecology.
The main goal should be to bring in all the stakeholders, who are impacted by the Yellow River related policies, onto a single platform. Water experts from the government, private sector business houses, research institutes and NGOs should be gathered together for potential solutions. The main problem that may come is the clash of interest between business and government. It is, therefore, important that business and government collaborate with each other for the sake of the country’s welfare. The responsibilities should be shared between the government and business (Larmer, 2008). The government may formulate policies to improve water security in the coming days. For example, the Chinese government may introduce policies to control the overuse of water resource along the Yellow River basin. The government may also develop standards for most efficient way of using water for agriculture and for economic use. Finally, the government should introduce staged policy for pollutants discharged into the water mainly by the manufacturing plants along the Yellow River banks. The government should also make the business community aware that if in the near future the Yellow river is declared dead, then the business interests will suffer severely (Larmer, 2008). The government should also set up regular water auditing and checks to ensure its policies are adhered to.
However, managing a 5,400 kilometer long river on its own is not possible for the Chinese government alone financially. Therefore, it is important that the private parties also participate in the Yellow River pollution reduction initiatives. In recent times, Chinshui river basin management was done by a combined team of government and private companies partnering with World Wildlife Fund. Private companies like Moutai group set up a “green fund” of several billion RMB to build wastewater management plants to reduce pollution. Similar things can be done for the Yellow River as well (Hays, 2014). The government should collaborate with the petrochemical companies to come up with a plan to set up disposal management plants.
Europe has implemented wastewater management system for almost all of its manufacturing plants located on the river banks. Cities and municipalities in collaboration with private companies and researchers have come up with cost effective solutions that can be easily implemented. The Chinese government should collaborate with those organizations and governments to leverage the technology. In recent years, the European Union and China have joined hands to address the problem of the Yellow River through the EU-China River Basin Management Programme (RBMP). The purpose of the program is to implement the best practices as promoted by the EU Water Framework Directive to solve the water pollution problem of the Chinese rivers (CCR, 2007). One of the main objectives of RBMP was to hold dialogue between the EU and China to solve the water challenge through a slew of activities, including various conferences, such as the Yellow River Forum, which took place in 2007 and 2009. The central theme of the programme is to improve the water quality. Through a set of training programs, research studies and exchange visits, RBMP aims at introducing EU approaches in the Chinese setup for implementing a nationwide biological and ecological monitoring programme by 2016 (CCE, 2013).
Apart from the industrial waste, a large part of water pollution of the Yellow River comes from household wastes. There are a number of cities along the Yellow River basin. The construction of urban sewage treatment plants will definitely help. Currently, in many cities the sewage is directly dumped into the river. As the pollution level is huge along the Yellow River basin, it is important to understand which part of the river should be addressed first. It is advisable that the upper regions of the river should be addressed first. That will improve the water quality of the whole river (Larmer, 2008). Also, in the upper part of the river, the main pollution comes from agricultural chemicals and some petrochemical plants. Both of these can be addressed relatively easily than that of the plants and cities along the river banks in the lower basin of the Yellow River. Weihe is the largest tributary and also the most polluted among all the tributaries of the Yellow River (IWMI and YRCC, 2003). Instead of trying to curb pollution along the whole river, trying to curb the pollution of Weihe will be easier and helpful.
Finally, environmental friendly practices like rainwater harvesting should be implemented for agriculture. In recent years, many Chinese farmers have started putting up plastic sheets around crops to use more and more rainwater. This will reduce the requirement of water from the Yellow River and its tributaries. In the 12th five year plan, the Chinese government already is adopting the most stringent water resource usage policy that will not only reduce the overall water usage for households, but will also for farmers and businesses. The plan calls for an 8% reduction in water usage by the end of 2015 (CCE, 2013). Law enforcement is also a big concern. In the last few years, even after introducing policies, water usage and pollution never came down as the number of water audits and the enforcement of policies lacked. The violators of the laws should be heavily punished. Although the task is daunting, China, in many areas, however, has shown tremendous innovation. They have done some magnificent economic reforms in the past. If proper framework and policy are in place, then China can reduce the pollution level of the Yellow River in a short amount of time.


In conclusion, the Yellow River, which is the sixth longest river in the world and second-longest in China, is facing the danger of becoming a dead river like the Yangtze. 33.8% water of the Yellow River has been classified at level IV and V in the recent survey conducted by the Yellow River Conservancy Commission. The Mother River of China, which provides potable water to a few millions of people in China, has only 16% of its water deemed completely safe for use in households. There are a slew of factors contributing to the growing water pollution level in the Yellow River. Due to rapid economic boom in China, industries, factories, farms, and cities have developed at a rapid rate, putting the environmental condition at stake. With 4,000 petrochemical factories having mushroomed on the banks of the Yellow River, much of the pollutants that enter the water come from the discharged waste of the factories. The recent oil spill of 2009 and decomposed dead bodies floating in the river have also contributed to the water pollution problem. The high level of toxins in the Yellow River has already led to an increase in birth defects and cancer cases. The marine life is also at stake.
It is about time when the Chinese government should take some concrete action to arrest the problem, because water contamination of the Yellow River is a problem the effect of which can outreach the boundary of China. Already, due to the population explosion in the world, there is a water crisis going on, which would only escalate in the future. Though a large part of the earth is constituted of water, only a minute percentage of it (1%) is usable for drinking, agriculture or household purpose. This 1% water is fresh water coming from lakes, rivers, ground and waterfall. Rest of the water found on the earth's surface is unusable salty water. If the sources of fresh water like the Yellow River become unusable because of the callousness and greed of human beings, then time is near when the world will become sucked in a maelstrom of water crisis. In order to prevent such circumstances from cropping up, it is time when we need to think seriously about saving the few number of fresh water bodies the nature is blessed with. Already, the Chinese government has implemented a set of policies to address the problem, but due to the lack of enforcement, those policies did not hold ground. In recent years, China has joined with the European Union Water Framework Directive to implement the European Union directives for controlling the water resources and improving the water quality in China. If the solutions proposed above could be implemented sincerely, then hopefully the water pollution problem of the Yellow River can be dealt with successfully and the world will be saved from losing another of its fresh water resources.


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