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Decades of development has changed life in and along the Yangtze River. Photo: AFP

Will a new law bring China’s dying Yangtze River back to life?

  • National legislation designed to protect the massive waterway and its tributaries has come into effect, aiming to reverse decades of exploitation
  • But activists say much will depend on what happens at the local government level

Zhou Jianjun drove 400km (250 miles) in mid-February from his hometown of Xiangyang in central China to an industrial chemical park to investigate pollution along the Yangtze River.

As he neared the park, the smell of pesticides clogged the air. He got out and walked to the river to take some samples where the water was so polluted that it had turned yellow.

But this is not an unusual sight for Zhou.

For the past seven years, Zhou, 54, has spent all of his time and resources to report illegal sand mining, pollution and illegal fishing along the ailing waterway.

At times, the reports have been daily, something that Zhou hopes will change as the Yangtze River Protection Law comes into effect.

“The era of economic development at the expense of the environment is over,” he said.


China imposes a 10-year fishing ban for Yangtze River to protect marine biodiversity

China imposes a 10-year fishing ban for Yangtze River to protect marine biodiversity

The law took effect on Monday after being approved by the country’s top legislative body in December.

It is the first in China for a specific river basin, and is designed to curb pollution and restore the ecosystem of Asia’s longest river.

Running 6,300km from the Tibetan Plateau to the East China Sea near Shanghai, the Yangtze is a lifeline for hundreds of millions of people and sustains much of the Chinese economy.

But after decades of sand dredging, dam-building, exploitation, pollution and overfishing, the river is dying.

The global conservation body WWF said in September that nearly half of the country’s heavy metal pollution hotspots were within the Yangtze River Economic Belt, which stretches from Sichuan in the southwest to Zhejiang in the east.

Meanwhile, the number of marine species in the river’s upper reaches has fallen from 161 in the 1980s to 46 now. And fish catches have plummeted from 430,000 tonnes in 1954 to only 80,000 tonnes in 2011.

Drop by drop, China’s Yangtze River is drying up

Zhou lives near the Han River, the Yangtze’s longest tributary, and remembers what life was like when he was young.

“The Han River is our ‘mother river’. We used to swim in the river and drink the water,” he said. “Under the surface I could see different kinds of fish in the water.”

But that all began to change in the late 1980s when China embarked on its industrial modernisation. Polluters like chemical factories, fertiliser plants, and paper mills soon sprang up in Xiangyang.

And as the pollution went unchecked, the water suffered.

“People will do anything to make money. Nobody cares if it contaminates the environment,” Zhou said.

“The pollution was so severe that I could smell pesticide on the fish. Nobody eats fish caught in the river any more.”

A turning point came in January 2016 when President Xi Jinping presided over a symposium in Chongqing in western China saying enough was enough and the pollution must stop.

“We must give priority to the long-term interests of the nation and the restoration of the Yangtze River, making an all-out effort to protect [the Yangtze] and stop any large-scale development of the river,” Xi said.

Xi repeated his call two years later,calling for a balance between environmental protection and economic development.

Pollution in China: thallium leak in Yangtze River linked to zinc smelter

Last year, Beijing ordered a 10-year fishing ban over 332 conservation sites along the river to help rehabilitate the ecosystem. The ban was extended this year to cover the main river, key tributaries and major lakes linked to the river.

Ma Jun, director of the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, said action was needed because the Yangtze was under assault on a range of fronts.

“The Yangtze River is important to China but it’s fragile, facing pollution, ecological degradation and overexploitation,” Ma said.

He said the new legislation represented a shift in how China wanted to manage the environment.

“It is the first law made under the guidance of the ‘new ecological civilisation concept’ – to promote well-coordinated environmental conservation and avoid excessive development,” he said.

Under the new rules, chemical plants cannot be built within a kilometre of the river and tailings ponds must be at least 3km from the main river, with fines of up to 5 million yuan (US$772,000) for violations.

It also bans the relocation of heavily polluting factories to the upper and middle reaches of the Yangtze.


China’s Yangtze fishing communities struggle amid 10-year fishing ban

China’s Yangtze fishing communities struggle amid 10-year fishing ban

Wang Canfa, a professor in environmental law at the China University of Political Science and Law, said the new law marked a major change in the area.

“In the past, we made separate legislation for the environment, such as forests, water resources and grasslands, but it was not effective because of a lack of systemic management of the ecology,” Wang said.

“As the first law on a specific river basin, the Yangtze River Protection Law encompasses resource protection and curbing pollution and has a systemic protection mechanism for the river basin, so it’s more beneficial.”

But for activists like Zhou, the big question is how the rules will be implemented.

Zhou and other environmental activists file pollution reports with authorities every day, but most of them fall on deaf ears.

“Some environmental officials have told us they will investigate and hold polluting companies responsible, but we never hear back from them and the pollution continues,” he said.

“It’s good that we have this legislation but the implementation will be difficult.

“It depends on local authorities who may not want to deal with the problem or might have financial concerns [if they shut down the polluters].”

Ma said local authorities could try new ways to improve monitoring, such as releasing more information about polluters or using financial incentives to encourage public oversight.

“With economic pressure, local authorities may find more creative ways to find a balance between curbing pollution and developing the economy,” he said.