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Water Pollution conundrum
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No matter how bright a future the mighty Amur has as an ecotourism attraction, following the 2005 Songhua spill the basin is most famous for its water pollution issues.

The problem of human-induced pollution in the Amur-Heilong River basin is complicated by the fact that the Amur-Heilong River is naturally rich in many organic compounds commonly considered water pollutants.  The basin discharges approximately 24 million tons of suspended materials into the Sea of Okhotsk annually.  Average water turbidity is 90 g/m3.  Pollution levels in rivers are greatly influenced by seasonal and long-term variation in flow volume and by impacts of water infrastructure.  Floods and monsoon rains erode thousands of tons of materials into streams, causing peak concentrations of some pollutants during the wet season.  Minimal winter flows increase concentrations of substances derived from point-source pollution. ( See Songhua River pollution maps in years of different flow volume.)  The point and non-point pollution sources in the basin work against a complex background of natural factors.  The Russian system of water pollution monitoring has seven grades while China has five, with the lower rank the better the water quality.  Both sides assign water in the Amur-Heilong River "high marks" indicating trouble.

The developing economies of Russia and China - industrial giants of continental northeast Asia during the 20th century - were little concerned with the pollution problems.  On the south bank of the Amur-Heilong River, economic growth in China surpassed that of Russia and the problem of overpopulation made coping with pollution even more difficult than in Russia.  The Russian Federation has failed to press China to improve water quality by enforcing it pollution prevention and control regulations.  One reason is that Russia itself is unprepared to adhere to any strict standards, having dismantled the enforcement and monitoring capabilities of the State Committee for Environment (Goscomecologia).

While wastewater discharge from Russia probably totals nearly one cubic kilometer per year and China’s total can be conservatively estimated at four to five km3 per year, this does not account for farmland runoff, a serious threat in itself.  Discharge of untreated wastewater in Mongolia is probably many orders of magnitude less than in Russia or China.  However, overgrazing, placer mining and other activities contribute unknown volumes of non-point source pollution.

According to estimates by the Far East Institute for Water Management (Dalvniilkh), human-induced pollution loads in transboundary waters of the Amur ecosystem in China are 10 times greater than in Russia in terms of ammonia nitrate and lead, and four times greater for hydrocarbons.  China's share of pollution is 75 percent in the Upper and Middle Amur to the confluence with the Songhua River.  From the Songhua mouth to the Ussuri mouth China’s contribution equals 98 percent, and in the Ussuri River China accounts for 97 percent.  These estimates are likely to slightly underestimate Russia’s share.

Since 1996 people have observed a decline in the quality of Amur-Heilong River fish during winter.  People report a distinctive “drug-store” or “chemical” odor to the fish tissues.  The odor is caused by increased concentrations of organic pollutants that are insufficiently mineralized due to low oxygen concentrations and low water temperatures.  These contaminants are more concentrated in winter because water levels are lower and there is less dilution.  Microbial analysis of fish showed that all fish in the main stem of the Amur-Heilong River, especially those downstream from the Songhua-Amur confluence, are highly contaminated with bacteria and do not meet existing epidemiological standards for human consumption.  Most fish contained 100 times more bacteria on their gills than did fish from the Amur-Heilong tributaries.

Health studies of people near Khabarovsk reveal that pathologies of digestive organs, especially the liver, are widespread.  They rank second after blood-vessel pathologies in adults and first among children.  This is probably due to regular consumption of Amur-Heilong River fish.  This is quite likely, since according to the same researchers, lab rats fed such fish for 21 days showed symptoms of hepatitis.  This shows that most people in the lower Amur, especially indigenous peoples, are suffering direct health impacts from water pollution.

After the 2005 spill, China began to ambitiously invest in pollution prevention in the Songhua River basin.  It remains uncertain whether these efforts can catch up with pressures from economic growth, especially in agriculture, which is most difficult to control.  It is also clear that Russia no comparable programs or investments to address its share from polluting industries.

Map collection:

Climate, waters and water management



Simplified hydrography of Amur River basin (Basemap)

Detailed hydrography of Amur River basin

Wetlands of Amur

Water infrastructure: dams and water transfers

PDF document: Songhua River pollution maps in PDF (ADB 2005)



Amur river system

Water management

Water pollution


GIS: Amur hydrography, wetlands and water infrastructure


Wastewater from Zhalainor town and coalmine released into Erka wetland. Inner Mongolia. (Photo by Eugene Simonov)

Also look:

Western rivers of headwaters of Amur-Heilong River Basin

Eastern tributaries in Amur-Heilong River Basin

Lakes and reservoirs of Amur-Heilong River Basin

Lakes of Western Amur-Heilong River Basin

Lakes of Eastern Amur-Heilong River Basin

River between –environmental perspective on Amur water management

Water infrastructure in the Amur-Heilong River Basin

Dam development in Russia

Water management and dams in China

Water Transfers in China

Water transfers and wells in Mongolia

Development of dykes

Case Study on international planning: "Joint Comprehensive Scheme on Amur and Argun Rivers"

Is there enough water?

WCD lessons for Amur


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