Thu 22 Feb 2007
Filed under: News,Regional
Kuala Lumpur: From the mighty Mekong, Yangtze and Ganges to countless smaller waterways, Asia’s rivers sustain the lives of billions of people but breakneck development has put them under unbearable pressure.
Choked by sewage, silt and industrial waste, and made unrecognisable by dams and diversions, many have become biological “dead zones” and others like China’s iconic Yellow River often no longer even trickle to the sea.
“Looking at development in the region, it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” said
International Rivers Network campaign director Aviva Imhof.
“The situation in China is probably one of the most dire in the region in terms of both river pollution and the massive changes to the river ecosystems as a result of dams and diversions,” she told AFP.
Charges of water-stealing and infrastructure schemes that parch downstream nations are traded back and forth. And many of the allegations, like the rivers themselves, go upstream to China.
Flowing from the Tibetan Plateau, China’s main rivers include the Yangtze and Yellow, the Yarlung Tsangpo which becomes the Brahmaputra, the Langcang which turns into the Mekong, and the Salween and the Irrawaddy which flow through Myanmar.
The Yangtze and the Yellow become heavily polluted as they flow through greater China, and populations downstream of the other rivers complain that hydroelectric dams arrest their flow after they leave the country.
India and Bangladesh are concerned about a plan to dam the Yarlung Tsangpo and use the electricity to pump river water vast distances over Tibet to the head waters of the Yellow river.
The plan, which would cost billions of dollars, is part of China’s ongoing plan to bring southern waters to the dry north, including the capital Beijing.
Already, the litany of damage to China’s rivers is daunting. The country is in the grips of an acute water shortage with around 300 million people reportedly lacking access to safe drinking water.
More than 70 percent of rivers and lakes are polluted, while underground water supplies in 90 percent of Chinese cities are contaminated.
The United Nations has declared the estuaries of the Yangtze and the Yellow to be “dead zones” due to high amounts of pollutants which feed algal blooms that choke the water of oxygen.
And worsening pollution in China’s longest river, the Yangtze, is reportedly putting at risk the drinking water supply to millions of people in dozens of major cities.
THAILAND and MYANMAR
After leaving China, the Mekong, one of Asia’s most evocative rivers, flows through Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia before reaching the South China Sea via Vietnam’s Mekong Delta.
The 4,000-kilometre (2,400-mile) river is one of the most biodiverse in the world, and the lifeblood for tens of millions of people living along its banks, providing fish, irrigation and a vital trading corridor.
But Beijing’s determination to turn southern Yunnan province into a hydroelectric power hub, which has already seen two dams built on the Mekong, threatens to have devastating social and environmental impacts.
“The unstable water level has already affected hundreds of fishermen along the Mekong river by reducing fish numbers,” said Sumatr Phulaiyao, Thailand coordinator of Southeast Asia Rivers Network.
The blasting of rocks and rapids in the upper reaches of the Mekong to create a navigation channel for huge ships is also causing concern.
“The Mekong is one of the last major great rivers in the region that is still in a pretty viable state ecologically and in how people are able to depend on the river’s resources for livelihood,” said Imhof.
“But it’s a river that is make or break in the next 10 years as to whether it’s going to be able to survive because of all the development planned.”
For many impoverished nations, signing deals with energy-hungry wealthier neighbours is proving a reliable way to boost their economies.
Myanmar, under military rule since 1962, last year forged an agreement with Chinese and Thai companies to dam the Salween River, Southeast Asia’s longest undammed waterway which is home to 80 rare or endangered animals and fish.
India’s most famous river, the 2,510-kilometre (1,556-mile) Ganges which rises in the Himalayas, is so polluted by industrial and human waste that even those who revere its waters now fear it.
India’s Central Pollution Control Board found that the number of coliform organisms — an indicator of the presence of fecal matter — at one site at the start of a major bathing festival was 16 times that acceptable for swimming.
“The pilgrims come here to wash away their sins but after a dip here, they may carry skin diseases with them,” said Hari Chaitanya Brahmachari, a Hindu priest who runs a monastery in Varanasi, a city on the Ganges.
