Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty WorldSM
The Thirsty Dragon: Are China’s Plans To Tackle Water Pollution Sufficient?

Via Future Directions International, a look at China’s pollution reduction scheme and the continued need for clearly defined and legally enforceable obligations for water users in order to promote long-term conservation:

As China continues to develop, water scarcity and pollution pose increasingly urgent challenges. Plans to tackle these issues are currently high on the agenda, including a US$330 billion pollution reduction scheme, which aims to reduce water pollution by 30-50 per cent. Policy rhetoric is dominated by a focus on creating sustainable water supplies for the future; however, what is needed is a greater focus on the management of the current water supply.


A US$330 billion plan to clean up China’s waterways is currently being drafted. Potential measures include cutting industrial waste discharges, improving urban sewage management, and increasing investment in waste treatment, recycling and membrane technologies. Furthermore, we can expect to see a large scale redistribution of water from China’s south to its arid north, and also the creation of mega-desalination plants, such as the one recently constructed in Tianjin.

So far, policy makers have focussed on dealing with current pollution and addressing the fundamental issues of water scarcity. China’s government, however, now needs to focus more intently on the underlying regulatory problems that have allowed water pollution in China to reach its current level. Industrial emissions remain the largest cause of water pollution in China, but the cost of discharging that pollution remains relatively low for enterprises.

Water pollution is contributing to serious environmental and health issues for China. The chemical oxygen demand and ammonium nitrogen in Chinese water far exceeds the carrying capacity of the available water supply. Reduced availability of clean groundwater threatens the population’s access to drinking water and wastewater discharge has been cited as contributing to high cancer rates in people living along the Huai River. Social discontent is also being fuelled by the low quality of accessible water. Citizens are more aware of the increasing incidence of quality issues with water supplies. Clashes between villagers and police over factory discharges have also been reported. The need for China’s leaders to address the issue of water pollution has become critical.

For China, water is a frighteningly limited resource. While it is home to 20 per cent of the world’s population, it has access to only seven per cent of total water resources. Despite this, rapid industrial and urban growth continues in China. High levels of industrial emissions, coupled with lax environmental controls, have caused China’s waterways to become heavily polluted. China’s two major rivers, the Yellow River and the Yangtze River, both traverse industrial zones and discharge large quantities of toxic wastewater into the ground and the ocean every year. Reports of reduced water quality are becoming more frequent across China, with groundwater resources becoming increasingly toxic.

There are only a few independent water monitoring bodies in China, which means that industrial plants are often evaluated for toxic emissions based on their own testing. Water testing of industrial plants is also relatively infrequent, which encourages corruption and a general lack of transparency. Limited management by local Chinese authorities has also resulted in a large number of differing assessments of China’s water quality. This further increases the difficulty of establishing a conclusive assessment of the severity of China’s water pollution.

The Chinese Government needs to take a more comprehensive approach in addressing the lack of clear, legally enforceable obligations on wastewater discharge and pollution. Based on suggestions from development bodies such as the IMF and the World Bank, China has released plans to implement tariffs on water usage. Although this would be very effective in an industrial context, arguments about the basic “right” to water access, especially in a domestic context, may make tariffs difficult to implement. A long-term outlook might need to include a comprehensive water-pricing scheme, in which water is priced differently depending on its intended use.

Although reducing current toxicity is important, investment in the prevention of waste emissions is also imperative if any lasting change is to occur. The Chinese Government has suggested plans to implement water pricing, but greater transparency and frequency of water testing at industrial plants will also be required. If China is to successfully address water pollution, institutional reform is necessary, so that stronger and clearer environmental standards on emissions can be enforced.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, March 18th, 2014 at 11:59 pm and is filed under China.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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