Analysis & Reviews

Yangtze Flows -Pollution & Heavy Metals

Yangtze Flows: Pollution & Heavy Metals

The Yangtze River spans 6,300km from the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in the West of China all the way to Shanghai on the eastern coast. As the longest river in China, it flows through very varied landscapes, both in terms of nature and economy.

CWR-MEP Joint Report - Water-Nomics Of The Yangtze River Economic Belt - June 2016

The development of the nine provinces and two municipalities that form the Yangtze River Economic Belt (YREB), is of national strategic importance as highlighted in the CWR & MEP-FECO’s joint brief, Water-nomics of the Yangtze River Economic Belt: Strategies & recommendations for green development along the river”.

The joint brief shows the YREB contributes to around 42% of China’s GDP and is important for both the nation’s food & energy security.

The brief also notes that the region produces 81% of the country’s chemical fibres, 59% of cloth, 58% of chemical pesticides, 51% of fertilizers and 48% of cement.

To access the full brief, please click here.


The YREB is strategically important to China; but is home to various polluting industries…

Such dominance across industries has come at significant environmental costs.

Pollution from agriculture, chemical production and other dirty industrial processes (such as textile dyeing & finishing) is threatening the water quality and the river’s ecosystem.

In March 2016, the Minister of Environmental Protection, Chen Jining, addressed three key challenges for the Yangtze River in terms of environment and ecological protection:

  1. Lack of holistic protection of the whole river basin and worsening ecosystem degradation;
  2. Significant amount of pollution discharge putting great pressure on drinking water safety; and
  3. Conflicts between ecological protection and development are prominent in some areas, and eutrophication persists in key lakes.

Yangtze River: overall improvement but severe pollution in tributaries

As shown in the newly released 2015 State of Environment Review, water quality of Yangtze can be summarised as follows:

  • Monitored points with Grade I-III water quality improved slightly by 1.5% to 89.4%;
  • This was largely from improving Grade IV-V which dropped from 8.8% to 7.4%; but
  • Grade V+ water bodies still stood at 3.1%, same as 2013 and 2014.

This likely explains why the ‘Water Ten’ Plan and other policies have emphasized tackling heavily polluted “black and odorous water”. Better technologies, more investment & time are all necessary in the “War on Water Pollution”.

Looking over a longer period of time, say the past decade, the overall water quality of the Yangtze is slowly improving despite some fluctuations as shown in the chart below. The blue colour indicates water meeting Grade I-III quality: in 2014 this was 88.1%, 1.5% lower than that 2013, but still higher than previous years. The percentage of river sections in Grade V+ was the lowest at 3.1%.

Water quality of Yangtze is slowly improving 2

All Grade V & V+ water found in the Yangtze are in the tributaries but not the mainstream

It is worth noting here that the pollution status in the mainstream of the Yangtze River differs to that in its tributaries as shown in the chart below.

According to the MEP’s monitoring sites, all monitored Grade V+ water is driven by pollution in the tributaries. A deeper look shows that the Yangtze mainstream not only has no Grade V+ water, but has no Grade V water.

Mainstream of Yangtze is less polluted with no Grade V  & V+ water …

… Grade V & V+ water only in its tributaries

Water quality of the Yangtze 2015

According to the 13th Five Year Plan, by 2020, the water quality in the mainstream of the Yangtze is expected to meet at least the Grade III level. Since the current percentage is already 97.6%, it doesn’t seem to be a too far-fetched target.

But what about the tributaries where the Grade V+ water persist?

>30 billion tonnes of wastewater flowing into the rivers & lakes along the Yangtze

If we only look at the 11 provinces & municipalities in the YREB, as per the joint brief, together they “represent 43% (or 30.8 billion tonnes) of the total national wastewater discharge…in 2014”. The brief has the three regions of the YREB, the Yangtze River Delta (YRD), the Middle Reaches and the Upper Reaches accounting for 40%, 36% and 24% of the YREB’s total wastewater discharge, respectively.

Not surprising then are the tighter deadlines in the Water Ten for the YRD.

That said, we should not be complacent about pollution from the Middle & Upper Reaches. The brief warns that the rate of wastewater discharge in the Upper Reaches is growing at a faster rate than that at the delta. This is clearly shown in a chart from the brief reproduced below:

YREB Chart 5

Pollution discharged upstream can also be carried downstream. Looking at the entire river basin area from the source to the sea is thus warranted. This is an area larger than the YREB and the amount of wastewater discharged is also greater.

Discharge has been steadily increasing over the past decade: already surpassing 30 billion tonnes  in 2006 and growing to 33.9 billion tonnes in 2014, according to the Yangtze River Water Resources Commission. Also worth noting is that in 2014, 80.8% of total wastewater was discharged into the mainstream of the Yangtze; the major tributaries; and the Tai, Poyang & Dongting Lakes – all part of the Yangtze River’s water system.

Industrial sources account for >half of wastewater discharge

Industrial sources account for over half of this wastewater discharged, but its  share has dropped from 69% in 2005 to 58% in 2014.

This reflects the shift in the economy towards more services and higher value-added industries. Industry mixes along the river are discussed in more detail in “Water-nomics: Trade-offs along the Yangtze“.

