China adopts comprehensive measures to protect Yangtze River environment

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Ships travel in the waters of the Yangluo Port in Wuhan, Hubei Province, on August 13, 2018. [Photo/Xinhua]

Stretching over 6,300 km, the Yangtze River is the longest river in China and the third-longest in the world after the Nile in Africa and the Amazon in South America.

Boasting rich biodiversity and mineral and water resources in its basin, the river is seen as the mother river of the Chinese nation and one of the cradles of Chinese civilization.

However, rapid economic development along the river has posed challenges to the ecology of the river. Problems such as overfishing, water pollution and soil erosion have all affected the river and the population along it, calling for efforts toward the conservation of the river.

On January 5, 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping presided over a national conference in Chongqing on the development of the Yangtze River Economic Belt, a turning point for the river's environmental health.

In the meeting, Xi said the priority in the progress along the waterway must be given to ecological development to respect natural, economic and social rules. He stressed on a "green development" of the region and pledged to make restoration of the ecological environment an overwhelming task.

Since then, protecting the environment of the Yangtze, rather than large-scale development, has become the focus of the country's river management plans. China has carried out a series of measures, including cleaning trash, preventing water pollution, banning fishing and patrolling the nature reserves to protect the river.

According to the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, the marked environmental improvement in the waterway has been done in parallel with development of the Yangtze River Economic Belt.

As a key indicator of the achievement, the Yangtze saw the quality of water at all monitored sections in its mainstream rated at Grade II or above in 2020. Grade II is the second highest in the five-tier assessment system. The improvement of the water quality is remarkable, as in 2015, according to a report of the ministry, only 45.2 percent of the monitored sections in the Yangtze's mainstream had water quality of Grade II or above.

River clean-up

Getting up at 5:30 a.m., leaving home at 6 a.m. and collecting garbage on the banks of the Yangtze till 6 p.m. - Liu Gujun, from Chongqing in southwest China, has followed this routine nearly every day for three years.

The city's Wanzhou District covers 80 km of the Yangtze River. For more than 10 years, trash from upstream has piled up on the surface of the river in the Wanzhou area.

Wearing rubber gloves and dragging a huge bag, the 51-year-old Liu and other members of a trash cleaning team organized by the local government collect trash from the river every day. They have found everything in the river, including tree branches, crop debris, plastic and other garbage.

Automatic trash collection boats were put into use in 2009 and changes have taken place since then. Now, the team has 15 such boats operating in the river, which play an even bigger role when flood season comes.

"We used to collect the river trash manually. It needed a lot of labor but had low efficiency. The machine raises the efficiency significantly," said Chen Yu, deputy head of Wanzhou Environmental Sanitation. According to him, nearly 30,000 tons of trash can now be collected annually in the area.

Wanzhou has become a model of trash collection. In past years, provinces along the river such as Yunnan, Sichuan and Hubei have started to hire people to clean up the garbage. Also, hundreds of thousands of volunteers have devoted themselves to collecting garbage on the banks of the Yangtze River.

"As locals living along the river, we have responsibility to protect the river, which has provided us with water for drinking, irrigation and transportation for thousands of years," said Li Nianbang, a volunteer from Yichang, Hubei Province.

Closure of polluting factories

During a visit to Wuhan City of Hubei Province in 2018, Xi reiterated the importance of green development of the Yangtze River Economic Belt. He said local governments should overcome inertia and focus on fostering high-quality development.

"The Yangtze River is China's mother river, and we must protect it. We must move all polluting enterprises from the Yangtze area with resolve … to root out hidden dangers of pollution," he stressed.

In the past five years, a total of 8,091 chemical enterprises have been relocated, transformed or suspended along the Yangtze River Economic Belt, according to Xinhua News Agency. Tiantian Chemical Plant is one of them.

Located at the southern bank of the Yangtze River, the 40-year-old factory used to be one of the major tax payers in the city. It paid over $4.4 million in taxes every year before closure.

Fruit store owner Bi Kaiyun who once worked in Tiantian Chemical Plant said, "It was hard to find a new job at a middle age, but it was the right thing to do for the sake of a better environment."

