Abstract Water is scarce in China. The country ekes by with only one-quarter of the global average for water per person. The scarcity is exacerbated by rampant pollution—with devastating consequences on ecosystems, food supply and public health. In the face of growing population, water pollution threatens the very survival of the Chinese nation. In his speech at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China last October, President Xi Jinping repeatedly emphasized the importance to redress the balance between economic development and environmental protection. One of his most frequently cited phrases is ‘clean waters and lush mountains are gold and silver’. And he has matched his rhetoric with action. In April 2015, the State Council, China's cabinet, issued the Water Pollution and Control Action Plan (known as Shuishitiao or Water Ten Plan)—widely hailed as the toughest and most comprehensive water policy to date. Last October, it announced a five-year plan to tackle water pollution, with a budget of 700 billion yuan (US$106 billion). The country's top legislature has also revised the Water Prevention and Control Law, which will go into effect in early 2018. In a forum chaired by National Science Review’s Executive Editor-in-Chief Mu-ming Poo, a panel of experts of diverse backgrounds and perspectives discussed the current status of China's water resources, their views on the comprehensive policy package, how national initiatives have been going, what the challenges are and why information transparency and public participation are absolutely essential in environmental protection. Weijiang Liu Hydrologist at the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning, Ministry of Environmental Protection, Beijing, China Ji Shen Environment scientist at Nanjing Institute of Geography and Limnology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Nanjing, China Chunmiao Zheng Hydrologist at Southern University of Science and Technology, Shenzhen, China Jun Ma Founder and director of the non-governmental organization Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, Beijing, China Tao Tao Environment scientist at the College of Environmental Science and Engineering and the Key Laboratory of Yangtze River Water Environment at Tongji University, Shanghai, China Mu-ming Poo (Chair) Director, Institute of Neuroscience, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Shanghai, China Poo: How badly polluted are China's waters? Liu: According to the State of Environment Report, released by the Ministry of Environmental Protection in June 2017, the situation is encouraging and challenging in equal measures. The report was based on results from 2767 monitoring sites across the country, including 2424 for rivers and 343 for lakes. The proportion of waters from rivers that was Grade III [the lowest grade suitable for domestic use] or better had increased, but the situation varied greatly from river to river. Ma: We have been monitoring the status of China's water resources since we founded the Institute of Public Affairs, a non-government organization (NGO), a decade ago. Our first project was to put together water pollution map, using such data as water quality, waste discharge and pollution sources. There have been some local improvement, but the overall situation is still very severe. As industrialization and urbanization expand and agriculture intensifies, pollution creeps to much bigger areas and to upstream basins. In many parts of North and East China, it's increasingly difficult to find clean rivers. Poo: What is the potential impact of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project on water quality? Zheng: Water is likely to be polluted when transported over such a long distance, especially because it has to go through areas with heavy human activities. Moreover, waters in different regions have different chemical components. How will water from south interacts with that in the north? This needs to be studied. Finally, there are also ecological concerns. The water table has dropped by tens of metres in the North China Plain due to over excavation of groundwater. Channeling water from the south will cause changes in water tables, but the consequences are largely unclear. Protecting source regions remains the single most important element in safeguarding drinking water—because treating polluted water requires lots of energy, expensive technologies and chemicals. —Tao Tao Poo: What's the situation with lakes? Shen: Our institute led the second national lake survey between 2007 and 2012. The situations of lakes in the different parts of the country are quite different. There are mainly five lake regions. The Tibetan Plateau has the largest number of lakes, constituting about 50% of the total lake area. Those lakes are mostly pristine and unpolluted. The challenge faced by lakes in northwest China is aridification rather than pollution and lakes there are shrinking rapidly. The region with the second largest number of lakes is the middle and lower Yangtze River, constituting a quarter of the total lake area. Over 80% of those lakes are seriously polluted. A main problem is eutrophication—an excess amount of nutrients due to discharge of phosphate-containing substances, such as fertilizers, livestock manure and sewage. The worst-hit ones in this region are Lake Tai and Lake Chao. In 2007, Wuxi had a serious water crisis caused by eutrophication of Lake Tai. The fourth lake region is in northeast China. They are quite shallow and face serious pollution, especially heavy metals from industries and fertilizers and pesticides from agriculture—similar in scales to lakes in the lower and middle Yangtze. Finally, lakes in Yunnan and Guizhou provinces experience different levels of human impact. Lakes at low elevations, such as Lake Dian and Erhai Lake Erhai, also suffer from eutrophication, whereas those at high