Water, Water Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink

Poor water quality and serious corruption have created health problems and shortages of safe drinking water throughout China.


By Caijing Magazine staff writers YANG BINBIN and CHANG HONGXIAO with US-China Today staff writer MICHAEL DING

Reprinted with permission from Caijing Magazine.

A recent string of serious pollution incidents across China pushed water quality challenges to the top of the national agenda for senior policymakers.

The incidents — from chemical spills to algae blooms — also riveted attention on domestic and international studies describing the increasingly fragile condition of rivers, lakes and groundwater that sustain rural and urban China.

Premier Wen Jiabao convened in August a State Council standing committee meeting to examine drinking water protection for urban areas.

And in an unprecedented move, the 10th National People’s Congress (NPC) – the country’s highest legislative body – overhauled the national water pollution control law in August, adding 26 clauses and revising 24. It was the first major revision for the 23-year-old law since 1996.

“The deterioration of China’s water environment has not been effectively controlled,” said Zhou Shengxian, minister of the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), while explaining the legal overhaul.

Moreover, in an opinion released before the law’s passage, the NPC’s environmental protection committee warned that “water pollution prevention and water environment protection have reached a situation where we are accumulating new debts, even though we have yet to pay old ones.”

China’s available water resources per capita are just a quarter of the world average. Now, serious pollution is aggressively assaulting what’s already a water-scarce environment, making a bad situation infinitely worse. How will this affect the fate and future of China in transition?

Pollution’s Extent ‘Unknown’ 

In his speech, Zhou outlined the crisis. Water quality recorded in 2005 at 411 surface water quality monitoring sectors along China’s seven major river systems  — the Pearl, Yangtze, Huai, Yellow, Haihe, Liao and Songhua rivers – reached a level of 27%, or poor, meaning it was unfit for human use.

A shocking reality, however, is that these figures were only averages. In water-scarce northern regions, water pollution is severe. A popular saying that “the rivers are all dry, the water is all polluted” is by no means inaccurate.

Figures from the Ministry of Water Resources show water quality is poor along more than half the length of the great Haihe and Liao rivers. Similar quality levels affect up to two-thirds of the Ziya and Daqing rivers, southern tributaries of the Haihe, and the Haihe’s own main course.

Estimates put the number of rural residents in China lacking access to safe drinking water at more than 300 million. But even this enormous figure is seen by many as a low estimate.
Water quality is considered adequate in only 72% of the 222 surface drinking water sources serving 113 cities with high priority for environmental protection. Naturally, safe urban drinking water cannot be guaranteed. And of course rural areas are worse off still.

Underground water is severely polluted in about half of China’s urban areas, where pollutants have leached deep into the ground. Yet the problem goes beyond the cities. An NPC committee report on the Huai basin found 80% of the underground water in upper surface layers, to a depth of 50 meters, was of the lowest quality — effectively dead water. In places, pollution reached even mid-depth layers between 50 and 300 meters underground.

According to some academics, even such troubling data does not in fact present a true picture of the extent of water pollution in China. Zheng Yisheng of the Center for Environment and Development Research at the China Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), for example, said that past water quality reports were based on limited data from sampling points and regions and “cannot fully and truly reflect the current state of water pollution in China.”

Wang Yi, who heads the Sustainable Development Strategy Research Group at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, holds a similar view. For the most part, current water quality monitoring sectors established by both the water resources ministry and SEPA are located on large rivers or main streams of major river systems where water is comparatively plentiful and resource management more strict. There is little to no monitoring of tributaries and lesser streams. In smaller towns and across broad swathes of the countryside, the actual release of pollutants and pollution levels in rivers is likely “far more serious than is apparent in publicly available figures,” Wang said.

Almost all media reports in China to date have treated levels of chemical oxygen demand (COD) as the sole indicator of pollution in a body of water. The amount of oxygen consumed by material as it oxidizes is a good indicator of organic pollution levels in water. If COD density is too high, excess much oxidation is occurring and pollution levels are high.

However, COD is only one indicator of pollution. And even when combined with data from other indicators such as phosphate, nitrogen and ammonium nitrate levels, a true profile of water pollution is hard to obtain.

