Running the Rivers

[China] Crisscrossed by more than 3,100 rivers, Wuxi City in east China’s Jiangsu Province is a typical water town. To ensure water quality there, the city’s officials have been appointed river administrators to oversee pollution control in the waterways assigned to them since 2008.

Due to its proven effectiveness in improving river health in just a few years, Wuxi’s experience has been borrowed by many other places throughout the country.

At a press conference held on March 21, Jiao Yong, Vice Minister of Water Resources, also revealed that his ministry planned to promote this innovative practice nationwide.

The practice of appointing officials river administrators aims to encourage local governments to integrate resources and take full responsibility for the ecological quality of rivers and lakes, said Sun Jichang, Director of the Construction and Management Department of the Ministry of Water Resources.

Birth of an idea

River administrators were appointed in Wuxi after the city suffered from a drinking water crisis in 2007.

In May and June of that year, blue-green algae grew rampantly in the Taihu Lake, which is mainly located in Wuxi and is one of the largest freshwater lakes in China. According to state broadcaster China Central Television, the algae built up near one of Wuxi’s major water plants, making the city’s water putrid and undrinkable. The incident affected the quality of drinking water for nearly 2 million residents, and led to panic buying of bottled water and soaring prices as supplies ran out.

The algae outbreak was caused by both natural and human factors, according to Zhang Lijun, then Vice Minister of the State Environmental Protection Administration, which is now known as the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

Zhang said that in that year, dry weather led to a lower water level in the Taihu Lake, while warmer-than-usual temperatures contributed to the growth of the algae.

On the other hand, the high concentration of nitrogen and phosphor in the Taihu Lake could be blamed. From 1996 to 2006, the lake’s concentration of nitrogen and phosphor had grown 200 and 150 percent, respectively.

The Taihu Lake basin is one of the most economically advanced and densely populated regions in China. The area has a large concentration of factories and animal farms, which pollute the lake’s water.

Data released by the Wuxi City Government in 2008 showed that the Taihu Lake area’s annual per-capita GDP and population density were respectively 3 and 8 times those of national average, while in Wuxi, there were nearly 10 enterprises on every square kilometer of land.

After the drinking water crisis, Wuxi took a variety of emergency measures to clean up water such as removing the blue-green algae, sterilizing water with activated carbon, transferring water from the Yangtze River into the Taihu Lake and artificial rainmaking to dilute pollution. Moreover, the city also sought to build a long-term mechanism to improve water quality.

On August 23, 2008, the city issued a document making river water quality management as an important criterion in selecting officials and evaluating their performance. Wuxi’s officials were respectively appointed administrators of the city’s major rivers in their jurisdiction.

Later in that year, the Jiangsu Provincial Government decided to promote Wuxi-style river management across the whole province. Provincial leaders were also appointed to coordinate pollution control efforts in 15 major rivers, said Zhu Tiejun, an official with Jiangsu’s Taihu Lake Water Pollution Prevention and Control Office.

Zhu Aixun, Vice Mayor of Wuxi, said that under the leadership of river administrators, strong measures have been taken to control water pollution, including ecological rehabilitation, shoreline adjustment, sealing sewage draining exits along rivers and removing sludge on riverbeds.

“These measures have improved water quality in all river sections in the city,” Zhu Aixun said. “Over the past years, all drinking water in Wuxi has met national quality standards.”

Wang Zhongshu, an official in Yixing City, a county-level city under Wuxi, told Jiangsu-based Xinhua Daily that accountability is instrumental in ensuring water quality.

Wang recalled that when he served as the administrator of the Shedugang River in 2008-11, he convinced a dairy farm located close to bank of the river to invest money in biological treatment of animal waste, which successfully removed the odors emitted by waste.

In Wuxi’s Huishan District, every river administrator is required to pay a security deposit of 3,000 yuan ($482) at the beginning of a year. At the end of the same year, if the water quality of a river improves, its administrator will have the deposit returned and be granted a reward of equal amount; if the water quality remains the same, only the deposit will be returned to the administrator; and if the water quality deteriorates, the deposit will not be returned.

“Water pollution control used to be regarded as the duty of only a small number of concerned government departments such as environment and water resource authorities. The river administrator system has engaged more officials in this endeavor,” said Zhang Yulin, a professor at the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences of Nanjing University in Jiangsu.


Although Zhang acknowledges the merit of the river administrator system, he also has worries.

According to Zhang, local officials have many responsibilities and environmental protection is only one of them. He said that he was afraid those officials may put their responsibility for growing the economy above that for environmental protection.

Wang Canfa, a legal professor at China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, said that a fatal flaw in the river administrator system is that its results hinge on the amount of attention that officials attach to pollution control.

The professor suggests that environmental responsibilities of local officials should be written into the law, while their performance should be evaluated according to well-defined criteria and procedures.

While the river administrator system may be effective in curbing pollution in small local rivers, experts said that cooperation between local governments is necessary for pollution control in cross-regional rivers.

According to Zhu Wei, deputy head of the Taihu Basin Authority under the Ministry of Water Resources, to clean up the Taihu Lake, pollution in rivers flowing into the lake must first be addressed. He said that environmental monitoring data showed that more than 90 percent of pollutants in the Taihu Lake came from rivers feeding into the lake.

The rivers that empty into the Taihu Lake are mainly located in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces. To tackle cross-boundary pollution, the two provinces and neighboring Shanghai Municipality signed a joint action plan in July 2009 to handle environmental pollution emergencies. On May 5, 2013, Anhui Province also joined the mechanism.

Fu Siming, a professor at the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, stressed that water pollution is a long-term challenge and tackling the problem requires long-lasting efforts. He believes that local officials should be responsible for protecting the health of rivers and lakes with or without the title of river administrator.


Photo: Workers in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province, dismantle a lakeside restaurant on August 23, 2007, as part of an anti-pollution campaign after an algae bloom in the Taihu Lake (HAN YUQING)

View original article at: Running the Rivers


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