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Water treatment plant

Legislation provides for the protection of aquatic resources, including water quality standards for farmland irrigation and fisheries. Alarmed by the amount of pollution in its rivers, China began enacting new environmental regulations and laws in the 2000s and taking more action to clean up its rivers. Beijing is closing polluting factories, building new sewage treatment plants and changing agricultural practices. To clean up Suzhou Creek in Shanghai, government officials are moving polluting factories and sewage is being diverted to the Yangtze River which flushes it out to the sea. Elsewhere local officials have rejected plans to build metal plating factories over concerns about pollution.

In August 2006, the Chinese government admitted that China has serious water pollution and drinking water problems and earmarked $132 billion for cleaning up and improving China’s water supply. Allocations included $30 billion for urban water supply projects and $50 million in wastewater projects. Projects include sewage works, pipes, desalination plants and the South-North Water Diversion Program. Environmentalists estimate that for China to truly address it water problems it needs to spend $300 billion alone on antipollution equipment.

China wants to reduce water pollution discharges by 10 percent between 2008 and 2010. More than $8 billion was spent on cleaning up the Huai River basin in Henan and Anhui Province in the 1980s and 1990s. Great progress was made. In the mid 1990s the clean up was heralded as a great success and much of the work stopped. By the mid 2000s the river was polluted again, in many cases worse than it was before.

“China Urban Water Blueprint” released by the Nature Conservancy in April 2016, said that nature was a key solution to improving water quality. If conservation strategies — such as reforestation and better agricultural practices — were applied to roughly 1.4 million hectares in the cities, there would be a clear drop of at least 10 per cent in sediment and nutrient pollution, the report said. In turn, more than 150 million people in these cities would have better water quality, it said. “The power of nature to solve water crises should not be underestimated,” Zhu Jiang, deputy director of the Ministry of Water Resources’ International Cooperation Center said on Monday at the report’s release. “In China, developing a natural model for water treatment can not only protect urban water source catchments to ensure water safety, but effectively lower the costs of water treatment.”

Jonathan Kaiman wrote in The Guardian, “After government study found that groundwater in 90 percent of China's cities is contaminated, Chinese media responded with surprising urgency – the Straits Times newspaper in southeastern Fujian province presented the findings in a full front-page spread."Groundwater is a key source of drinking water, industrial and agricultural use, especially in northern China," said Ma Jun. "If this resource gets contaminated, it's far more difficult to restore than surface water or the air." [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, The Guardian, February 21, 2013]

Problems Combating Water Pollution in China

Laws on the books are widely ignored. There is little transparency. Money earmarked for waste water projects is sometime re-appropriated to build power plants. Local officials have close relationships with business owners that own the factories and mines that cause the pollution.

In some cases the local governments that are supposed to do something about pollution are the same ones that own the factories that do the polluting. That is the case with huge MSG factory In Xiangcheng in Henan Province which employs 8,000 people and produces toxins like ammonia nitrate. One official who spoke anonymously to the New York Times said of the government in Xiangcheng: “There are a lot of officials who don’t care about pollution. Some leaders are just interested in making money.”

Sometimes there are protests. In July 2007, police clashed with thousands of people in Yuanshi, a town in Sichuan Province, angry over pollution of local water supplies by a brewery. Seven villager were detained and 20 were injured. The protest began after the brewery dumped waste water which contaminated drinking and irrigation water.

China Firms Fined Record $26 Million for Polluting River

In December 2014, six Chinese companies were fined $26 million for discharging tens of thousands of tonnes of waste chemicals into rivers, state media said, the biggest such penalty ever in China. AFP reported: “The firms in Taizhou in the eastern province of Jiangsu were sued by a local environment protection organisation and were found to have dumped 25,000 tonnes of waste hydrochloric acid into two rivers, Xinhua reported. A court in the city ordered the companies to pay the $26 million fines, the highest ever penalty in Chinese environmental public interest litigation, and a higher court upheld the punishment. [Source: AFP, December 31, 2014]

“In August, 14 people involved in the case were sentenced by another court to prison terms of two to five years for causing environmental pollution, it added. The previous heaviest penalty for polluting the environment was around $4 million meted out to three defendants in neighbouring Shandong province, also for contaminating rivers, according to an earlier report by the Southern Weekly newspaper.

