The water pollution in China’s rivers

By Published June 16, 2020

China is home to one of the world’s greatest ecological challenges: how to stop the rampant deterioration of the country’s river arteries. Rapid industrialisation has led to unprecedented transformation of the environment. River fragmentation and pollution is affecting a vital resource and threatening thousands of species whose survival depends on river water

The state of China’s rivers*

Rivers in the southwest, southeast and northwest are the least polluted, while the most urban and industrialised regions have heavily polluted water

The anatomy of the pollution

The river depicted is hypothetical. It is not based on an existing river, nor is it drawn to scale

River fragmentation
Fragmentation is the interruption of a river’s natural flow by dams, inter-basin transfers or water withdrawal. It is a good indicator of the degree to which rivers have been modified by human activity

The sediment yield in many areas of the basin has increased, while the suspended sediment flux has dramatically decreased, after being trapped in dam reservoirs

This occurs when the environment becomes excessively enriched with nutrients. It can be a problem in marine habitats such as lakes, where it can cause algal blooms

Cancer villages
These villages are generally located near factory complexes and rely on river water for drinking, cooking and washing. In rural post-industrialised China these have seen increased cancer rates

Problems caused by groundwater

A 2016 report from China’s government shows that more than 80 per cent of groundwater is unfit for drinking, or daily use, because of heavy contamination from surface water discharged by industrial plants and farming units

River inhabitants at threat

Yangtze sturgeon

Wild sturgeon have survived for 140m years but are now on the brink of extinction after non-native species washed into their environment

Siberian crane

Spend winters mainly in Poyang Lake. Development projects, as well as dams, are reducing their population

Finless porpoise

The majority of the population living along coastal areas can be found at the mouth of the Yangtze River


Thought to be extinct since 2004, although there was a possible sighting reported in 2007

Chinese paddlefish

It lives in the lower parts of the Yangze, but migrates upstream between March and April. The lack of sightings for several years has led to fears it is already extinct

Chinese alligator

Also known as the Yangtze alligator, its habitats have decreased drastically over the last 40 years

Creative Director Darren Long.
Additional web development Yaser Ibrahim

Source: Ministry of Environmental Protection, International Rivers, Water Quality Association, World Wide Fund for Nature, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies<

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