Improving the quality of surface water requires a whole river basin approach. John Smithson reports on the Huai rier water pollution control project

Freshwater is a limited and precious resource. With increasing global population, the need to manage competition between users is now an urgent issue. Over the past ten years there has been a series of inter-governmental conferences held under the auspices of the United Nations at which the entire UN membership has discussed the need for sustainable development. Sustainable availability to safe water for drinking, agriculture and for maintaining the natural environment plays an important part in achieving some of the key UN targets, and the provision of effective sanitation systems is closely linked with reductions in communicable disease.

A project currently being carried out by Mott MacDonald in China demonstrates the role of improved sanitation in the context of broader water resource issues, and how improving the quality of surface water resources requires a whole river basin approach.

The Huai river basin

The Huai river basin lies across four provinces in the centre of China, covering an area of 270,000km2 between the Yangtze and Yellow rivers and is home to some 150M people. The basin is divided into two major systems:

• The Huai river system (catchment area – 190,000km2) originating in the west of the basin, is about 1000km long with 120 tributaries and flows eastwards through Hongze Lake before discharging into the Yangtze river.

• The Yi-Shu-Si river system (catchment area – 80,000km2) originates in the north of the basin, flows southwest and south before discharging into the Yellow sea.

The Grand Canal in the east connects the Huai and Yi-Shu-Si systems as well as the Yangtze and Yellow rivers.

The basin area, in common with much of China, experiences a continental monsoon climate with cold, dry winters and warm, wet summers. The average annual rainfall in the Huai river basin is about 900mm, of which 70-80% occurs in summer. There is, therefore, considerable variation in river flow. The mainstream of the Huai river has an annual average flow of 855m3/sec, with flood flows reaching over 11,000m3/sec. However, in the dry season flows drop to nearly zero even in the lower reaches of the river. During these dry periods most of the remaining flow consists of wastewater. Recent years have been characterised by unusually low rainfall with consequently lower river flows.

There are four main flood control gates on the Huai river and, in addition in the system as a whole, there are an estimated 4300 sluices and over 5000 reservoirs of which 16 have been identified as major reservoirs. The estimated annual volume of water resources in the basin is about 85B m3, consisting of 62B m3 surface water and 23B m3 of ground water.

Current institutional arrangements

Pollution control and river management is decentralised to various levels of local government. In the Huai basin four provincial environmental protection bureaux (EPBs), provincial water resources bureaux (WRBs) and the Huai River Basin Commission (HRBC) carry out these responsibilities. At a lower level, municipal governments, through their EPBs, allocate pollution permits to industrial enterprises based on load limits for each river section and nationally determined discharge limits. They also monitor the ambient surface water quality and levy pollution fees and fines on industrial discharges failing to comply with standards. However, this power does not extend to municipal wastewater discharges. Municipal environmental services, such as wastewater and solid waste collection and disposal, fall under jurisdiction of the Ministry of Construction.

The Ministry of Water Resources established the HRBC in the 1950s, primarily to manage the basin flood control operations. Following the major pollution disaster in 1994, which highlighted the need for mutual responsibility arrangements among the basin provinces, HRBC’s mandate was widened and it now has year-round authority for the four largest flood control gates and for some water operations during severe pollution emergencies.

The HRBC also regularly allocates overall abstraction in the basin, takes direct operational authority over key flood control gates during the flood season, monitors pollution loads along the provincial boundaries on the rivers, and co-ordinates this information with the provincial EPBs in their work in enforcing pollution discharge standards.

Pollution in the basin

The economic and environmental impacts of water pollution on the Huai river basin area are widespread and acute. The proportion of wastewater generated that is collected by municipal drainage is currently very low. Furthermore, with the exception of a few industrial facilities, there is currently very little treatment of industrial and municipal wastewater carried out in the basin with most effluent flowing either directly or via rudimentary drainage systems to the nearest watercourse. Compounding the wastewater pollution problems is the lack of effective solid waste collection and disposal systems which result in much municipal solid waste being simply dumped in urban watercourses.

In 1993, the annual industrial and municipal effluent from the main towns in the basin reached 3.68B m3 with Chemical Oxygen Demand (COD) of 1.5M tons.

