Skip to content

Japan and the United States promoting urban river health

Throughout human history, rivers have been an essential component in the successful development of a society’s trade, commerce, wealth and knowledge. We depend on rivers for transportation, to provide food and problematically to absorb and carry away our waste products. Virtually all water pollutants are hazardous to humans as well as lesser species. Some contaminants are carcinogenic.

Urban river health in the United States and Japan as well as other industrialized nations has declined steadily throughout the first seventy years of the twentieth century due to the dumping of large amounts of raw sewage and industrial pollutants into rivers. Before the 1970’s there was virtually no data on water quality but concern about the health of rivers was becoming a hot button environmental issue that coincided with a nascent environmental movement in both countries.

Rivers across the United States became open sewers, including the mighty Mississippi River and the city of Cleveland’s infamous Cuyahoga River, which caught fire (not the water but the glut of oil on its surface) in 1969. National media coverage of rivers burning, devoid of life, reeking of stench and dangerous to swim in enraged the American public. The United States Congress acted quickly with its passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act which promised: “To restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.” Today, the urban rivers and other bodies of water in the United States are remarkably cleaner. The efforts of such as American Rivers and various river keeper groups continue to advocate strongly the importance of restoring river water as the foundation of its environmental activism.

In Japan, the 1960’s brought rapid industrial development that dumped pollutants into Japan’s rivers and coastal waters. Casualties included the contamination of the Yodo River in Osaka, the Minamata River in Kumamoto Prefecture, the Jintsu River Basin in Toyama Prefecture and the coastal areas around Shizuoka Prefecture. The Japanese people became acutely aware of the need to clean its rivers and to enact environmental pollution prevention. The Japanese Diet in 1970 passed the Water Pollution Control Law which defined rivers as public water areas and obligated the governor of each prefecture to monitor pollution using annual measurement plans and publishing the results. Japan’s River Law, originally enacted in 1896 for flood control was comprehensively amended in 1964 and 1997. The law’s latest amendment promotes the establishment of a detailed river administration system encompassing flood control, water usage and environmental conservation, which has resulted in several successful river restoration programs throughout Japan.

Both Japan and the United States have responded to the challenge of restoring their urban rivers. Needless to say, we need to become the care takers of our country’s waterways. Rivers are indeed resilient and urban rivers are responsive to efforts to improve their physical condition.

July, 13rd, 2011

Stephen V. Fasano, Senior Researcher