Chongqing: A More Livable City

June 19, 2008

  • In China's inland boomtown, raw sewage poured directly into two rivers
  • New wastewater and solid waste infrastructure came at critical time
  • Pollution of the Yangtze river has eased despite reduced river flow

Chongqing, China – June 19, 2008 - Chongqing is a booming metropolis -- China's largest inland city -- at the confluence of the Yangtze and the Jialing rivers. Thirty-two million people live in Chongqing municipality– about 6 million in the city proper and the rest in outlying towns and rural areas.

Urban growth has brought a wealth of new opportunities but also created new challenges for the sprawling municipality.

Severe air pollution forced authorities to relocate the most toxic factories outside the city center a few years back. Fixing the city center's garbage and sewage problems became crucial in the late 1990s as migrants and new businesses settled here in great numbers. Until recently, the city's domestic and industrial sewage was discharged directly into the Jialing and the Yangtze rivers through over 600 outlets.

Large-scale impact

Starting in 2000, a World Bank-financed project backed the construction of a vast collection network intercepting sewage before it pollutes the rivers and channeling it towards two new large wastewater treatment plants a few kilometers from the city center. More than 900,000 cubic meters of wastewater are now treated each day.

A second project component tackled the issue of solid waste. In the past, garbage was piled up in unsanitary open sites around the city. At times, it was even dumped unceremoniously into the rivers. A modern landfill now processes from 1,500 to 2,000 metric tons of garbage per day. " That's 500,000 tons of garbage a year no longer posing a threat to the environment," says Tom Zearley, the Bank's team leader for the Chongqing Urban Environment Project.

The new landfill is an impressive sight - a vast plateau of compacted waste covered in layers of soil and tarp that minimize the smell in the hilly suburbs of Chongqing. Wang Yukun, the landfill's manager, says the landfill will probably reach its capacity earlier than planned. " There are two reasons that garbage is growing so fast," he explains. " One is urbanization and fast economic growth with improving living standards. The second reason is improved trash collection. The collection rate has reached near 100%. As a result there's more and more trash."

A timely project for Chongqing

The World Bank's $200 million loan for improving the urban environment of Chongqing represented a significant amount of money at the time it was approved in 2000. " China is a developing country and Chongqing is a developing city. There's still a big financial shortage for infrastructure development," says Mr Wang. Training also helped introduce modern management and operation techniques at both sewage and solid waste treatment sites.

The construction of the massive Three Gorges Dam, 600 km downstream from Chongqing city on the Yangtze River, gave the project added urgency.

Easing pollution in a vital river

Without sewage treatment, the city would potentially be sitting on the banks of a giant cesspool backed up by the dam. Since the dam was partially completed in 2002, river flow has slowed down significantly, thereby reducing the river's flushing and assimilative capacity. "But because of government efforts and the World Bank, the river has maintained fairly good quality standards," says Li Dahong, an environment specialist working as a consultant on the project.

According to data collected by the city's Environment Protection Bureau, the Yangtze and Jialing rivers' water quality has improved steadily: in 2006, data indicated that 90% of the river water in Chongqing city met class II drinking water source standards and 100 % of the water met class III standards (on a scale of I to V, where III is still safe for drinking after treatment). The figures were the best recorded over a 10-year period (In 2000, for example, only 30% of the water met class II water source standards.)

Organic waste matter measured in terms of COD and BOD at various monitoring sites along the Jialing and Yangtze rivers has also declined or at least stabilized despite huge increases in sewerage volumes and the slowing-down of the Yangtze River.

When the new treatment plants run at full capacity by the end of 2008, they will treat up to 90% of the city's sewage before discharge.

That's good news for the rivers that are the city's lifeline. Boats ferry people and goods from one foggy bank to the other. Tourists come to the city's wharf to look at the famed merging of the jade-green Jialing and the brown-as-silt Yangtze rivers. But the rivers are also the main source of drinking water for millions of people.

"There are 56 drinking water intakes in the city and more people who draw their drinking water from the river downstream. So it's extremely important to maintain water quality," says Mr Li.

Shen Man Xue, a 20-year old university student, occasionally comes to the wharf to stroll with her boyfriend. " It's much better than a few years ago. There is less garbage floating around, the water is cleaner and the dividing line between the two rivers is more apparent," she observes. " Trash used to be thrown overboard from ships directly into the river. Now the awareness of people is higher so it's much better. The government has paid attention to this. The environment isn't just one person's problem, it's the whole world's concern."