River basins cover approximately 1.8 million square kilometers of land in China, with the 7 Major River Basins being those of the Yangtze, the Yellow, the Pearl, the Songhua, the Huai, the Hai, and the Liao. Since the 9th Five-Year Plan (1996-2000), each of the major river basins has been named a key river basin for aquatic pollution prevention and control and the focus of eco-environmental governance tasks. The scope of these tasks was further expanded during the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020), and significant improvements in aquatic pollution prevention and control were made. The 2022 National Surface Water Assessment found that 87.9% of the water was now ‘good quality water’ (Class I-III), with the section of the Yangtze mainstream under national control achieving a Class II assessment for its third year in a row and the section of the Yellow River under national control achieving its first Class II water quality assessment.
China has continued steadily promoting eco-environmental protection work in each key river basin during the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) with the release of comprehensive governance plans such as Opinions on Further Promoting the Fight against Pollution, 14th Five-Year Plan Comprehensive Governance Plan for Aquatic Environments in Key River Basins, and Key River Basin Aquatic Environment Protection Plan, and projects designed to further protection plans in key river basins such as the Action Plan in the Battle to Protect and Restore the Yangtze and the Outline of the Yellow River Basin Ecological Protection and High-quality Development Plan are effectively assigning New Era river basin ecological protection work.
1. Major Key River Basin Ecological Protection Policies, Regulations and Standards released in Recent Years
The following ecological and environmental protection policies, regulations, and standards have been released in recent years:
Table 1 Ecological and Environmental Protection Policies for Key River Basins since 2020
|Key River Basin Aquatic Environment Protection Plan
|Ministry of Ecology and Environment, NDRC, and 3 other Ministries and Commissions
|Yellow River Protection Law of the People’s Republic of China
|13th NPC Standing Committee
|Opinions on Further Promoting the Fight against Pollution
|Central Committee of the Communist Party of China & State Council
|Action Plan in the Battle to Protect and Restore the Yangtze
|Ministry of Ecology and Environment, NDRC, and 15 other Ministries and Commissions
|Yellow River Ecological Protection Governance Strategy Action Plan
|Ministry of Ecology and Environment, Supreme People’s Court, and 10 other Ministries and Commissions
|Yellow River Basin Ecological and Environmental Protection Plan
|Ministry of Ecology and Environment, NDRC, and 2 other Ministries and Commissions
|One City, One Strategy Stationary Tracking Study (Phase II) Work Plan for Yangtze River Eco-environmental Protection and Restoration
|Ministry of Ecology and Environment
|14th Five-Year Plan Comprehensive Governance Plan for Aquatic Environments in Key River Basins
|Yangtze River Protection Law of the People’s Republic of China
|13th NPC Standing Committee
1.1 The 14th Five-Year Plan: Major Targets and Tasks
The Outline of the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) for National Economic and Social Development and Vision 2035 of the People’s Republic of China clearly sets out requirements for the overall promotion of development in the Yangtze economic belt and the sound promotion of high-quality development and ecological protection in the Yellow River basin. In November 2021, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council issued the Opinions on Further Promoting the Fight against Pollution. One month later, the NDRC released the 14th Five-Year Plan Comprehensive Governance Plan for Aquatic Environments in Key River Basins. The Plan sets out work that needs to be done for the comprehensive governance of major lakes and rivers and key river basin tasks for the New Era. The major targets and tasks related to the protection of the ecology and environment in key regions as laid out in the Opinions and the Plan are below:
(1) Major Targets
At least 85% of surface water to be Class I, II, or III and approximately 79% of coastal basin water to be Class I or II by 2025. The proportion of major rivers, lakes, and other bodies of water achieving water quality targets is to continue to increase. The quality of aquatic environments in key river basins should continue to improve, and severely polluted bodies of water should be essentially eliminated, as should bodies of water with poor (Class V) surface water quality. This will provide effect support in the implementation of ecological protection and high-quality development strategies for the Capital Economic Zone, the Yangtze River Economic Belt, the Greater Bay Area, Integrated Development of the Yangtze River Delta, and the Yellow River Basin.
(2) Major Tasks
- Enhance Comprehensive Governance of Aquatic Environments in River Basins and Sustainable Development Pilots Promote intercepting pollution and controlling it at the source in pilot river basins; create green manufacturing and a green lifestyle; facilitate collaborative ecological protection and green development initiatives; enhance the creation of innovative river basin governance mechanisms.
- Support the Implementation of Major Strategies in Regional Areas. Promote collaborative governance of the Yangtze both upstream and downstream, including governance of the rivers, lakes, and reservoirs, both banks, and the main flow, with a focus on protecting and restoring the ecology and environment of the Yangtze River; co-ordinate the promotion of ecological protection in the Yellow River Basin and strengthen eco-environmental governance of the mainstream and basin hinterlands; strengthen environmental protection and governance of the Greater Bay Area (including 9 cities in Guangdong Province) and improve the quality of the ecological environment across the region.
