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Case Studies: Freshwater Under Threat: Northeast Asia

Changjiang (Yangtze) River Basin, China

The Changjiang or Yangtze River Basin (CRB) is one of the most significant river systems in China, covering most of China's southwest region. It is a river on a grand scale, running 3,000 km from Tibet to Shanghai. The River Basin has an area of 1,808,500 km2, which accounts for 18.75% of total area of China. The CRB is home to 285 million people and includes key population centers such as Shanghai and Nanjing.

The report has found there are abundant water resources in CRB, which is reflected by its integrated vulnerability index of 0.2644, which means that this river basin is generally in good condition towards achieving sustainable water resource management. Although the basin is being affected by climate change with higher precipitation, water resources remain relatively stable. There is enough water in the basin to satisfy the needs of its population.

But this is not a reason for water authorities and stakeholders in the CRB to become complacent. The report has identified some worrying trends that need to be addressed.

Water pollution continues to be a problem for the river system. Most concerning is that the amount of pollution going into the river system is trending upwards. In 2005, the total untreated sewage emissions were 29.64 billion tones. This is a 34.4 percent increase since 2001. At the same time, indicators of water quality are showing a downward trend, with the rate of water being identified as worse than class V increasing significantly, meaning the water cannot be used for any purpose in agriculture or industry rising from 6.65 percent in 1999 to 14.5 percent in 2005.

Given the concern over pollution and the potential for a serious pollution incident to affect hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of people, the report recommends that regional governors should put together a "Changjiang River Basin Emergency Response Plan". This plan should spell out clearly the responsibility of each regional government in the event of a disaster, including the participation of local institutions and non-government organizations.

Water use efficiency is also relatively low in the CRB compared to the rest of the world. Although steadily rising to US$4 per m3 in 2004, it is still ten times lower than the global average of USD$40 per m3.

The report acknowledges that efforts have been made in the CRB to improve access to sanitation for the poor, but believes more can be done in this area, particularly in the upper reaches of the river basin.

Although not an international river, the CRB's reach across regions means that it can be subject to basin management conflicts. The report recommends that a more integrated management system be put in place so that such conflicts can be avoided in the future.

Tuul River Basin, Mongolia

The Tuul River flows from east to west, covering central parts of Mongolia and is the freshwater source for the country's capital, Ulaanbaatar. The waters of the Tuul River Basin (TRB) are made up of 25% groundwater, 6% melted snow, and 69 % rainwater. The TRB has a population of 1.04 million people, accounting for 36.7 % of Mongolia's total population.

The report has found that the TRB has a number of complex challenges. These include scarce freshwater supplies, low water-use efficiency, increasing water pollution, and the affects of climate change. The TRB has a vulnerability index of 0.4407 which is high, indicating that urgent intervention is needed to improve the state of the TRB water resources.

Since Mongolia began to change to a market economy in the 1990s, there has been increased water consumption with an expansion of industry and a growth in population. Freshwater supplies are scarce. At a per capita level, Mongolia ranks 56 of 182 countries in the world with 13.739 m3 per capita per year.

In the TRB, this water scarcity is combined with low water efficiency. Mongolia ranks well behind the rest of the world in water use efficiency, with only USD$1.053 generated per m3 of water used, compared to a figure of USD$40 per m3 achieved in Japan.

Water pollution is also a concern in the TRB, with the downstream water quality identified as category V, which means the water can only use for irrigation purposes. This is predominantly a result of industrial companies pumping polluted wastewater directly in the TRB, with little or no biological or chemical treatment. The total wastewater discharge into the TRB has increased by 14.3% from 50,150 thousand m3 in 1996 to 57,301.5 thousand m3 in 2005.

The impact of climate change on air temperature and water evaporation is also becoming evident. Analysis of the past sixty years shows that the average temperature in Mongolia continues to trend upwards, from about -3 degrees Celsius to -1 degrees Celsius. The increase is much higher than the global average published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) which found that annual temperature rose by 0.4-0.8 ℃. This impacts on evaporation rates and therefore water availability.

This complex set of challenges faced by the TRB is reflected in the report's recommendations. The report believes a more sophisticated approach to basin management is required. This should result in the establishment of a Tuul River Basin Management Board, which would have sole responsibility for management of the basin. Part of their work would be to implement a Water Management Integrated Plan, as well as lobby for laws restricting the industrial pollution that is currently being pumped into the Tuul River.

Water Vulnerability Assessment Series

Freshwater under Threat: Northeast Asia was produced under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) with funding from the Belgian Government through the Belgian Development Cooperation Fund. The project was a joint collaborative effort of Peking University of China and the Water Resources Institute of the Mongolia Water Authority.

This report is one of a series of Water Vulnerability Assessments in the Asia-Pacific region and Africa. Similar studies have been carried out in collaboration with the Asian Institute of Technology for:

South Asia covering three transboundary river basins: the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) (Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India and Nepal), the Indus (Afghanistan, China, India, Nepal and Pakistan) and the Helmand (Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan).

Southeast Asia covering the Mekong River Basin, which will be released later this month.

In addition, a separate report presents the Methodology used to develop the Vulnerability Index.

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