Throughout history, many of China's people have lived and died by the conditions along her seven major rivers. Today, more than 450 million people depend on the two longest rivers--the Huang (Yellow) and the Yangtze--for water, agriculture, fishing, and other uses. But over the past 20 years, water quality in these rivers has deteriorated to a grave state. According. to the 2001 World Bank report China: Air, Land, and Water--Environmental Priorities for a New Millennium, significant stretches of the two riverways are classified as unsuitable for human contact by the Chinese State Environmental Protection Administration. And according to the central government's 1996 report on the state of the environment, 40% of the monitored sections of all rivers flowing past cities did not meet Chinas minimum water quality standards.
The decline in water conditions across China is directly related to Chinas population growth, strong economic growth, and uncontrolled urbanization and semiurbanization. The worst decline in water quality occurred over the period 1985-1995 with the boom of unregulated township and village enterprises (TVEs) across China's countryside, says Jostein Nygard, coeditor of China: Air, Land, and Water. These small communally owned and operated industries provide minimal wastewater treatment compared with larger city industries. Conditions became so serious that in 1995 the government shut down 70,000 medium and small TVEs along Chinas rivers. The closures had a significant effect in reducing pollutants from TVEs, says Nygard, but pollution levels went up again in 1997 as inputs from other sources, such as homes and agriculture, increased.
The Yellow River, long regarded as the cradle of Chinese civilization, is the most important river for the people of northern and northwestern China. But it has been so heavily overused for irrigation, dams, and other uses that the once powerful river is occasionally reduced to a trickle, some years not even reaching the ocean. This water shortage prevents the river from flushing its heavy load of pollutants into the Yellow Sea. At the same time, the quantity of wastewater dumped into the river from nonindustry sources has increased, resulting in ever-deteriorating conditions. In some parts of the past decade, water quality in a little over half of the monitored sections of the Yellow River was classified as unsuitable for human contact, irrigation, and agriculture, according to the World Bank report. And pollution concentrations along major stretches surpass the lethal concentration for fish. Many fish have become extinct in these regions, depriving the people of an important source of food. Mu Lan, the Chinese-language editor for the online nonprofit news service Three Gorges Probe, notes that the Yellow River carp, once an important staple for the people, "has become so rare that only high-ranking officials and rich businessmen can pay money to taste it."
The Yangzte River is known for its visible debris and "floating ducks" (a nickname for the foam from paper mills). But compared with the Yellow River, the Yangtze seems relatively clean. According to China: Air, Land, and Water, as of 1998 pollution levels along much of the Yangtze River were classified as moderate or better; still, 15% of the samples from the river were classified as unsuitable for human contact. A January 2002 statement by the Yangtze River Water Resources Committee of the Chinese government, issued through the Xinhua News Agency, reported that 23.4 billion tons of sewage and industrial waste was dumped into the Yangtze and its branches in 2000, 11% more than in the preceding year. …