China Curbs Farming Near Rivers to Reduce Water Pollution

In January 2020, China announced that would impose more curbs on agriculture and widen restrictions on industrial development in between 2020 and 2025 in a bid to protect scarce, already contaminated water supplies from further pollution. Reuters reported: “The government is planning to restrict farming that encroaches on major rivers, restore wetlands and ecosystems and tackle excess water consumption in its 2021-2025 five-year plan, said Zhang Bo, head of the water department at the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, speaking at a news briefing. [Source: Muyu Xu and David Stanway, Reuters, January 17, 2020]

“China has made the restoration of contaminated supplies a priority.“Beijing has been drawing what it calls "ecological protection red lines" that make areas off-limits to agriculture and industry. But with water demand still on the rise, it must strike a balance between bolstering economic growth, maximizing agricultural output and protecting its rivers.

“"Farmland that encroaches on the river is essentially not allowed to be there anyway," Zhang told Reuters, on the sidelines of the briefing in Beijing. "The drawing of 'ecological protection red lines' will take food security into consideration and strike that balance." China is in the middle of a campaign to restore the environment of the Yangtze river, which provides water to around 40 percent of the country's population. The river has been damaged by decades of land reclamation, water diversion and the dumping of toxic waste.

“Local governments have already been demolishing dams, relocating chemical plants, restoring wetlands and banning farming and fishing in ecologically sensitive areas, but some regions still fail to meet state water standards. China's top prosecution office said 7,084 people were arrested for environmental crimes on the Yangtze in 2019, up 43 percent on the year, with offences including illegal fishing and sand mining as well as the dumping of waste. The environment ministry said water quality was improving overall, with 75 percent of surface water sampled at 1,940 sites across the country up to standard in 2019, up 3.9 percentage points compared to 2018. China divides its water into six grades, with the first three considered safe of

Private Companies Battle Water Pollution in China

Many Chinese cities have outsourced their water treatment to large private companies. The French company Veolia alone manages water systems in 17 Chinese cities, including Changzhou, Lizhou and Shanghai. The water situation in these cities has been dramatically improved but residents now have to pay a significant amount of money for water that in the past was free or nearly free. [Source: Vanity Fair]

In Shanghai, where Veolia has a $243 million, $50-year contract, the French company has laid 900 miles of large diameter pipes, hooked up 300,000 new structures to the water system, built sewage and water treatment plants and hired 7,000 local people between 2002 and 2006. To pay for all those Veolia is gradually raising water prices.

Some pensioners in Lizhou pay a quarter of their $40 a month pensions for water. When asked about conserving water, one pensioner said he lived an building, with 70 or so apartments and his water bill was determined by dividing the total bill for the apartment among its residents, meaning that one person’s effort to conserve water would bring few rewards if others wasted water.

Long Cun is a large village on the Liu River in Guanxi Province that is down river from a paper mill that dumped so much pollutants into the water the river became “as black as soy sauce..” Villagers complained and have been given piped water from the city of Lizhou. The only problem is that the residents of the town have to pay four dollars a month for their water, a considerable sum for people that only earn $20 to $30 a month.