In truth, the pollutant mix in much of the country’s industrial wastewater is far more complex than can be detected by current, normal testing methods. These effluents may include chemicals that cause deformities, cancer and other major health consequences in humans.

Getting a true picture of water pollution’s danger not only presents a technical challenge, but it’s also presents funding and staffing problems.

Another factor may also be influencing the reliability of available data. Because of staff limits, SEPA cannot verify every data report. Instead, environmental officials can only check selected samples. That the country’s water-resources data does not reflect reality cannot be ruled out. Only a few local governments are willing to give true reports of worsening water pollution in their jurisdictions.

“The true state of water pollution is still an unknown,” one field specialist, who wished to remain anonymous, said.

Ma Jun, author of China’s Water Crisis and director of the Beijing Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, said that in many parts of China, water pollution is at or even beyond the crisis point.

Apparently the crisis has reached, or is close to reaching, an ominous state nationwide. Liu Shukun, a hydrologist at the China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research, first began taking interest in water issues in the early 1980s. He has since worked in water management in all of the country’s major lakes and rivers, except the Liao river basin.

“In China, water pollution is absolutely without question now a problem affecting the whole country,” Liu said.

Economic Consequences 

The World Bank recently estimated that China’s annual economic losses due to water shortages resulting from pollution amount to 147 billion yuan. The figure for Hebei in northern China alone is 18.9 billion yuan. Exactly how will continually worsening water pollution affect the nation?

In a visit to each of China’s major river basins, the damage to crops, livestock and human health caused by water pollution was evident. Yet, given a lack of data for specific, quantitative estimates, assessing the true impact is no easy matter.

A report released in February by the World Bank, SEPA and the Ministry of Health made a brave attempt to address the issue, although the report is still under discussion. A final version has still not been made public.

Water resources ministry documents show the area of irrigated land affected by water pollution had increased by 1.6 times between the 1980s and the late ‘90s. More than 6,667 square kilometers of farmland was polluted by heavy metals and organic compounds. Arable land in 10 or more provinces was polluted with cadmium and mercury. An estimate in the World Bank report, based on 2003 figures, puts annual losses to the agricultural economy directly resulting from polluted irrigation at 7 billion yuan.

Water pollution is more obviously a threat to fisheries. As water quality has worsened in bodies where fish are bred, fungal infections, diseases and poisons have brought sickness and even mass deaths to aquatic stock. The report, in another estimate based on 2003 figures, puts losses to Chinese fisheries at around 4 billion yuan.

However, these are only the visible threats and descriptions of the harm done. The data does not describe the worst havoc wreaked by water pollution.

On an average per capita basis, water resources are in extremely short supply in China. What little exists is unevenly distributed, seasonally and geographically. Water is particularly rare in northern China. Pollution has not only made the situation much worse, but has triggered water shortages in regions and cities that once enjoyed ample water, setting off a vicious cycle of water shortages and pollution.

Underground aquifers are also victims of the pollution cycle. As cities and rural areas increasingly turn to aquifers for water needs, the underground water table has fallen sharply. In many cities in the north, including Beijing, the water table is falling by as much as 3 meters a year.

The reason is simple: Water in underground aquifers accumulates at a much slower rate than surface water. The former takes 300 years where the latter takes just 30 days. Obviously, natural replenishment cannot keep pace with human consumption.

“Pretty soon, a lot of towns and cities in Hebei are going to have drawn so much water that they’ll be sitting on hollow ground,” one expert said.

Deadly River Valleys 

Some experts say the greatest and most direct threat from water pollution is its impact on human health. Academia is increasingly reporting a correlation between rising cancer rates and water pollution in China. But these claims are highly contested. Internationally and in China, links between various illnesses and different types of pollution are still subjects of research. But neither the environmental nor health agencies in China have proper data for studies.

The World Bank report tries to estimate one effect of the disease-water pollution relationship. Using results from a 2003 national health survey, it found that a lack of clean drinking water for two-thirds of rural Chinese would create health problems that lead to economic losses equal to 1.9% of rural GDP.

When “cancer villages” started emerging on heavily polluted parts of the Huai River and Taihu Lake, the role of environmental factors such as water pollution in cancer rates became an issue of widespread public concern. Although current research has not been drawn a clear connection between the two, academics are investigating.

