When the rivers run clear

Atkins | 16 Jan 2010 | Comments

China’s two longest rivers are a fundamental part of the day to day lives of millions, and yet one would run dry regularly due to overuse and both are among the country’s most polluted water resources. Improving them is more than a short term project; it means a complete change in mindset.

The Yangtze and the Yellow Rivers are the two longest in China. Both are also prone to flooding and suffer soil erosion as well as excessive industrial and household pollution, and yet they are vital resources to hundreds of millions of people. River Basin Organisations help manage these great rivers and have made huge advances in managing floods and ensuring equitable sharing of limited water resources. But there is still much room for improvement in management practice and co-ordination with other authorities, especially when it comes to pollution reduction and the recovery of these very fragile river ecosystems.

These two rivers are not alone. The water quality of at least one-third of the major rivers in China has been rated lower than Grade V, based on criteria used by the UN Environment Programme and the Chinese Government. Grade V means they are unfit for drinking, agriculture or industrial use. Even the fish caught in Grade V rivers should not be eaten – and these rivers are worse than that. Overall, China’s water resources are declining in quantity due to past over-exploitation, the impact of climate change and the country’s consistent growth in population and affluence. Collectively, this is now hampering further economic growth.

“Simply put, poor water resource protection is a constraint on development,” says Simon Spooner, a water quality and pollution control specialist with Atkins, who is working closely with the Water Resource Protection Bureau of the Yellow River Conservancy Commission (YRCC) on pollution load management in the river.

“Development is impossible when the environment is so bad that there’s no more capacity or clean water. That’s a strong argument to sort out the management practices at all levels.”

Thankfully, China does not have to start from scratch in these efforts, as others have been through it before. For example, Europe’s major rivers suffered heavy pollution over the course of the past century due to rapid industrialisation. The EU Water Framework Directive (EU WFD) was created and adopted in 2000 as a culmination of the various cross-border agreements and policies that had been put in place to deal with the problem. It established a framework for the comprehensive management of water resources across the European Community.

The EU WFD aims to maintain “high” status of water systems across the EU, preventing any deterioration in the existing status of waters and achieving at least “good” status in relation to all waters by 2015.

“Good quality and good habitat are interlinked,” says Mike Woolgar, director of water management and business analysis with Atkins. “If you have good quality, you can have biodiversity and if you have biodiversity, that helps to maintain the quality. If the water is good enough to support the ecology, then it is good enough for humans to use.”

“The EU WFD is about creating a more sustainable mode of industrial development, being more environmentally aware, having a more scientific basis to policy and being more rational in the way that governing is undertaken,” adds Spooner. “It’s seen as an ambitious exercise in legislation. Senior figures in government are highly motivated to improve environmental performance in China, and the EU WFD offers a good example of what can be done.”

The challenge is overcoming the inevitable bureaucratic obstacles along the way, says Woolgar: “Ministries of irrigation, water resources, mining, industry and so on, they all need water. And yet there is rarely a common plan for managing that water in a sustainable way.

“This isn’t just in China. It’s everywhere,” he adds.

“In many ways, the EU is ahead in its approach to integrated water resources management. Europe’s big rivers cross many borders and all sorts of bilateral agreements have been established between these countries over the years. But these agreements do not necessarily reflect the overall management of the rivers for the whole EU community.”

Integrated water resources management plans are now evolving under the EU Water Framework Directive. Stakeholder groups help manage the process, keeping a view on the whole river environment itself.

“For example, if there are bilateral agreements that could damage someone else downstream, the Commission tries to influence things such that those agreements can be modified to provide mutual benefits to everybody,” says Woolgar.

A change in mindset

Realising the urgency and the scope of the challenge at hand, the Chinese government launched the EU-China River Basin Management Programme (EU-China RBMP) in 2005. This €25m project between the EU and the government of China, focuses on integrated river basin management.

The main stakeholders in the programme in China are: the Ministry of Water Resources (MWR), the Ministry for Environmental Protection (MEP), the Yellow River Conservancy Commission (YRCC), the Changjiang (Yangtze) Water Resources Commission (CWRC), and the Water Resource Bureaux (WRBs) and Environment Protection Bureaux (EPBs) of Henan, Shanxi and Shaanxi Provinces.

Additional stakeholders include other river basin commissions, the World Bank, bureaux of agriculture, construction and land resources, and the planning commissions at provincial and county level, as well as the local population within and downstream to the project areas.

On the European side, participants include representatives from the European Commission and water bodies, as well as a consortium of companies offering practical, technical and scientific expertise. These companies include DHV, Sweco, Alterra, Cowi and Atkins. Links between European and Chinese Universities are also being built and strengthened.

