Price of clean water ‘a good deal’
Anhui, Zhejiang provinces have win-win arrangement in caring for Xin’an River
When the local government undertook a water quality project five years ago, Hu Chengjiu, a farmer in Huangshan, Anhui province, had no idea what a big difference it would make on his life.
Household rubbish is now strictly sorted, sanitary wastewater is properly processed and toxic pesticides have been replaced by low-toxicity ones to minimize environmental damage.
What looked at first like nothing but extra work has brought tangible benefits to the inhabitants of Banqiao township. The water in the nearby creek, which originates in mountain springs and fills Hu’s fishpond, now meets drinking water standards.
Thanks to the springs’ rich mineral elements, the fish living in it are thought to be more nutritious and sell for 10 times more than regular market price.
“The carp I raise taste finer and juicier,” Hu said. “The answer lies in the water.”
Hu is one of millions of people benefiting from a collaborative ecological preservation project between Anhui and Zhejiang provinces, through which the 373-kilometer Xin’an River passes.
According to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, water in about one-third of China’s big rivers failed to meet drinking standards, even after processing, in 2015 when China published its first Water Pollution Prevention and Treatment Action Plan. The aim is to make at least 75 percent of water in major rivers clean by 2030.
The two-province success on the Xin’an River has considerable reference value for other efforts on big rivers to control water pollution and provide treatment.
The stream near Hu’s village is on a part of the Xin’an River that has more than 680 tributaries within a drainage area of more than 11,000 square kilometers before entering the East China Sea via Zhejiang province.
In the southern part of China’s prosperous Yangtze River Delta, the area along the Xin’an River has long provided an abundance of fish and rice.
Agricultural development and convenient water transport has encouraged industrial and commercial growth, which has increased activity on the river.
In 1959, a hydroelectric power station was built downstream, forming Qiandao Lake, a 580-sq-km artificial lake with 1,078 islands covered with lush vegetation, 129 km west of Hangzhou, Zhejiang’s capital.
“Although the water of Qiandao Lake is good, it has been declining since 2000,” said Nie Weiping, the Xin’an River protection bureau chief in Huangshan. “If we do not control it, its future as an artificial lake could be in jeopardy.”
In 2001, the Qiandao Lake Scenic Area was classified as a 5A tourist spot, the highest level, by the national tourism authority. It attracts more than 10 million visitors every year and is regarded as one of the most beautiful and cleanest lakes in China.
The Xin’an River originates from another 5A scenic spot — Yellow Mountain, a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its natural beauty and as the cradle of the Hui culture.
With two areas of natural beauty on the river, the decision to strengthen cooperation on ecological preservation between Anhui and Zhejiang is understandable.
Zhejiang first proposed the idea in 2004. But it took seven years to translate words to deeds, and it wasn’t until 2011 that the cross-provincial ecological preservation mechanism was enacted.
The four water quality indicators — permanganate index, total phosphorus, total nitrogen and ammonia nitrogen — are monitored on an hourly basis throughout the year on a section of the river on the provincial border.
If the overall annual water quality falls below a benchmark standard agreed by both sides, Anhui, which lies upstream, must compensate Zhejiang 100 million yuan ($15 million) to cover its water treatment costs.
If the overall annual water quality is above the standard, it means Anhui has fulfilled its responsibility in protecting the river and Zhejiang must give Anhui 100 million yuan to help it cover the costs of its ecological preservation work.
In addition, the central government sets aside 300 million yuan each year to support Anhui’s efforts in maintaining water quality.
Thanks to Anhui’s measures, water flowing to Zhejiang has met the quality standard every year since 2012, which means it qualifies to receive annual financial support from both Zhejiang and the central government.
“Every year, the Xin’an River pours about 6 billion metric tons of clean water into Qiandao Lake, costing Zhejiang only 100 million yuan. It is really a good deal,” Nie said.
Last year, Zhejiang’s average per capita GDP was $12,635; in Anhui it was $5,835.
Nie believes the Xin’an River management model offers valuable lessons for the protection of other big rivers, allowing better-off downstream provinces to help the often less-developed upstream regions protect local ecology and environment.
The development gap is more pronounced on longer rivers such as the Yangtze, which has Qinghai province at one end and Jiangsu province at the other. Qinghai is more than seven times larger than Jiangsu in area, while Jiangsu’s economy is about 30 times that of Qinghai.
Experts believe it is imperative for the central authorities to implement the interprovincial ecological compensation mechanism to help ecologically fragile places like Qinghai — where both the Yellow River and Yangtze start — to step up their efforts in ecological preservation.
In April 2014, Zhejiang suggested that the working mechanism with Anhui be continued, and both sides agreed to increase the compensation to 200 million yuan each year. The water quality benchmark standard was increased by 7 percentage points from the previous level.
Excluding the compensating funds from Zhejiang and the central government, Anhui’s expenditure to ensure the Xin’an River water quality met the agreed standards was 8.79 billion yuan at the end of 2016. This mostly went toward village pollution control, urban household rubbish and wastewater treatment, industrial pollution control and the comprehensive treatment and ecological restoration of key watercourses.
Since 2011, the Anhui provincial government has placed greater weight on Huangshan’s ecological protection work than on its economic growth in the evaluation of the city government’s performance. The changes have had a huge impact on the lives of the Huangshan people.
An awareness of environmental protection is now ingrained in the minds of not only civil servants but all the inhabitants of the city.
The city has shut down more than 170 polluting mills, relocated more than 90 enterprises, and upgraded about 510 industrial projects to meet the strict environmental standards.