- Raise the Level of Governance of Major Rivers. Encourage the construction of urban wastewater collection and disposal facilities; expand the pollution prevention and control capabilities in agricultural and rural areas; strengthen collaborative governance of surface and ground waters.
1.2 Ecological and Environmental Protection Policies for Major River Basins – Newest Policy Movements
In April 2023, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment and three other departments released the Key River Basin Aquatic Environment Protection Plan to further enhance the organization of tasks such as the comprehensive governance of key river basins, the ecological protection and restoration of lake waters, and the ecological flow capacity management of lakes. The Plan sets out major targets, tasks, and measures.
Ministry of Ecology and Environment, NDRC, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Water Resources, National Forestry and Grassland Administration Key River Basin Aquatic Environment Protection Plan (April 2023, original text remains unreleased)
The Plan is divided into four sections setting out important targets for aquatic ecology and environmental protection, the distribution of key river basins and regions including the Yangtze and the Yellow Rivers, key tasks across five core areas, and regulatory protective measures.
1.3 Continue to Fight to Protect and Restore the Yangtze
The Ministry of Ecology and Environment and NDRC jointly released the Action Plan in the Battle to Protect and Restore the Yangtze in December 2018, clarifying the most pressing eco-environmental issues facing the Yangtze and setting out roadmaps and schedules for key tasks. Improvements to the ecology and environment of the Yangtze gradually became visible as project after project launched. China will continue to exert its utmost efforts to protect the ecological environment of the Yangtze River Basin during the 14th Five-Year Plan.
Yangtze River Protection Law of the People’s Republic of China (adopted March 01, 2021）
The Yangtze River Protection Law of the People’s Republic of China is China’s first piece of national legislation aimed at governing a specific river basin. The driving concept of the legislation is to increase the integrity and systematic nature of eco-environmental protection in the Yangtze River Basin by pushing collective protection and a commitment to no major developments. Ecological priorities and green development are the guiding principles of the Law, with high-quality development of the Yangtze Economic Belt being the ultimate target. The Law contains a total of 96 Articles with provisions for joint planning and control, resource protection, aquatic pollution prevention and control, eco-environmental restoration, green development, and similar.
Central Committee of the Communist Party of China & State Council Opinions on Further Promoting the Fight against Pollution
The Opinions propose driving refining zoning management and control of the entire Yangtze by unit; establishing evaluation process for aquatic ecology and environment across the entire Yangtze River Basin and monitoring organization and implementation; and strengthening the prevention and control of cyanobacterial blooms in major lakes including Lake Tai, Chao, and Dian. Water quality across the Yangtze River Basin should be at a steady ‘good’ quality level by 2025, with the mainstream consistently achieving a Class II evaluation. Effective protections must be in place to govern the usage of water from major rivers and lakes in the region, and improvements in the aquatic ecological environments should be obvious.
Ministry of Ecology and Environment, NDRC, Supreme People’s Court, & 14 other Ministries Action Plan in the Battle to Protect and Restore the Yangtze
Important targets set out in the Plan include:
- water quality across the Yangtze River Basin should be at a steady ‘good’ quality level by 2025, with the mainstream consistently achieving a Class II evaluation. Safety measures for drinking water must continue to improve, and improvements in the aquatic ecological environment should be obvious;
- the harm-free disposal of daily trash in the Yangtze Economic Belt must account for at least 97% of all daily trash disposed, ‘black and smelly’ bodies of water in county-level urban areas must be essentially eliminated, chemical fertilizers and agrochemicals must account for at least 43% of all usage, comprehensive utilization of livestock and poultry waste must be up to 80% or more, the recovery rate for agricultural films should be 85% or more, and the hidden dangers posed by tailings storage must be essentially under control; and,
- the Aquatic Index of Biotic Integrity must continue to rise in both the Yangtze itself and in the river’s major tributaries.
The Plan also clarifies the need to
- Sustainably strengthen comprehensive governance of aquatic environments by strengthening: industrial pollution control, the promotion of green agricultural development and rural pollution control, pollution prevention and control for ships and ports, remediation of sewage outlets discharging into the Yangtze, comprehensive governance of phosphorous and manganese pollution, heavy metal pollution prevention and control for cadmium, thallium, antimony, etc., pollution prevention and control for tailings storage, plastics pollution control, and stable pollution prevention and control for groundwater;
- Actively improve protections for water resources by enacting a strict dual-control system for total water consumption;and
- Accelerate the formation of green development controls by: strictly controlling the use of national land and air space, promoting refined zoning management across the entire basin, improving pollution control systems at the source, prevent and resolve riverside environmental risks, and guide the development of green, low-carbon industries.
