For thousands of years, rubbish and other pollutants have been piled up along the banks of the Yangtze River while sewage flowed untreated into the river.
Despite the modern technology that has gone into building the vast Three Gorges Dam, the ages-old custom of dumping waste in and along the river has remained. During the annual flood season, the tons of refuse are still being washed downstream by the rising waters.
Although a great cleanup campaign has been under way for years, the latest surveys show the number of areas complying with "green" environmentally friendly policies is woefully low.
Still, there are some success stories.
Standing beside the operating treatment tanks of the Fuling Sewage Plant, manager Shi Benggao says that Fuling District no longer has to discharge sewage directly into the Yangtze and its tributary, the Wujiang River.
The plant, which cost 320 million yuan (US$38.5 million), will be capable of treating 140,000 tons of sewage per day when completed, Shi said.
Fuling, a district of southwest China's Chongqing Municipality, fronts a section of the huge Three Gorges reservoir.
In Wanzhou, the largest district of Chongqing, two sewage treatment plants have been operating since last year and treat 50,000 tons of domestic sewage per day. That is 85 percent of the total within the district's service area.
Meanwhile, a refuse disposal plant that is capable of treating 400 tons of household rubbish every day is also operating in Wanzhou, said Wu Zhenglong, a top official in the district.
Places like Fuling and Wanzhou are making progress but far more needs to be done. In the coming years, at least one such facility is to be built in each of the 19 counties or cities and over 100 towns around the Three Gorges Reservoir.
The reservoir started filling in June 2003 and the water level is now at its planned 135-meter level.
To maintain good water quality in the Yangtze, the central government implemented a 40-billion-yuan (US$4.8 billion) plan aimed at building more than 320 facilities to dispose of sewage and waste discharged upstream. They are scheduled to be completed by 2010.
When all the facilities are completed, 85 percent of the sewage and waste in the reservoir area will be disposed of and treated, according to Zhang Shaozhi, director of the Chongqing Municipal Environmental Protection Administration.
The greater Chongqing metropolitan area is home to some 30 million people. Currently, 30 waste and sewage disposal plants handle 81 percent of the waste and 61 percent of the sewage produced in the city.
Before the Three Gorges Reservoir began to store water last year, nearly 4 million tons of household garbage and industrial waste had been disposed of and all medical waste from over 600 hospitals and clinics had been burned. Additionally, 5 million square meters of sewers were disinfected in the Chongqing part of the reservoir.
Last year alone, according to the State Council's Three Gorges Project Construction Committee, 28 major urban sewage plants were built to keep water clean in the reservoir area.
By the end of last year, 19 new garbage disposal plants went into full operation in cities and towns along the reservoir. Work on four other projects designed for hazardous industrial waste was also begun.
When complete, the facilities should have under control the garbage, sewage and industrial and medical waste that threaten water quality in the reservoir.
Environmental concerns have been an issue hovering over the 660-kilometer-long reservoir area since it started filling last year.
This year, Cao Guangjing, deputy general manager of China Three Gorges Project Corporation, told the media, "There have been no major changes in water quality of the reservoir."
Last year, water at the site mainly stayed at grade three, the minimum standard for sources of drinking water, according to the China National Environmental Monitoring Center (NEMC).
This year, NEMC confirmed that the water quality of the reservoir's Chongqing section has remained sound, although the content of bacilli, oil and phosphorus slightly exceeds set standards in its tributaries.
Although authorities are confident that the reservoir can be kept clean, critics fear China has a long way to go to control pollution effectively.
The water quality of tributaries on the lower reaches became worse as the flow of water has slowed with the filling of the reservoir. This has reduced the self-purification ability of the tributaries, Chongqing officials conceded.
There are other problems. Public ignorance of effective environmental protection and insufficient funds are compounded by the failure of some environmental monitoring agencies to fulfill their basic tasks. Planned industrial projects may also add to the problem if environmental directives are not properly enforced.
Meanwhile, soil erosion upstream and from tributaries remains unchecked and is contaminating water downstream, said Zhang.
The State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) is urging further improvements to pollution control.
Four months ago, SEPA found 51 of the 147 planned pollution treatment projects had yet to begin construction.
Meanwhile, 206 of the 304 small enterprises that were ordered to close for polluting the waterways are still operating. Many are leather and paper plants.
Worse, only 15 of the 242 large companies emitting pollutants have managed to meet environmental protection goals. SEPA has repeatedly ordered them to speed up the implementation of green policies.
Now the environmental watchdog has given offending companies and authorities until the end of the month to implement new standards and complete assigned pollution treatment tasks. It is threatening to shut down large enterprises that fail to meet pollution-control requirements.
Land-based polluters are not the only offenders. Tens of thousands of cargo, transport and tour vessels ply the waters, discharging untold amounts of untreated sewage and other harmful waste into the Yangtze. Experts are calling for urgent action and want owners and operators of these ships and boats to clean up or face punishment.
State regulations demand all ships passing the Three Gorges area to treat all waste products before discharging them into the river. Solid waste must be dumped in designated areas on the shore.
But an investigation by Xinhua News Agency indicates that 99 percent of the vessels navigating the river discharge their sewage and oil waste into the Yangtze River without treatment.
About 100,000 watercraft pass through the Three Gorges area each year, producing 42,000 tons of rubbish, 7 million tons of human waste, 15 million tons of sewage and 100 million tons of oily wastewater, local environmental protection departments estimate.
This poses a serious threat to the environment of the Three Gorges Reservoir.
Environmental protection experts have urged authorities to take immediate and resolute action to stop the pollution. They warn that it will be too late if action is postponed until after the Three Gorges project is finally completed in 2009.
"The situation remains grim and a lot of hard work has to be done," said Zhang Shaozhi.
However, Lu Youmei, the former head of China Three Gorges Project Corporation and now an academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, is confident that water pollution in the reservoir can be controlled.
Lu said, "The reservoir is now holding 12.3 billion cubic meters of water, but it does not hold dead water in a closed pond as some believe." The water can be refreshed 36 times each year by the 450 billion cubic meters of water flowing through the dam.
"Such water changes can occur at least 10 times per year even after the entire project is completed in 2009. Then it will hold a total of 39.3 billion cubic meters of water, once levels reach the planned 175 meters," Lu explained.
Nevertheless, he agreed that environmental protection around the reservoir and upstream should be improved to prevent chronic pollution.
Meanwhile, Zhang is insistent. If the Three Gorges project is to provide clean water and its environment saved, tough and urgent measures are needed, and soon.
Zhang -- also a deputy to the National People's Congress -- together with other experts, is appealing for special legislation to allow integrated management of the reservoir to ensure the safe operation of the mammoth water conservancy hub.
"Only through legislation can the duties of the reservoir's main administrator and the other parties concerned be clearly defined."
(China Daily August 12, 2004)