elevations, such as Luobu Lake and Tiancai Lake, are still quite pristine. Poo: What does the 2016 State of Environment Report say about lake pollution? Shen: The situation remains quite serious. For instance, water from only 24% of the monitoring sites at Lake Tai was Grade III or better. For Lake Chao, water from 63% of the monitoring sites were Grade IV [suitable for industrial use] and the rest were Grade V [suitable for agricultural use]. Water from all monitoring sites of Lake Dian were Grade V. Poo: How about groundwater? Zheng: According to the Ministry of Land and Resources, 62% of groundwater samples taken from its 5,100 monitoring wells are Grad IV or Grade V. The proportion for the 2,100 monitoring wells of the Ministry of Environmental Protection is about 80%. In the Songhua River and Liao River Basins, groundwater from 90% of the wells was Grade IV or worse. So the situation is critical and continues to deteriorate. Until recently, however, groundwater pollution received much less attention than air and surface-water pollution. But you can’t clean up surface waters without also tackling groundwater at the same time. They are all connected and part of the same system. Ma: Groundwater pollution is a major threat to public health because up to 70% of the Chinese get their drinking water from the underground. Prevention is really important here because it's extremely difficult and expensive to clean up groundwater, especially deep aquifers. This should be cause for concern for the government because water pollution can build up resentment and trigger public outcry, threatening economic development and social stability. Poo: I guess surface water, once polluted, can contaminate groundwater since they are all connected. Is that a key source of pollution? Zheng: It's just one way groundwater can be polluted. There are also several direct mechanisms. Toxic substances at land fill sites, for instance, can seep underground with rainwater and directly pollute groundwater. Excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides is another major source of soil and groundwater pollution. If sewage pipes in major cities leak, as many do, then wastewater can get into the aquifer. SAFEGUARDING THE QUALITY OF DRINKING WATER Poo: What are the implications of this rampant pollution for the quality of drinking water? Tao: China has invested heavily to upgrade 92 300 kilometres of main pipes and thousands of water-treatment plants to developed-world standards. But protecting source regions remains the single most important element in safeguarding drinking water—because treating polluted water requires large amounts of energy, expensive technologies and chemicals. In theory, it's possible to make wastewater drinkable, but the cost is enormous. It's not something we can do on a large scale on a daily basis. In terms of standards, we hope water at source regions can reach Grade II. But due to serious pollution, the standard for water-source regions has been lowered to Grade III, which many cities are still yet to meet. Shen: Protecting water-source regions in China is no mean feat. In developed countries, water-source regions are untouchable and the impact of human activities is kept to the minimal. It's totally different in China because the population pressure. Other than being a water source, Lake Tai, for instance, serves many purposes, such as aquaculture, tourism and shipping. The 2007 water crisis in Wuxi is quite peculiar. After the bloom, the algae piled up and went rotten on the shore of Lake Tai. Then streams and rivers carried the toxic substances to the source region that fed the water plant. No problem was spotted during the usual procedures of sedimentation and filtration. And the water met all standards. But it contained a sulphide compound that wasn’t on the list for routine testing. It gave the waters a particularly foul smell that clothes washed in them apparently remained smelly for days. This shows that we need to be diligent about novel toxic compounds. Poo: Most people are concerned with the quality of tap water. We all know it's undrinkable in China. And everybody uses bottled water. Is it safe if groundwater is polluted? Tao: Groundwater in remote regions is still pristine. Bottled-water companies often pride themselves on the pristine and exotic location of their water sources. Kunlun [a popular brand], for instance, harvests water from Kunlun Mountains on the Tibetan Plateau, and have a factory at 4100 metres above sea level, the highest in the world. Bottled water is subject to the highest regulatory standards. Poo: Is it possible that we will meet the standards of developed nations one day and our tap water will be drinkable? Tao: China's latest drinking-water standards—that is, the limits of various pollutants—are comparable to those of the EU and the USA. During 2011–15, tap water in some demonstration cities met such standards. So we are not that far off. Zheng: I agree. I don’t think it's that difficult to make tap water drinkable in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai. But whether people drink it or not is another matter. It's partly to do with trust. It's also related to the Chinese culture. No matter how clean the water is, people may still prefer to boil it before drinking it. THE WAR AGAINST WATER POLLUTION Poo: In 2006, China launched a 15-year programme to prevent and control water pollution—known as Shuizhuanxiang (the Water Programme)—one of the 10 major national science and technology programmes launched that year. How has it been going? Zheng: I don’t think it's been terribly successful. A main reason is that it focuses on treatment and wants fast results. But this is impossible when lots of basic research questions remain outstanding. In the past decade, tens of billions of yuan has going into the programme, but not much was used in research. The programme is divided into