U.S. Water News Online
GENEVA -- Chinese and Swiss scientists said the Yangtze
River is less polluted than expected, but only because the vast
amounts of water dilute farm and industrial waste that still pose a
serious threat to animals and plants.
Environmentalists warned the findings should not be seen as a
clean bill of health for the Yangtze, where water quality has
continually deteriorated. Because of its large size, the
3,900-mile-long Yangtze cannot be compared to other rivers, they
Around 25 billion tons of waste is poured every year into the
Yangtze, the world's third-largest river, said a joint Chinese-Swiss
expedition that analyzed the river's water quality.
"While the pollution level is enormous, the concentration of
pollutants remains comparable with that of other rivers, given the
dilution effect caused by the enormous rate of water flow," said a
statement by the Swiss Agency for Development, which supported the
The pollution stems mostly from the huge amounts of mineral
fertilizers used in agriculture, the scientists said, adding that the
nitrogen level in the river has doubled over the past 20 years.
Heavy metals in industrial waste also pollute the river, according
to the scientists, who analyzed hundreds of water and sediment
samples in laboratories in China, Switzerland and Australia.
Some 1.1 million cubic feet of water per second pours from the
Yangtze into the East China Sea, the scientists said. Pollutants were
especially concentrated in the delta, including large amounts of
nitrogen and arsenic.
"The more nitrate enters the sea, the more the blue-green algae
grow, mainly at lower sea levels, and the oxygen becomes scarce,"
said Beat Mueller, a geochemist at the Swiss Federal Institute of
Aquatic Science and Technology.
Ger Bergkamp, head of the water program at the World Conservation
Union, said the results were deceptive.
"We find it rather misleading to focus on 'it is less than
expected,' but it is actually worse than any measurement before,"
Bergkamp said. "The situation is very severe, affecting people's
health, the quality of water for the irrigation of crops, the
water-intake to cities."
Dermot O'Gorman, country representative of WWF in China, said he
had not read the expedition's conclusions, but pollution levels in
the Yangtze are very bad and the fact that pollutants tend to be
diluted in the massive volume of water "still does not mean the
Yangtze River is not in a dangerous situation."
The expedition team said the extinction of freshwater baiji
dolphins, declared in 2006, cannot be seen as a direct result of the
poor water quality in the Yangtze. Industry, agriculture, increasing
waterway traffic, underwater noise and fishing methods all degraded
the baiji's natural habitat and led to their extinction, they said.
"The ecosystem of the Yangtze can be saved if China intensifies
its activities in water protection now," said August Pfluger,
director of the Zurich-based baiji.org Foundation, who organized the
"China needs to urgently adopt similar rehabilitation and
development programs that were used to improve the quality of rivers
in Europe only a short time ago," they said.
The expedition was set up together with the Institute of
Hydrobiology in Wuhan and was carried out under the auspices of the
Chinese Agricultural Ministry.
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