Chinese Water Pollution Worsens Despite Efforts to Curb It

As Tai Lake became a national scandal, hundreds of industrial plants were shut down, local officials were dismissed, and billions of dollars were committed to clean it up. It became part of the new nationwide push to tackle air quality, forest preservation and water pollution. Beijing has earmarked $16 billion to clean up Lake Tai. William Wan wrote in Washington Post, “Progress since then, however, has proved elusive. By some standards, the lake has improved. The level of nitrogen and phosphorus - ingredients for algae growth - have decreased slightly. By others measures, such as overall water quality, the lake has gotten worse. According to government statistics in July, 85 percent of the lake was put in the worst possible category for water quality, unsuitable for drinking, irrigation or even recreation.” [Source: William Wan, Washington Post, October 29, 2010]

“Meanwhile, plant executives argue they have already done their part by installing new discharge treatment machines. But water quality experts jokingly call the new equipment "on/off machines," because they say the machines are only turned on during inspections. But the worst sign of all is the fact that almost every city on the lake has quietly begun finding other sources of drinking water. The projects, which are costly but seldom publicized, indicate that even as local authorities devote billions to repairing the lake, few believe it will recover.” "The fear is that once these cities no longer depend on the lake for drinking water, the urgency will disappear," said Ma Jun, director of the non-governmental Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs.

In July 2010, the Ministry of Environmental Protection, told the China Daily, the number of accidents fouling the air and water doubled during the first half of 2010, with an average of 10 each month. The report also found that more than a quarter of the country rivers, lakes and streams were too contaminated to be used for drinking water. Acid rain, it added, has become a problem in nearly 200 of the 440 cities it monitored. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, July 28, 2010]

Water treatment facilities built by the national government are sometimes left idle by their local operators because of the high cost of operating them. Chinese environmentalist Ma Jun told the Washington Post, “Hundreds of sewage plants have been built around China, but we haven’t seen our water getting cleaner. We have more than 600 records of violations by sewage plants discharging above standards or simply not treating it at all or properly disposing of the sludge.”

Chinese Environment Official Challenged to Swim in River

In February 2013, Jonathan Kaiman wrote in The Guardian, “an eyeglass-retailer executive from Rui'an City, coastal Zhejiang province, offered the city's environmental protection chief Bao Zhenming more than £20,000 to take a 20-minute dip in a highly polluted local river. The entrepreneur, Jin Zengmin, posted the dare to his microblog beneath pictures showing the waterway overflowing with discarded aluminum cans, polystyrene boxes and paper lanterns. He blamed the river's industrial demise on dumping by a local rubber shoe factory. The Rui'an government responded by saying that most of the river's pollution was caused by individuals, not factories, and could be attributed to overpopulation. Bao has since declined the offer. [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, The Guardian, February 21, 2013]

The challenge to Bao came as the government announced on Thursday that it will force heavily polluting industries to participate in a compulsory insurance programme to ensure they can adequately provide compensation for damage. The mining and smelting industries must participate in the scheme, along with lead battery manufacturers, leather goods firms and chemical factories. Petrochemical companies and firms that make hazardous chemicals and hazardous waste would also be encouraged to participate.

Reuters reported: “Chen Yuqian, 60, a farmer from the town of Pailian in eastern Zhejiang province, said he has been beaten up five times in his decade-long fight against soil and water pollution --beatings for which he blames local officials. On February 20, Chen issued a challenge on Weibo, China's version of Twitter, daring officials from the local environment protection bureau to swim in a stretch of polluted river. He offered 300,000 yuan ($48,200) as a reward. [Source: Sui-Lee Wee and Adam Jourdan, Reuters, March 10, 2013]

“Four days later, dozens of men, carrying sticks and rocks, charged into his home and started smashing things, Chen said. "They are trying to scare me so that I don't petition anymore, so that I don't report on the pollution anymore," Chen said. Xu Shuifa, the Communist Party secretary of the district that governs Chen's village, told Reuters by telephone that he had no links to the attackers and said the attack was linked to a land dispute Chen has with three of his neighbors. Back in Beijing, Dong, the attorney, said he had filed an appeal with the environment ministry for the soil survey data and expected a decision within two months. He said he would go to court if he was denied. ////

Image Sources: 1) Northeast Blog; 2) Gary Braasch; 3) ESWN, Environmental News; 4, 5) China Daily, Environmental News ; 6) NASA; 7, 8) Xinhua, Environmental News ; YouTube

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2022

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