There are signs of hope for China’s notoriously polluted waterways.
A study published in Nature Geoscience has shown phosphorus pollution – a major cause of algal blooms – has fallen by a third in China’s lakes.
Researchers from China’s Renmin University, Peking University and Tianjin University, along with the Norwegian Water Research Institute, sampled water from 862 lakes.
The number of extremely polluted lakes fell by two-thirds between 2006 and 2014.
Greenpeace East Asia water campaigner Deng Ting Ting said although phosphorus levels had fallen, it was only one aspect of water quality.
Ms Deng said a recent study by Greenpeace had found almost half of Chinese provinces didn’t meet the water quality targets set in the 2011-2015 Five-Year Plan.
In three provinces – Inner Mongolia, Sichuan and Shanxi – water quality was getting worse, she said.
“Phosphorus in China’s lakes has decreased a lot in the last five years, but still in summer some big lakes have an algae problem,” said Ms Deng.
A water pollution plan introduced by China’s State Council in 2015, covering the next five years, will focus on improving overall water quality, not merely eliminating pollutants, she said.
Tourist attractions on the shores of Erhai Lake in Yunnan province have been shut down in order to control pollution. Photo: Sanghee Liu
The Chinese government’s focus on fighting pollution, and the new pressure on officials to meet environmental goals, was brought into sharp focus by the recent shutdown of thousands of tourism businesses on Erhai Lake in Yunnan province.
Erhai Lake is a top tourism drawcard, but had become heavily polluted with phosphorus and nitrogen, leading to algal blooms.
A man collects dead fish in Donghu lake in central China’s Hubei province in July 2007, in an incident blamed on pollution and hot weather. Photo: AP
In April, around 2000 guesthouses and restaurants were suddenly forced to close until a sewage upgrade is completed by local officials next year.
Tourism businesses that don’t meet the new wastewater standard have had their doors sealed with white tape.
Chinese media reported last week that instead of the usual throng of summer tourists in the streets, scores of red banners proclaiming “If Erhai lake is clean, Dali will thrive” dominate the streetscape.
Small business owners, many of whom were dubbed “smog refugees” after moving their families to Erhai’s shoreline from Beijing and Shanghai to escape air pollution, have been left without income.
According to the study in Nature Geoscience, improvements in sanitation facilities such as pipelines and waste water treatment plants were the major reason phosphorus levels had fallen in the lakes sampled.
The median level of 51 micrograms per 1 litre measured across the Chinese lakes is still double the good water quality level used in Europe.
The study found several lakes in remote areas continued to have high phosphorus pollution, probably caused by farming and soil erosion.
By Kirsty Needham
Sydney Morning Herald