Reefs exposed, ships stranded and fish stocks plummeting, the continuing ordeal of China's Yangtze River has been exacerbated by the worst water shortage in more than a century.
Heat waves hit Chongqing Municipality and Sichuan Province in the upper Yangtze last summer, and rainfall was nearly halved in most sections of the Yangtze, resulting in a severe drought.
Water in the upper reaches decreased by over 60 percent from the previous year, and cities downstream reported the lowest water levels since records were first kept in 1877.
"Previously we had to prepare for floods, but the drought has changed all that," said Zhou Jinyun, director of the fishery bureau in the port city of Anqing, in east China's Anhui Province, in the middle reaches of the river.
In Anqing, the water is only four meters deep, and will continue to drop as the drought continues, Zhou said.
But in fact the drought is only part of the story of the Yangtze's sad decline. Over 9,000 chemical plants line the banks of China's longest waterway, 45 percent of the national total. Dongting Lake, China's second largest freshwater lake in central China's Hunan Province, which is fed by the Yangtze, has to absorb discharges from over 230 paper-making factories.
As the once-mighty Yangtze threads its way through 11 regions in China, water is intensively siphoned off for factories, hydroelectric schemes and agriculture. And when the factories release water back into the river, it is full of pollutants, leading to a series of pollution and chemical accidents in recent years.
"This is the worst water shortage I've seen in my thirty years experience as a marine worker," said Huang Yongming, head of the Maritime Bureau in the neighboring Tongling city.
The Three Gorges dam has opened its floodgates to feed the river, but statistics from monitoring stations in central China's Hubei Province and east China's Jiangsu Province have shown no perceptible rise in water levels.
The reduced water flow is affecting the river's capacity to dilute pollutants. Water resource authorities in Hankou, Hubei Province, have had to add chlorides to purify drinking water for residents in the city.
The water shortage has affected the whole ecology of the Yangtze.
"Dwindling water reserves have made it harder for fish to survive, including endangered species like baiji, or white-flag dolphins, and increased the risks of them being injured by passing ships," said Wang Zhenxi, director of fishery management in Tongling, Anhui Province.
Wang said they had found some fish, including finless porpoises, maimed by ship propellers and with their skulls shattered.
Low water levels in the river have made it impossible for some fish species to migrate back to the sea, threatening their survival in shallow waters.
"Continuing water shortages, which date from long before the drought, have had a drastic effect on fish resources in the Yangtze, which is home to most of China's freshwater fish species," said Li Zhenye, director of the marine farm administration in Tongling.
Yangtze fishermen, who make their living on the river, are experiencing a sharp drop in their earnings. The annual per capita income of over 50,000 fishermen around Poyang Lake, the largest freshwater lake in China, was less than 600 yuan (about US$77), only one fifth of their earning in previous years.
Meanwhile, the shipping industry along the Yangtze is also feeling the effects of the water shortage.
Water depth at Yichang and Jingjiang in the middle reaches of the river no longer reaches the navigation standard of 2.9 meters. Local maritime authorities have dispatched dredgers to dig out sludge, and in some places, they took the drastic step of exploding reefs to make navigation possible.
Large vessels were ordered to unload shipments or banned from navigation to ease the traffic jam caused by shrinking waterways.
Local maritime bureaus have increased patrols to issue warnings and prevent ships from running aground.
The Yangtze maritime authority said the situation will improve in February. But no long-term solutions for China's longest river have so far been defined, and the Yangtze's sad decline seems destined to continue.
The Yangtze River, the third longest in the world after the Nile and the Amazon, runs from far west Qinghai and Tibet through 186 cities including Chongqing, Wuhan and Nanjing before emptying into the sea at Shanghai.
The total gross domestic product (GDP) of all cities along the Yangtze River accounts for 41 percent of the national total, according to government statistics.
(Xinhua News Agency January 19, 2007)