Contamination of drinking water sources & seeping into soil

Clearly, pollution anywhere along the river poses a significant threat to drinking water sources. According to the Yangtze River Water Resources Commission, of the 329 drinking water resources monitored, only 193 of them or 59% met relevant water quality standards all year round.

Only 193 of the 329 drinking water resources monitored met the relevant water quality standards all year round

Yangtze River Water Resources Commission

Naturally, this is worrying for the 584 million people living in the YREB, whose water supply is reliant predominantly on the Yangtze River and other interlinked water systems.

As a result, the MEP recently announced it will check and clean up all city-level centralised drinking water sources in the YREB by the end of 2017.

Finally, pollutants discharged into the water can also either seep into sediment or soil, leading to groundwater pollution and soil contamination. In the newly issued ’Soil Ten Plan‘, most of the provinces singled out are either in the YREB or along other major rivers such as the Yellow or Pearl River.

Find out more on the industries and regions impacted by this plan in our Soil Ten Review.

Hazardous heavy metal pollution can threaten food safety & security

Caixin’s 2011 expose of rice contaminated with heavy metals in several parts of China, including Hunan and Hubei in the YREB has thrust the heavy metal contamination and food safety under the spotlight.

According to the CWR-MEP FECO joint brief, the YREB “has a disproportionately high heavy metals discharge, especially in Cadmium (63%), Arsenic (62%) and Lead (59%)” as per the chart below.

“YREB has a disproportionately high heavy metals discharge”

“there are food security implications given the magnitude of other agriculture production along the Yangtze River, and limited arable land across the country”

CWR-MEP FECO joint brief

YRED Heavy Metal Emissions in Wastewater

Levels are worrying as YREB produces ~65% of China’s rice

Hunan and Hubei, the two Middle Reaches provinces, account for a lion’s share of the YREB’s discharge of Cadmium, Arsenic, Lead at 69%, 71% and 63% respectively. At the national level, Hunan alone accounted for 38% of Cadmium, 33% of Arsenic, 30% of Lead and 20% of Mercury emissions.

These levels are worrying as the YREB produces around 65% of China’s rice, and Hunan and Hubei together alone, produce over a fifth of China’s rice production. This clearly poses a threat to the food safety of one of China’s key staples.

A holistic Mountain-to-Sea approach for the Yangtze

Pollution upstream can spread & bring risks downstream…

…can new financing instruments/mechanisms combat this?

It is imperative to tackle water pollution from mountaintop to the sea. Pollution happening upstream can spread and bring risks downstream.

But the upstream regions cannot tackle the pollution issues alone: they need to grow their economy, plus they also need financing for technological upgrades & innovation in pollution prevention & control.

Meanwhile, downstream provinces want secure and safe water supplies.

Is it possible to establish a new kind of “eco-compensation” to link up these needs? Can new financing instruments be developed to cover costs? We have already seen some pilot cases in Jiangsu and Shanghai, but more need to be done. Take a look at some macro strategies laid out in the CWR-MEP FECO brief here.

Further Reading

  • Water-nomics: Trade-offs Along The Yangtze – With significant economic, water use and pollution disparities along the Yangtze River, China Water Risk & the Foreign Economic Cooperation Office of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, publish a joint brief to explore strategies to find the right development mix. Check out some of the key findings in this review
  • 2015 State of Environment Report Review – China says overall environment quality has worsened in 2015 with groundwater deteriorating for the fifth year straight. It’s mixed news for rivers but lakes & reservoirs see marked improvement. Get the latest pollution status updates from the newly released 2015 State Of Environment Report
  • China’s Soil Ten - With close to a fifth of China’s farmland surveyed polluted, the Soil Ten Plan could not come sooner. Find out what’s in store for China’s “Hateful Eight” polluting industries and get the distilled version of the 231 actions in China Water Risk’s Soil Ten review
  • Heavy Metals & Agriculture – Check out China Water Risk’s overview of the status of heavy metals discharge into wastewater, priority provinces, overlap with agriculture sown lands, crops exposed and industries targeted for clean-up
  • 8 Things You Should Know: Rice & Water – How much of water & farmlands are used to grow rice in China? What about exposure to Cadmium, Mercury, Lead & Arsenic? Can China ensure rice security? Here are 8 things you should know about rice & water in China
  • China Water Risk special report: “China’s Long March To Safe Drinking Water

Chinas Long March To Drinking Water 2015 Reprot - EnglishChinas Long March To Safe Drinking Water 2015 - CH

Feng Hu

About Feng Hu

Feng is responsible for the development & execution of China Water Risk’s projects and collaborations. Prior to joining China Water Risk, Feng was a qualified senior auditor in an international certification company. He has worked with governments, the private sector & NGOs on various projects from renewable energy, energy efficiency improvement to waste treatment as well as compliance assessment of large hydropower projects with dams. As the project leader, Feng has worked in most of the provinces in China, Vietnam, Nepal as well as several African countries. Aside from auditing, Feng has worked on provincial hazardous waste management and conducted research from urban water ecosystem health assessment to biofuel production from microalgae. He also has co-authored a published research paper on eutrophication in China’s West Lake as part of a collaborative project between Zhejiang University & Michigan State University. Feng holds a MSc degree in Sustainable Resource Management from Technical University of Munich and a BSc degree in Environmental Science from Zhejiang University.

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