Meanwhile in the capital New Delhi, each day some 3,296 million litres (725 million gallons) of mostly un-treated sewage is pumped into another holy river, the Yamuna.
“The Yamuna has been killed in the last decade,” said noted Indian ecologist Vandana Shiva. “There wasn’t this level of dumping of industrial or urban waste before. But the city has exploded in the last decade.”
With water poorly managed and increasingly scarce in India — the World Bank has predicted a severe crisis by 2050 — the nation is keeping an eye on what its neighbours are planning for the rivers that it relies on.
Climate change, large populations and the increase in water-guzzling heavy industries in India and China are likely to exacerbate tensions over shared rivers between the two Asian nations, said Shiva.
India too is planning an ambitious network of dams as part of a river-linking project, which would divert water from the Ganges and its stretch of the Brahmaputra, causing many in Bangladesh to worry that their rivers will run dry.
“Add to all of this the fact that in the peak summer season the water in these rivers comes from glaciers and the glaciers are melting because of climate change,” said Shiva.
“Some scientists are saying 20 years time is what we have, after which these perennial mighty rivers will become seasonal.”
In Bangladesh, at least a fifth of which floods each year, the effects of the 230 rivers which cross-cross the low-lying country are particularly acute.
Despite an excess of water during the monsoon, there are severe shortages at other times, with heavy economic, social and environmental impacts including a forced migration to the overcrowded capital Dhaka.
Bangladesh blames the shortage of water on its power-hungry neighbour India which it says has used dams and barrages to divert water upstream from shared rivers for irrigation projects — a charge India rejects.
Experts say the lack of water is causing sea water to encroach, raising salinity levels, killing fish and leaving land unfit for cultivation — major implications in a country where many people fish or farm for a living.
“Fresh water flow is decreasing day by day due to upland diversion of water and there is a serious impact on agriculture due to desertification,” said Quamrul Islam, former chairman of the Global Water Partnership, South Asia.
“Forty million people live in the southwest region of Bangladesh where 22 rivers are dead during the dry season. Fisheries in that region are in danger.”
The dire state of rivers in Malaysia, where authorities admit that two thirds are contaminated with sewage and won’t be clean for at least 30 years, provides a troubling case study of how difficult it is to transform waterways.
In the 1980s the Sungai Juru in the northern state of Penang was declared the dirtiest river in Southeast Asia by the World Health Organisation, which said no living thing could survive in it. For two decades it has remained in an abject state.
“The first time the fish began dying in great numbers was in 1968,” said Salleh bin Hussin, a 74-year-old who can still reel off the names of the different species that once lived in the Juru.
“By the early 1980s none of us were fishermen any more,” he told AFP in the riverside village where children still develop rashes if they disobey instructions to stay away from the fetid green waters.
The culprit was an industrial estate which local activists say continues to spew effluent into the Juru, dodging government inspectors who don’t have the resources to keep a 24-hour watch — a common tale in Asian nations.
Salleh said that during a hungry year with no fish or money in the village, he made a stream of com-plaints which yielded no response, before demanding a meeting with the state’s chief minister.
“I was told that pollution was everywhere, all over the world, and that’s why I got upset” he said. “I lost my temper and slammed the table.”
Imhof said that despite the dire situation, Asia’s polluted rivers are still salvageable, like the Pasig in Manila which a decade ago was “dead, black, stinking and biologically dead” and which is now in a much improved state.
“It doesn’t take as long as you would think to restore a river. There have been a lot of dam removal projects in the US and the river has returned to life in a very short space of time, sometimes as short as 5-10 years,” she said.
“Rivers are incredibly robust. In China, one of the worst states for rivers in the region, the government is talking about investing in river restoration in some parts of the country, or at least there’s rhetoric going out there.
“But I think it’s going to take a long time because the enforcement capacity is very weak and there’s still a lot of industrial effluent going into the rivers, and massive dam plans for rivers all over the country.”