How did Nanjing respond to river treatment issues in different policy periods? Taking the management of the Qinhuai River as an example.

By Ngai Yuxi, Dai Zhengtang, She Wanwan, Chen Qiaqia

This is a “Doraemon” found by Qinhuai River in Nanjing rural area, not the omnipotent robotic cat, but an ordinary cat dyed blue by chemical wastes discharged by nearby dyeing factories. The little creature is a magnifying glass revealing a growing issue concerning the general natural environment, or specifically the water environment, in China.

Photo of a cat dyed blue shot by a faculty of the Green Stone NGO

Many rivers in China have experienced significant ecological decline over the last 30 years with urbanization and increased pressure on the ecosystem. Over the same period, China enacted tons of projects and laws, demonstrating the great importance Chinese government attaches to ecological restoration. Qinhuai River, located in Nanjing, is a representative of previously smelly black rivers making a great success in sewage treatment and ecological restoration. The article will analyze how the water quality of the Qinhuai River has changed over time along the enactment of those policies.

Avant-garde and its Continuation

Chinese government makes its attempt in saving and recovering nature by designing series of plans and enforcing laws. The avant-garde, The Eleventh Five-Year Plan (The Central People’s Government of the People’s Republic of China, 2006) and its continuation, The Twelfth Five-Year Plan (The Central People’s Government of the People’s Republic of China, 2011) brought persistent improvements on water quality.

The Nanjing government utilized new techniques to restore the ecology of local river basins in response to the two plans. For example, regarding Qinhuai River, there is a project called  “River Diversion and Water Exchange” (Baoshan Cui and Zhifeng Yang, 2002). The project aims to improve the water quality by diverting water into or away from a waterway. In order to test the effectiveness of the “river diversion”, the water environment monitoring departments of Jiangsu province and those of Nanjing have set up a total of nine water quality testing points along the water diversion route to test the water quality of the Qinhuai River regularly  (Peifang Wang and Chao Wang, 2003). According to the test data (Jinsong Yan, 2003), the water quality of the Qinhuai River before the “river diversion” was poor V polluted water, and after the “river diversion”, the water quality of the Qinhuai River reached Class III and met the standard of landscape water quality. The difference in the index indicates the success of the project.

Nanjing’s “river diversion” is one of the projects conducted in this decade. Through the activation of 1762 out of 2714 (64%) projects arranged throughout the country, the Eleventh Five-Year Plan improved the overall water quality of the essential lakes (reservoir) under state control (institute of geographic sciences and natural resources research, 2011).

Nevertheless, the success of the Eleventh Five-Year Plan in improving water issues, there are several problems left to be solved by the new five-year plan starting in 2011: varied progression of projects in different regions, failure in forming an atmosphere of collective pollution control among regulatory departments, weak effects of pollution control practices, and still severe water environment situations.

Hence, metamorphosis is hankered.


The metamorphosis in environment restoration commenced with the enactment of the regulations and embodied with the integrity of different parties’ engagement, including enterprises and NGOs.

The enactment of the Environmental Protection Plan is, by all means, a symbolism of the metamorphosis of China’s water environment regulation for its tremendous improvements brought upon China’s conservation of her natural environment. As the fundament of subsequent plans, such as Action Plan for Prevention and Control of Water Pollution, the Environmental Protection Plan ensures that national regulations on environmental protection are effectively enforceable and legally implemented.

The Action Plan for Prevention and Control of Water Pollution mainly concerns safeguarding public health, advancing ecological progress, and facilitating sustainable development of the economy. After this law came into force, more enterprises and other pollutant dischargers tend to use clean energy, adopt processes and equipment with a high level of resource utilization and low emission of pollutants, as well as apply technologies for comprehensive utilization of wastes and hazard-free treatment of pollutants in order to reduce the generation of pollutants. This law ruled that the local governments at all levels shall take effective measures to improve the environmental quality according to the standards and took measures accordingly within the specified time.

Meanwhile, the urban management department subcontracts the management of rivers to NGOs. As a result, every social organization in Nanjing adopted a river to monitor at that time. After the renovation of the city management department, what NGOs do are testing their assigned river’s water quality monthly and interviewing the surrounding residents. Furthermore, NGOs submit a monthly report to the city management department and hold an on-site union to give feedback on the intention. This proves the gradually strengthened connection between the Chinese government and NGOs and the heralded growth in the popularity of water restoration.