Chinese scholars have been studying the environmental affects of cancer rates for more than two decades. Studies have been conducted in the Huai River basin and in Jiangsu, Shandong and Hebei provinces. Current research has found that long-term contact with or absorption of large quantities of chemical pollutants, such as arsenic and nitrates, greatly increase chances of a number of cancers, including cancers of the liver, lungs, bladder and ovaries. Some organic pollutants known to cause hepatitis are also likely to ultimately cause cancer.

The health ministry’s 2003 survey found that more than 480,000 people died from liver, stomach, intestinal and bladder cancers in rural areas alone. According to conservative estimates, more than 50,000 of those fatal cancers resulted from water pollution. Other estimates put the death toll as high as 200,000.

The central government has acknowledged the impact of water pollution on health. In late 2004, after several media reports about the Huai River’s “cancer villages,” Premier Wen ordered the health ministry, SEPA, Ministry of Water Resources, State Council Development and Reform Commission and local governments in the river basin to study the issue to find its extent and likely causes.

A research program examining the relationship between pollution in the Huai basin and various cancers was formally launched in July 2005. It was headed by Yang Gonghuan, deputy director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, under the health ministry. So far, no news about the progress or any results of the research have been released. Neither is it clear whether findings will be made available to academics or the public.

Seeking Ways Out 

What factors make water pollution increasingly worse in China? After years of combating pollution, the reasons are apparent: lax emission standards for industry; widespread flouting by business of existing laws, with complicity of local government; and failure to build and operate water treatment facilities, due to a lack of funding. In addition, the problem is compounded by ineffective monitoring and a lack of punishment for polluters.

Spurred by rapid economic growth, any opportunity where bad money could drive out good was likely to be exploited by vested interests. Until a sound, preventive system is in place, administrative and campaign measures, although loudly trumpeted in a procession, one after another, are not likely to produce a miraculous turnaround.

Senior government officials are now quite aware of the seriousness of the water crisis.

Will the latest revision of the national law provide a new opportunity for fresh thinking about a systematic response? The current draft of the law replaces upper limits for pollution fines with a guide setting penalties equal to up to 30% of economic losses caused — an improvement over the previous system.

But rules for dealing with major pollution incidents address only extraordinary circumstances. For example, the law did not adjust the upper limit fine of 1 million yuan for every day of excessive pollutant discharge. By contrast, the U.S. Clean Water Act is much more stringent, threatening violators with steep fines and even prison.

China’s Criminal Code, which was most recently revised in 1997, also includes penalties for damaging the environment and natural resources. But  no agency has the capacity to enforce this law, and fewer than 100 convictions have been reported to the public in the past decade.

It seems China cannot expect a reversal in the water pollution crisis by relying on a single law, even with the very best regulatory provisions or the political will of senior politicians. For now, China’s most pressing need is to find new ways to perceive the issue. A similar change occurred in the 1970s in the United States and Europe. Should China consider a similar change in the near term? This is still a question open to dispute.

In Europe, North America and Japan, environmental awareness apparently occurred after industrialization and urbanization reached a certain plateau. Afterward, it became a real factor in policy decisions. Those opposed to a similar path for China say urbanization and industrialization are still ongoing. Although local government actions may harm the environment and public health, they argue, they still do more good than harm for the country’s overall economic development.

Those who support such a change say industrialization in China happened over a much more compressed timeframe than in the West. Movements and issues that appeared only every decade in the West may well occur simultaneously in China, with more complexity. This being the case, making changes at the earliest opportunity could make tackling the core, underlying issues easier and put the country in a proactive position on the timeline of history.

Yet, even if changes are made immediately, the road ahead would not be easy. The western experience is illuminating. Pollution still affects major water bodies in America and Europe. And in Japan, after almost a half century of efforts, only 63% of water in the Tokyo Bay area meets emission standards.

Liu, the water research hydrologist, said the nation has a long way to go.

“Even if China sets out on the right path starting tomorrow, it will take at least 30 years for us to achieve a basic resolution of our water pollution problems,” Liu said. “Perhaps even 40 years.”

Michael Ding is a sophomore studying Economics and Philosophy at Stanford University.