He said that when the factory was shut down, people living in neighboring areas began to open their windows, dry clothes on balconies and stroll along the river bank.

After the dismantling of Tiantian chemical plant, a new one with high-standard pollution treatment facilities was built away from the river in Zhijiang City, administered by Yichang.

The local government began this campaign to protect the Yangtze in 2017 with a series of measures to upgrade local industry, including shutting down, relocating or renovating 134 chemical companies. Though Yichang's GDP growth plunged from 10.2 percent to 2.4 percent due to the measures, it soon started to bounce back as factories were upgraded, and by 2019 had recovered to 8.1 percent.

"The ultimate aim of economic development is to improve the lives of the people. We must make environmental protection a priority," said Zhou Ji, Secretary of the Communist Party of China Yichang Committee.

Biodiversity recovery

On January 12, the Yangtze River Fisheries Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Fishery Sciences carried out a study of the surveys of fisheries resources and environment of the river. By comparing surveys of the same waters since 2010, the study showed that the population of sturgeon had recovered significantly in the river section, which to some extent proves that the ecology of the Yangtze has been improving.

Chen Yongping, who has more than 30 years of fishing experience, was invited by the research team to participate in the investigation. From Yibing in the upstream of the Yangtze River to Chongqing in the middle and lower reaches, he found more than 10 sturgeons, including Chinese sturgeon and Dabry's sturgeon.

On the boat, Chen said surprisingly: "I started fishing with my father on the Yangtze River when I was a teenager. I have not seen so many sturgeons at one time in more than 20 years."

Historically found in China, the Chinese sturgeon is a comparatively basal species of fish that has been in existence for more than 140 million years. Despite being considered a "national treasure" under the strict protection of the Chinese Government, the sturgeon is listed as a critically endangered species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of threatened species around the world, as it has been extirpated from most historical ranges due to habitat loss and overfishing.

To save the species from extinction, China has set up several conservation programs, including reserves specifically aimed at this species and restocking through release of young fish into the river.

On April 22, 2020, a total of 10,000 Chinese sturgeons were released into the Yangtze River in Yichang. This is the 62nd release by the Chinese Sturgeon Research Institute of Three Gorges Corp., also the largest in scale in recent years. According to statistics from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), a total of 5.03 million Chinese sturgeons have been released in China since 1984. After the release, the Chinese Sturgeon Research Institute tracks them through sonar monitoring system along the river.

Except for aquatic life, the Yangtze River basin is also a vital habitat for wildlife species such as the snow leopard, giant panda and Siberian white cranes. In the past years, local governments along the river established the "cross-regional and cross-sectoral" wetland network for extensive protection of wildlife.

To further preserve biodiversity along the river, China imposed a 10-year fishing moratorium at the beginning of this year in 332 conservation areas in the Yangtze River basin, which was expanded to all the natural waterways of the country's longest river and its major tributaries.

Environmental legislation

To enhance the ecological protection of the "mother river", in late December 2020, the country's top legislature adopted a law on Yangtze River conservation, which will take effect on March 1. As China's first legislation on a specific river basin, the law is formulated to strengthen the protection and restoration of the ecological environment of the Yangtze River basin, facilitate the effective and rational use of resources, safeguard ecological security, ensure harmony between human and nature and achieve sustainable development.

China's top legislator Li Zhanshu urged authorities to prioritize the conservation and restoration of the ecological environment of the Yangtze River basin and manage and regulate the construction and projects along the river according to the law.

Lu Zhongmei, Director of the academic board of the SPC's Judicial Research Center of Environment and Resources, said the national legislation to protect the Yangtze River reflects a profound change in China's outlook on development. Formulating a Yangtze River protection law will make a difference for future generations and the future of the Chinese nation.

The systematic protection and the restoration of the ecological environment along the Yangtze will set a good example for rivers in urgent need of stronger protection, she said.

However, the protection law is not intended to inhibit development, but to change the existing unreasonable and "non-green" development model, said Du Qun, Deputy Director of the Research Institute of Environmental Law of Wuhan University. He said the law forces the development model to upgrade. He also noted that the Yangtze River conservation law is a law promoting green development, which underscores the need to balance environmental protection and economic growth. 

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