U.S. Water News Online
BEIJING — Newly released scientific results show one-third of the famed Yellow River, which supplies water to millions of people in northern China, is heavily polluted by industrial waste and unsafe for any use.
The Yellow River, the second-longest in China, has seen its water quality deteriorate rapidly in the last few years, as discharge from factories increases and water levels drop because of diversion for booming cities. The river supplies a region chronically short of water but rich in industry.
The Yellow River Conservancy Committee said 33.8 percent of the river's water sampled registered worse than level 5, meaning it's unfit for drinking, aquaculture, industrial use and even agriculture, according to criteria used by the United Nations Environmental Program.
A 2007 survey covered more than 8,384 miles of the river, which flows from western Qinghai province across China into the Bohai sea, and its tributaries, a notice posted on the committee's Web site said. Only 16.1 percent of the river samples reached level 1 or 2 — water considered safe for household use.
Industry and manufacturing made up 70 percent of the discharge into the river, the notice said, with 23 percent coming from households and 6.4 percent from other sources. The notice did not identify specific pollutants.
The results showed pollution is slightly worse since 2006, when 31 percent of the water in the river was poorer than a level 5, according to an earlier survey. "It's not surprising," said Wen Bo, of the San Francisco, California-based environmental group Pacific Environment.
Many polluting firms in the upper and middle reaches of Yellow River have not been well monitored by local governments, and even protected because they give jobs to workers, said Wen, who is the organization's China program director. There is also no mechanism for richer provinces downstream to help the poorer ones upstream clean up, he said.
"They are just treating the river as a dumping site," Wen said. "It's basically a sewage channel for the provinces that share the river."
Some of the world's most polluted cities are in China, where many rivers and lakes are toxic after decades of breakneck industrial and economic growth.
In February pollution turned part of a major river system in central China red and foamy, forcing authorities to cut water supplies to as many as 200,000 people.
In one of China's worst cases of river pollution, potentially cancer-causing chemicals, including benzene, spilled into the Songhua River in November 2005. The northeastern city of Harbin was forced to sever water supplies to 3.8 million people for five days.
Pollution in China's waterways remains "grave," according to a June report by the Ministry of Environmental Protection on the state of the environment in 2007. More than 20 percent of water tested in nearly 200 rivers was not safe to use, it said.
The ministry has tried to shut down polluting factories along China's main waterways, but its power is limited because local environmental protection bureaus are under the control of local governments.
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