The EU-China RBMP looks to the development, principles and ideas behind the EU WFD to determine what lessons may be drawn to improve China’s rivers.

“The Chinese government and various stakeholders involved are not asking for a river basin plan,” says Woolgar. “They’re asking us how we think, what tools we use and why we do what we do with regards to the EU WFD. They will then adapt this information to what they want to do.”

Woolgar points out that river basin management touches on everything from urban development and industrial development and management to forestry, agriculture, fisheries and more.

“It’s about having good quality water in the right place at the right time, and being used for the right economic purposes,” he says. “Once you start thinking about how land is used, how and where pollution is generated and how you manage it, you’re starting to affect things at an economic level. It’s all about sustainability. But the shift from being a resource that is just exploited to something that is managed is a major shift in mindset.

“This project is as much about the human dimension as it is about any physical work. We’re trying to introduce a way of working with the environment that is palatable with the need to continue to develop their economy. At its heart, this project is about getting people to think about sustainable practices in river basin management.”

Up for discussion

“Dialogue is a major part of the EU-China RBMP,” says Spooner. “It’s about building links between river basin management organisations in China and their counterparts in Europe, both the institutions and the people. Chinese officials have gone to Europe and met officials there, and vice versa. We’re all getting to know each other in order to better understand what we’re trying to achieve and to share experience. This exchange and sharing of expertise is the mechanism by which the programme operates. This has now led to formal co-operation agreements between the Yellow River and Rhine and Danube River Commissions.”

Among other things, Atkins is working closely with the Water Resource Protection Bureau of the YRCC. The first aspect of the work is pollution load management on the Yellow River, which feeds into the YRCC’s overall integrated river basin planning process.

“The YRCC has to produce an outline of how it’s going to improve the quality of the water in the Yellow River and achieve its objectives for every part of the river,” says Spooner.

The second element is to develop an early warning system for pollution incidents, such as industrial accidents or spillage, so the YRCC can understand and predict what might happen and what response is required.

The third aspect covers industrial discharge management and cleaner technology; strengthening the Water Resource Protection Bureau’s regulatory role through a better understanding of the Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC) Directive; and the application of best available technology to save water by being more efficient and reduce pollution at source.

“Much of what Atkins is doing is at the management and policy level, though we also visit factories with staff from the various bureaux involved and review the processes,” says Spooner. “We offer recommendations on how they could improve their processes or adopt new technology to reduce their water use and pollution levels.

“In effect, this is on the job training for staff,” Spooner adds. “It becomes a sustainable experience within the institutions involved and provides guidance on what kinds of questions to ask and how to follow through.

“For example, last year, we introduced the technique of using the data gathered from monitoring the river biology to measure the quality of the river itself. This is a key part of modern EU practice, but it was the first time it had been implemented in the Yellow River Basin. The teams have already launched their own pilot projects to test this practice in 21 locations.”

Future flow

As for the long term river basin management story, enforcement remains an issue – “The level of enforcement is lower than it should be, but that’s fairly normal for a developing country,” says Spooner. However, there are positive signs that progress is being made in other areas and that efforts were being made even before the EU-China RBMP was put in place.

For example, Spooner points out that, as recently as eight years ago, the Yellow River used to run dry every year. People used it until there was nothing left and, as a consequence, there would be no water for up to 200 days of the year.

By studying and improving their understanding of the river’s hydrology, the YRCC worked out a system for allocating set amounts of water to each user within the different provinces and regions, so that no one person or entity was taking all of the water and leaving nothing for everybody else.

“Now, through a mixture of a technical and political processes, the river runs all year long,” says Spooner. “Several times a year, the relevant bodies meet and hammer out what they’re going to do, based on scientific findings, and then finalise the details through negotiations. Everybody has water all year long. It may not always be as much as they want, but at least they have enough to survive. We want to build on that success.”

The EU-China River Basin Management Programme

The EU-China RBMP is made up of three components:

First, the establishment of a platform for dialogue on integrated river basin and water resource management at national and global levels. This will allow for the evolution of policy directives, the implementation of integrated river basin management across all sectors and the smooth exchange of expertise between Europe and China.

Second, the development of effective and sustainable systems for the management of water pollution. This would improve water quality in heavily polluted water basins in the middle reaches of the Yellow River.

Third, the development of effective and sustainable systems for the management of land use and natural resources along the Yangtze River basin. This will lead to a reduction in soil erosion and an improvement in livelihoods in highly degraded watersheds in the middle and upper reaches of the basin.

It is hoped that these efforts will “establish integrated river basin management practices in the Yellow and Yangtze River basins that are environmentally sustainable and address global, national and local environmental concerns, and which have the capability of being replicated in (or disseminated to) other regions of China”.

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