Urgent action required to save the Yellow River

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 December, 2006, 12:00am

The Yellow River is dying. Despite exhortations by state leaders to put the environment first, the amount of untreated sewage dumped into China's 'mother river' has increased instead of fallen in recent years.

In the 1990s, 40 per cent of the river's water was drinkable. Now, the figure has dropped to 33.3 per cent. Moreover, the river is also suffering from a dramatic decrease in water flow because of low precipitation and overuse. So much so that it has become a regular occurrence for parts of the river to dry up.

For the 5,464 km-long waterway that is known as the cradle of Chinese civilisation, that is a tragic development that illustrates what is so wrong about China's preoccupation with growth. Years of emphasis on getting rich first have blinded many cadres to the byproducts of industrial development.

While polluting factories that provide jobs and profits are given a licence to use the dirtiest production methods, they are not held responsible for the pollution they cause. Even in places where sewage treatment plants have been installed, they are not always turned on in order to save money. So many local governments have an interest in keeping afloat factories in their jurisdictions that they are held hostage by the plant operators.

To tackle the problem, the State Environmental Protection Administration has set up regional offices to strengthen its monitoring of local breaches. Hopefully, with backing from Beijing, these outposts will be able to turn things around over time. But more will need to be done to avert the environmental and human catastrophe that experts say a worsening shortage of clean water would do to the nation.

More intelligent and rational use of water should be a first priority. In China, as in many other countries, governments are loath to charge users the full costs of treating and piping water. In some cases, that is justified as a strict application of the user-pays principle would deprive many people of access to an essential necessity. However, it would be wrong to keep rates artificially low just to keep the masses happy, as is still the case in many parts of the country.

China is not richly endowed with water resources on a per capita basis. It is therefore important to set water rates at realistic levels that encourage conservation and investment. Rates should go up in line with economic growth, so users will think twice about letting their taps run and investors see a reason to put their money in building water supply facilities.

The present sorrows of the Yellow River are the result of millenniums of human interference. Deforestation along its course accounts for the heavy soil content of its water - and hence its colour. Over the past century, industrialisation has turned it into a giant sewer. It is time urgent and bold action was taken to avert its death and restore it as a source of life.