A billboard showing Yangtze River Protection Law from the author’s own photograph

In order to test the effect of the regulations and their implementation, a new assessment method is generated. Regarding Qinhuai River, the Nanjing Government developed a bacterial-based index of biological integrity (Ba-IBI). Ba-IBI is an effective and reliable tool for evaluating the ecological status of the Qinhuai River basin, which can complement the existing ecological assessment approaches for urban rivers. (Burgos-Caraballo, S., Cantrell, S.A., Ramírez, A., 2014) The primary parameters for the index of water quality (IWQ) were derived from principal component analysis (PCA) of measured physicochemical variables in which each primary parameter was scored based on the Environmental Quality Standard for Surface Water in China (2002a) into five classes of water quality of the standard (Table 1), which is then summed to obtain the value of IWQ. (Wang, B., Yang, L., 2002.)

Along the Qinhuai River, four of the 32 sampling sites (12.5%) could be described as high class, four (12.5%) could be described as fine class, six sites (18.75%) as moderate class in the basin. This is a significant step forward for water protection of Qinhuai River and demonstrates the positive outcome of metamorphosis.

 Table1 of scoring system for water quality variables from Development and validation of a bacteria-based index of biotic integrity for assessing the ecological status of urban rivers: A case study of Qinhuai River basin in Nanjing, China
Table2 of Person’s correlation metrics selection to compose the Ba-IBI of Qinghuai River from Development and validation of a bacteria-based index of biotic integrity for assessing the ecological status of urban rivers: A case study of Qinhuai River basin in Nanjing, China

Elaboration & Blazer

As the water status in Nanjing is improved after the metamorphosis, maintaining the current water quality and enhancing city environment has turned into the main issue for the government

The Ministry of Environmental Protection of China issued The National Environmental Protection Standards Thirteenth Five-Year Plan Development on April 10, 2017 (State Council Bulletin, 2017). It highlights the need for breaking through bottlenecks in environmental standard setting, project management, and examination improvement.

Drawing eyes back to Nanjing, a city that has made a big effort in water treatment and restoration, in the Xuanwu District, where the Inner Qinhuai River is located, the local government carried out a project called “The Northern Section of the Inner Qinhuai River” to create a cultural and ecological landscape suitable for dwelling, working and leisure. It is a typical example of the unity between socio-economic development and ecological restoration.

When the aforementioned policies are enacted, The Co-operative River&Lake Chief System plays an irreplaceable role. Initially, there was only one river chief for each river, but the system gradually transformed into a tetra-hierarchy of river chiefs. Due to the strong willingness of the public to participate in river management together with the government, company river chiefs, teacher river chiefs, college student river chiefs, etc., have appeared. Since water is dynamically connected, The Co-operative River&Lake Chief System achieves good results when regional restrictions are broken down, and people of all careers join together to act. A recent project in the Gulou District called the Army River Chiefs works with the troops along the river to introduce Hexa-hierarchies of river chiefs.

Nowadays, the river is clean, rich in shoreline vegetation, and favorable for living and recreation for the surrounding residents. The government promotes water environment management, not only for water treatment, but also for the ultimate purpose of creating green scenery along the river for the citizens and restoring the historical culture of Qinhuai River. Through paving a walkway along the river, a harmonious view of water and people interacting is offered to the public.

A billboard of The River Chief System near the Qinghuai River from the author’s own photograph
A stone monument of the history of a library near the river from the author’s own photograph


From 2006 to 2017, the government released a series of policies from the 11th to the 13th Five-Year Plan, which can be summarized as a process from avant-garde to blazer. Undeniably, the essential regulations and the core principles of river restoration are retained in the driver’s seat, aside from the application of advancing technologies and progressing management systems. The remediation of stinky water bodies was completed in 2017, and a total of 24 smelly rivers have been rehabilitated, with a total length of 45.217 km. A total of 349 outfalls were remediated, 209,500 square meters of dredging were removed, 32 sets of aeration equipment were installed, and 23,734 square metres of landscaping were constructed.

Being one of Nanjing’s major rivers, the Qinhuai River also vividly reflects the changing approach to river management in local areas. It shows how river management is focused on managing outfalls while strengthening equipment maintenance and management supervision by the public.

Some may comment that nevertheless efforts were devoted into the protection and recovery of the environment in China, the environment is still very damaged compared with those of European countries. Sometimes we have to admit that China, as a developing country, has traded her environment’s health for economic or social progress for the past few decades, and because of this, China has a relatively late start of environmental conservation. However, we look forward to how China would catch up with the rest of the world in the near future among the increasing attention and fund on environmental issues.

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