The Chinese government’s response to the 1994 pollution incident was to issue strict pollution control regulations for the Huai river basin and incorporate various programmes for pollution control in the People’s Republic of China’s Ninth Five Year Plan (1996-2000), with the objective of safeguarding the quality of river water sources in the basin for the foreseeable future. Both the new regulations and the pollution control programmes concentrated on industrial and municipal wastewater from the urban centres. One goal under the plan was to have wastewater collection and secondary treatment facilities constructed in all cities within the Huai river basin.

Need for the current project

While many of the more polluting industries have either constructed pollution control facilities or ceased production as a result of the stricter pollution control regime instigated by the Chinese government, much work still needs to be done. According to recent studies, the Ninth Five Year Plan goals have not been met in the Huai river basin and in particular, the implementation of municipal treatment works has been slow because of insufficient funding.

Furthermore, rural sources such as uncontrolled smaller enterprises and non-point source pollution (mainly polluted agricultural and urban runoff) will remain a problem even after implementation of industrial controls and domestic wastewater treatment. So the water quality problems in the Huai river basin remain severe. The main pollutants are unionised ammonia, COD and bacteria levels. The problems are especially acute in the dry seasons when background flows are reduced to zero or near zero levels.

In order to solve the pollution problems in Anhui and Shandong provinces major pollution control works will need to be developed for most of the cities in the provinces. Significant additional funding resources are thus required to meet the proposed water quality objectives.

The Huai river water pollution control project (HRWPCP) is targeted to support this major need. Many of the cities in the basin have already commenced building wastewater collection and treatment facilities with bilateral assistance. The project is designed to complement the overall basin objectives by supporting ongoing efforts in the major cities of the provinces that have not been addressed by other projects.

The Huai river water pollution control project

The project is currently being prepared for Anhui and Shandong Provinces. At the request of PRC, the World Bank has listed the proposed project in its fiscal year 2001 lending programme. Water pollution control in Henan and Jiangsu is being dealt with under a separate programme. The HRWPCP is also a key element of China’s Agenda 21 programme.

The goal of the project is to improve quality of water for the entire basin by providing environmental infrastructure operated in a sustainable manner.

Key components of the proposed project include construction of wastewater treatment plants and improvement and expansion of existing sewer networks for 15 towns and cities serving a total population of some 3.3M. The scheme will also involve institutional strengthening of the agencies responsible for operating treatment plants in Anhui and Shandong Provinces plus improvement of water pollution monitoring capability.

It is not possible to finance all necessary works in one step. It is therefore foreseen that further phases of the HRWPCP will be required in the near future.

Mott MacDonald was appointed as advisory consultant by the World Bank, supported by grant funding from the Japanese government, to assist the counterpart Chinese provincial and city authorities in the preparation of the project for detailed appraisal by the World Bank mission.

Mott MacDonald’s 30 man-month role – financed by a Japanese trust fund administered by the World Bank – included assisting the Chinese authorities with the preparation of feasibility studies covering engineering, financial, institutional and socio-economic investigations, preliminary designs and bidding documents as well as advising Chinese counterparts in the production of action plans for environmental assessment and management, resettlement and project implementation. The firm consolidated these and other supporting documents for the two provinces in the project area into a single project report which was submitted to the World Bank. On the basis of this report and on-going project preparation by the Chinese counterparts the project was successfully appraised in November 2000 and it is likely that loan effectiveness will be achieved by the middle of 2001.

Limited water resources are often not managed in a sustainable way – treated as limitless supplies of water and easy disposal routes for wastes. HRWPCP is attempting to deal with the problems on a basinwide basis and is designed to complement a wide range of pollution control activities carried out by other stakeholders.


In 1994 severe water pollution caused disruption to power supply stations, temporary production stoppage at many factories and drinking water problems for many inhabitants in the Huai river basin. The cause of the 1994 pollution incident was the discharge of significant quantities of polluted wastewater from the many straw pulp factories, paper mills and tanneries in Henan and Anhui provinces located along Ying He river – a major tributary of the Huai basin.
The polluted effluent from these industries was contained in the upstream reaches of the river during the dry season when many of the flow control gates in the river system are closed to conserve water for irrigation and water supply abstraction. The control gates were opened during the flood season, releasing the stored effluent and causing significant pollution impacts downstream.
The pollution affected cooling water sources causing power stations to malfunction with major impacts on the Hua Dong power network. Fishery resources were also destroyed and agricultural and industrial damage was widespread. All municipal water supply sources were affected resulting in poorer quality and inadequate quantities of water for the people of the downstream cities. Direct economic damage of this one incident was estimated at over one billion RMB (US$120M).