1.4 Strategies for Yellow River Ecological Protection Governance
Ecological protection and high-quality development in the Yellow River basin became matters of National Strategy at the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. The Outline of the Yellow River Basin Ecological Protection and High-quality Development Plan was released by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and State Council in October 2020 and contains provisions for a comprehensive, systematic deployment of ecological protection and high-quality development tasks in the Yellow River Basin. On November 02, 2021, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council issued the Opinions on Further Promoting the Fight against Pollution to transform the already-established strategies for Yellow River ecological protection into a targeted strategy.
Yellow River Protection Law of the People’s Republic of China (adopted April 01, 2023)
The Yellow River Protection Law collates the most pressing issues facing the Yellow River Basin and expands applicable scopes to improve control systems and strengthen planning and management. It contains specific, targeted provisions for the strengthening of eco-environmental protections, the promotion of aquatic resource conservation and intensive utilization, guaranteed flood prevention in the Yellow River, the facilitation of high-quality development, and the preservation of Yellow River cultures. Enforcement of guarantees, supervision, and punitive measures is also expanded by the legislation, which establishes an integrated, self-reflective legal framework tailored to what makes the Yellow River Basin unique.
Central Committee of the Communist Party of China & State Council Opinions on Further Promoting the Fight against Pollution
The Opinions set out overall implementation requirements that firmly place water at the heart of cities, the land, people, and manufacturing with in-depth water conservation and control measures and strict controls on development in industries with high levels of water consumption. Within are measures aimed at strengthening soil and water loss prevention in the middle reaches and implementing source control for agricultural pollution in the Fenwei Plain, Hetao Irrigation Area, and similar regions. Other measures aim to strengthen the construction of wastewater disposal facilities and the associated pipe networks, launch a Clean-up Movement in the Yellow River Basin, and complete basic tailings storage pollution control. Water quality in the middle reaches of the main Yellow River (upstream of Huayuankou) is to achieve a Class II evaluation by 2025, and effective guarantees must be in place to protect ecological flow in both the river itself and its main tributaries.
Ministry of Ecology and Environment, NDRC, Ministry of Natural Resources, & Ministry of Water Resources Yellow River Basin Ecological and Environmental Protection Plan
The Plan sets out tasks to be accomplished across some core areas:
- Optimized space distribution to accelerate green manufacturing and promote green development in industry and mining etc.;
- Promotion of aquatic resources, environments, and ecology to govern and restore aquatic eco-environments, covering strengthened water resource conservation and intensive utilization, generally enhanced aquatic pollution control, and differentiated protective measures for individual water bodies;
- Enhanced regional collaboration to achieve pollution and carbon reduction targets, covering guaranteed air quality targets in key regions, multi-pollutant air pollution controls, and improved capacities to respond to climate change;
- Strengthened control and restoration measures to prevent soil and groundwater pollution, covering soil and groundwater pollution surveys, strengthened source controls for soil pollution, and promoting the safe utilization of polluted soil etc.;
- Better source control to effectively prevent major environmental risks, covering strengthened environmental risk source control measures, improved emergency warnings for environmental risks, and better solid waste disposal and treatment measures; and
- Improved governance with the establishment of a governance system, covering comprehensive eco-environmental legislation, improved environmental management market systems, enhanced eco-environmental management systems, improved levels of modern environmental governance, and measures to guide the people in living greener lifestyles.
Ministry of Ecology and Environment, Supreme People’s Court, Supreme People’s Procuratorate & 9 other Ministries and Department Yellow River Ecological Protection Governance Strategy Action Plan
The Plan demands consistent, stable improvements in the quality and stability of the ecological systems of the Yellow River basin by 2025, in the form of effective safeguarding of ecological flows in the river itself and its major tributaries, continuous quality improvements in the aquatic environment, obvious results from pollution control measures, effective control of eco-environmental risks, and the basic framework for collective protective measures and collaborative governance of the river.
The Plan launches the following projects:
- Lakes and Rivers Ecological Protection Governance Movement: promotes eco-environmental protection in lakes and rivers, accelerates targets for the elimination of polluted water bodies, guarantees ecological flow, encourages surveys and remediation of sewage outlets discharging into rivers, strengthens regulatory scopes affecting drinking water sources, enhances groundwater pollution prevention and control, and strictly controls environmental risk;
- Pollution and Carbon Reduction Movement: strengthens eco-environmental zoning management, accelerates clean manufacturing and pollution control in industry and enterprise, strengthens collaborative solid waste control and pollution prevention and control, and promotes wastewater reclamation and utilization; and
- Reinforced Urban Environmental Governance Movement: promotes urban wastewater collection networks to make up for local shortcomings, strengthens sewage sludge treatment and disposal, and comprehensively remediates urban black water bodies
1.5 Other Requirements for Eco-Environmental Protections in Key Basins
The Key River Basin Aquatic Environment Protection Plan provides guidelines and direction for the monitoring and management of the ecology and environment in other key basins such as those of the Huai, Hai, Pearl, and Songliao rivers, and the Lake Tai basin.
