China’s rapid economic growth, industrialization, and urbanization – accompanied by inadequate infrastructure investment and management capacity – have all contributed to widespread problems of water scarcity and water pollution throughout the country. China has some of the most extreme water shortages in the world. Of the 640 major cities in China, more than 300 face water shortages, with 100 facing severe scarcities . As discharges of both domestic and industrial effluents have increased, clean water has become increasingly scarce. The impact of China’s dual problem of water scarcity and water pollution exacts a costly toll on productivity. Water shortages in cities cause a loss of an estimated 120 billion yuan (US$11.2 billion) in industrial output each year. The impact of water pollution on human health has been valued at approximately 41.73 billion yuan per year (US$3.9 billion), which is almost certainly an underestimate . Although Chinese decisionmakers are increasingly concerned about the damages associated with water pollution, years of neglect and a lack of funding for research have resulted in limited data on water pollution and even fewer epidemiologic studies on the links between water pollution and human health effects.
China has a total of 2,800 billion cubic meters of annually renewed fresh water; the world’s most populous country is fourth in the world in terms of total water resources . Considering per capita water resources, China has the second lowest per capita water resources in the world, less than one third the world average. Northern China is especially water-poor, with only 750 cubic meters per capita; this geographic region has one fifth the per capita water resources of southern China and just 10 percent of the world average .
The distribution of groundwater is similarly skewed: average groundwater resources in the South are more than four times greater than in the North. Dramatic shifts in annual and monthly precipitation cause floods and droughts, which further threaten economic growth.
As surface water quality has worsened, the Chinese have increased their extraction of groundwater to meet water demand. As a result, overextraction of groundwater has become a serious problem in a number of cities including Nanjing, Taiyuan, Shijiazhuang, and Xi’an. Groundwater depletion is most problematic in coastal cities, including Dalian, Qingdao, Yantai, and Beihai, where saltwater intrusion is on the rise . Although there is no comprehensive monitoring of China’s groundwater, studies suggest that groundwater quality, not just quantity, is severely threatened in many regions. According to one estimate, one half the groundwater in Chinese cities has been contaminated .
Industrial and municipal wastewater threatens China’s water quality
|Water quality is low at 135 monitored urban river sections, 1995|
|Source: The World Bank, Clear Water, Blue Skies: China’s Environment in the New Century (The World Bank, Washington, D.C., 1997), p. 14 |
Each year, large amounts of pollutants are dumped into China’s water bodies from municipal, industrial, and agricultural sources. China is the world’s largest consumer of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers . As a result of these activities, pollution is widespread in China’s rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. Except for some inland rivers and large reservoirs, water pollution trends in China have worsened in recent years, with the pollution adjacent to industrially developed cities and towns being particularly severe .
Some of the major threats to water quality stem from inadequate treatment of both municipal and industrial wastewater. In 1995, China discharged a total of 37.29 billion cubic tons of wastewater, not including wastewater from township-and-village enterprises (TVEs), into lakes, rivers, and reservoirs. Approximately 60 percent was released from industrial sources, the rest from municipal. With only 77 percent of industrial wastewater receiving any treatment in 1995, nearly one half of the industrial wastewater discharged failed to meet government standards . Industrial discharges usually contain a range of toxic pollutants including petroleum, cyanide, arsenic, solvents, and heavy metals .
Although the amount of wastewater discharged from regulated industries has leveled off since the early 1990s, discharges from TVEs and municipal sources have increased rapidly . The increase from TVEs can be traced to the rising proportion of total industrial output from these enterprises and to a lack of pollution control over these enterprises because of their widely scattered geographical distribution. In addition, local authorities are reluctant to tighten control over pollution when pursuit of economic benefits is their first goal.
Treatment of municipal sewage lags far behind that of industrial wastewater. In 1995, China had only 100 modern wastewater treatment plants . Beijing had only one secondary sewage treatment plant, with a capacity of 500,000 metric tons, which cannot keep pace with the increasing amounts of sewage in the city . Treatment should improve rapidly, however, following the amendment of the Water Pollution Prevention and Control Law , which set more restrictive regulations, as well as a recent government decision requiring all cities with a population of more than 500,000 to have at least one sewage treatment plant .
References and notes
51. Op. cit. 10.
52. Op. cit. 12, pp. 23, 87<196>88.
53. See Data Table 12.1.
54. Op. cit. 12, p. 88.
55. Op. cit. 10.
56. Zhang Weiping et al., eds., Twenty Years of China’s Environmental Protection Administrative Management (China Environmental Sciences Press, Beijing, 1994) pp. 215<196>217.
57. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), FAOSTAT Statistical Database (FAO, Rome, 1996<196>1997).
58. Vaclav Smil, “China Shoulders the Cost of Environmental Change,” Environment, Vol. 39, No. 6 (1996), p. 33.
59. National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) 1996 Report of the State of the Environment (NEPA, Beijing, 1997) (Chinese language edition).
60. China Environment Yearbook, China Environment Yearbook, 1996 (China Environment Yearbook Press, Beijing, 1997), pp. 478<196>480 (Chinese language edition).
61. Op. cit. 10.
62. China Environment Yearbook, China Environment Yearbook, 1996 (China Environment Yearbook Press, Beijing, 1997), p. 215 (English language edition).
63. Xiaoke Jiang, Former Director, Beijing’s Environmental Protection Bureau, Beijing, 1998 (personal communication).
64. The Water Pollution Prevention and Control Law, initially adopted in 1984, was amended in 1996.
65. This is a decision announced at the 4th National Conference on Environmental Protection, which was convened in Beijing in September 1996.