The twin problems of water scarcity and pollution in China are a major issue. Not only are they threatening human health and development, but water problems also jeopardize China’s economic plans. Water shortages in cities cause a loss of an estimated U.S. $11.2 billion (120 billion yuan) in industrial output, while the impact of water pollution on human health has been valued at approximately U.S. $3.9 billion (41.73 billion yuan per year) by Chinese sources. Future economic development could be seriously jeopardized by water shortages. The lack of resources and advanced technology are partially responsible for the slow progress in solving these problems.
China faces a triple threat from water pollution. In some places, there are extreme water shortages (China has about the same amount of water as Canada, with a population 100 times greater). In much of the country, the water is heavily polluted (exceeding national standards). And in still other areas, flooding regularly surges out of control, wreaking havoc with crops and homes.
- China ranks fourth in the world in terms of total water resources, but is second lowest in terms of per capita water resource availability.
- Nearly half of China’s 640 major cities face water shortages; 100 face severe shortages.
- By the year 2000, the annual shortage is expected to reach 29 billion cubic meters. Shortages will peak in 2020 when shortages of 50 billion cubic meters are expected.
- Some regions have far less water than the national average – Northern China has only one-fifth the per capita water resources of southern China and just 10% of the world average.
- Aggravating the problem is low efficiency – the current end-use efficiency of fresh water is estimated at around 10%.
- Nearly 80% of China’s water is used for agriculture, but almost half of this total either evaporates or leaks.
- Unable to use surface water in much of the country, groundwater is being depleted at a staggering rate. For example, in Shanghai and Beijing, groundwater levels have been dropping several feet per year.
- All of China’s water bodies are polluted to various degrees of severity. Serious pollution has been documented in the country’s seven major watersheds: Huai, Hai, Liao, Songhua, Chang (Yangtze), Zhu (Pearl) and Huang (Yellow).
- Sources of water pollution include, not only traditional pollutants (excreta) but also modern toxic pollutants – this is peculiar to rapidly industrializing developing countries. Both municipal and industrial wastewater is inadequately treated – only 5% of household waste and 17% of industrial waste received any treatment as of 1996, according to the UNDP and Chinese authorities.
Health Impacts of Water Pollution
- Half of China’s population (nearly 700 million people) consumes drinking water contaminated with animal and human waste that exceeds the applicable maximum permissible levels, and while there has been an overall decline in mortality from infectious diseases, diarrheal diseases and viral hepatitis, both associated with fecal pollution of water, are the leading infectious diseases in China.
- Liver and stomach cancers in China are caused in part by water pollution. China has the highest liver and stomach cancer death rates in the world. Liver and stomach cancers are 3-7 times higher in polluted rural areas of China (such as Shanxi province or the Shenfu irrigation area near Shenyang in Liaoning Province) compared to cleaner areas.
- Recent scientific reports reveal that rates of liver cancer and birth defects are 4 to 8 times higher in districts using polluted water than in cleaner regions.
Air Pollution and Health
- Respiratory disease is the number one cause of death in China.
- In some regions (such as major industrial zones in Xuan Wei county and Hebei province) , rates of chronic lung disease are at least five times higher than the rest of the country. Women in those areas who do not smoke cigarettes, have the highest rates of lung cancer ever recorded anywhere in the world of women who do not smoke.
- China’s six largest cities – Beijing, Shenyang, Chongqing, Shanghai, Xian, and Guangzhou – rank among the most polluted cities in the world.
- The government has begun the radical act of publishing information on air pollution in local newspapers, in part to galvanize public support for closing down inefficient and polluting industries.
- In the past year, the government has closed more than 70,000 polluting industries, and other unproductive highly polluting firms are said to be targeted for phase-out.