Ministry of Ecology and Environment, NDRC, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Water Resources, & National Forestry and Grassland Administration Key River Basin Aquatic Environment Protection Plan (April 2023, original text remains unreleased)
The aquatic eco-environmental protection measures contained in the Plan for the Huai River Basin are distributed over one horizontal, two verticals, three lakes, and four sections. The ‘one horizontal’ refers to the main flow of the Huai River, the water quality of which is to consistently achieve a Class III evaluation with improved ecological flow guarantees; the ‘two verticals’ refer to the eastern route of the South-to-North Water Diversion to the Huai River and focus on establishing a clean water corridor, guaranteeing a safe quality of water in the main trunk, and preventing and solving riverside environmental risk; the ‘three lakes’ are Hongze Lake, Luoma Lake and Nansi Lake, which require strengthened aquatic ecological protection and restoration measures to improve the lake ecology and control eutrophication; and the ‘four sections’ refer to the sections of the river divided into the source, Huaibei Plains, Lixiahe region, and Shangdong Peninsula, where the focus is on building strong ecological barriers, promoting the protection of the Huai Source Water Conservation Region, strengthening agricultural pollution control in the Huaibei Plains, launching wetland protections in Lixiahe, and optimizing the distribution of water resources in the Shandong Peninsula.
The aquatic eco-environmental protection measures contained in the Plan for the Pearl River Basin are distributed over one bay, one belt, and three zones. ‘One Bay’ refers to the Greater Bay Area; ‘One Belt’ refers to the construction of a clean water corridor in the Pearl-Xi Economic Belt; and the ‘Three Zones’ refer to the key governance zones in the upper reaches, Western Guangdong-Guinan area, and Coastal Guangdong.
The Plan also sets forth control measures for basins such as the Songhua River Basin, the Lake Tai Basin, the Huangpu River Basin, the Xitiao River Basin, the Xin’an River Basin, and the Min River Basin.
2. Future Direction
Significant improvements in aquatic environments have already been achieved in China, but these improvements are often isolated and disconnected from other areas. Urban black water bodies remain an issue despite cleanup efforts, and measures to control agricultural and rural water pollution still need to be strengthened. Multi-layered issues such as new pollutants and nonpoint source pollution continue to be uncovered, and with each discovery the foundation upon which current ecological water security and aquatic ecology protection and restoration sits weakens. In reality, the game is still in its earliest stages. Future efforts to protect the ecology and environment in river basins will consolidate results with a focus on creating a systematic governance of basins as China promotes the establishment of a dual-aspect, sustainable development framework for aquatic resources, environments, and ecology.
(1) Consolidate River Basin Aquatic Environmental Protection Results
The State of the Ecology and Environment in China Report 2022 listed the water quality as good in the Yangtze, Pearl, Zhejiang-Min, Northwestern and Southwestern river basins, reasonable in the Yellow, Huai, and Liao river basins, and lightly polluted in the Songhua and Hai river basins. Aquatic environments in the majority of river basins are already meeting quality targets, while stable improvements and/or ecological flow security have yet to be achieved in others. A key task for the future will be maintaining the current trend of improving aquatic environments in basins while simultaneously improving eco-environmental quality in basins across the nation on a holistic and fundamental level.
(2) Strengthen Regulatory Framework
The promulgation and adoption of the Yangtze River Protection Law and the Yellow River Protection Law have been a great opportunity to establish inter-province legislation to promote and further drive projects to improve major rivers and lakes. The Environmental Protection Committee of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress have already recommended that relevant ministries of the State Council begin research work to provide an evidential basis for legislation for the protection of the Huai River.
(3) Commit to Systemic Governance of River Basins and Promote the Establishment of a Basic Framework for Aquatic Resources, Environments, and Ecology
Nature needs to be respected, listened to, and protected in order to properly achieve comprehensive governance and protection of China’s river basins. With ecological integrity and basin systemicity as a starting point, China will still need to work hard on tasks over five core areas: promoting the establishment of rigid conservation mechanisms for water resources, strengthening ecological flow guarantees and monitoring in lakes and rivers, accelerating the restoration of ecological environments in lakes and rivers, strengthening the protection of lakes and rivers, and driving comprehensive governance of water and soil loss.