numerous projects, each having a budget of hundreds of millions of yuan, which is actually not a lot for remediation lakes or river basins. Moreover, the programme focuses on cleaning up rivers and lakes without taking groundwater into consideration. I understand there is a sense of urgency to clean up surface water as quickly as possible with minimum financial input. But you have to start considering groundwater at some point. Otherwise, you won’t be able to solve the problems because they are connected. Shen: I agree. This is a major weakness of the Water Programme. When treating Lake Tai, we also consider only surface water. A priority for us is to consider how to include groundwater in the future. Poo: Lake Tai is the poster child of China's water woes. And its cleaning up is a focus of the Water Programme. How is it going? Are there any scientific breakthroughs in our understanding of the problem? Shen: The government has invested a lot to clean up Lake Tai. While I can’t say there are major scientific breakthroughs, there has been significant progress and the water quality has improved a lot in recent years. And science and technology have an important role in this. The monitoring relies on satellite remote sensing as well as over 30 automatic monitoring stations collecting data on weather, water dynamics and chemical components. Between early April and end of October, we release information twice a week on the quantity and dynamics of green algae—as a service for the Jiangsu government. If we note the accumulation of green algae in one area, we’d have pre-emptive tactics to prevent them from polluting the water-source area. There is a pressing need to treat surface water and groundwater at the same time. —Chunmiao Zheng We also take a multi-faceted approach. One focus of the provincial government is to reduce pollutant input cleaning up polluting industries by, say, enhancing wastewater treatment capabilities. Another is to limit pollution from agricultural sources by reducing the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. For pollutants that have already entered the lake, one strategy is to clean up the sediments, and another is to get the algae out of the water in early stage of a bloom. Finally, we have also put in a lot efforts to restore ecosystems around the lake. Poo: In 2011, the State Council launched the Groundwater Pollution Prevent and Control Plan—with a budget of 30 billion yuan (US$5.5 billion). How has it been going? Zheng: We were really encouraged that the government started to pay attention to groundwater contamination. But the programme wasn’t nearly enough. It's extremely ambitious and wants to focus on remediation—a bit misplaced when we don’t really have a good picture where or how bad the problems are. It sounds a lot of money. But groundwater remediation is hugely expensive. The entire budget may not be enough to cleaning up a handful of severely contaminated sites. Liu: A main undertaking has been to conduct a national survey, so we can have a baseline of the situation and know where to focus cleanup efforts. A comprehensive groundwater monitoring network, consisting of 20 000 wells nationwide, is also near its completion. It's important to have enough sites because the quality of groundwater can vary greatly from location to location. There is also a move to making the data publicly available. Zheng: There is a pressing need to treat surface water and groundwater at the same time. In the USA, there is no such distinction in terms of pollution prevention and control. The US Geological Survey is in charge of investigating both, and the US Environmental Protection Agency enforcing the remediation of both. In China, the Ministry of Water Resources takes care of surface water, the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources is in charge of groundwater, and the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development is responsible for wastewater. And ministerial coordination is not always easy. Liu: It's also difficult to motivate local governments to clean up groundwater. But the situation is getting critical. The priority should be prevention, especially controlling polluting practices such as landfill and the excessive use of chemical fertilizers. Once groundwater is polluted, it's extremely difficult and expensive to clean up. Poo: How about the recently released five-year funding plan to support the Water Ten Plan between 2016 and 2020? Zheng: The detailed plan was released in October 2017. With a budget of 700 billion yuan, it continues to focus on seven key rivers (Yangtze, Yellow, Pearl, Liao, Songhua, Huai, Hai Rivers)—which are home to 90% of the population in China—three badly polluted lakes (Lakes Tai, Chao and Dian), and two key areas (the Beijing-Tianjin and Hebei region and the Yangtze Economic Zone). Over a quarter of the budget will goes to the Yangtze, which represents 42% of the country's population and GDP; nearly half will be invested in improving the infrastructure of urban water treatment. Conceptually, a key highlight is that it's the first time that prevent and control of water pollution takes groundwater into consideration. Shen: While the impact of cleaning up lakes and rivers is much less tangible and glamorous than, say, that of big aeroplanes, water pollution is a key existential threat of our nation and civilization. Poo: What are the main challenges? Shen: The challenges are huge. There are mainly three aspects. First, we must stop pursuing economic development at the cost of environment. It's not sustainable. And it's much more Reducing agricultural pollution across large regions, key to protecting water resources, is extremely challenging. —Ji Shen expensive to clean up pollution than preventing it from happening in the first place. Second, it's relatively easy to prevent so-called point pollution from industries. Reducing agricultural pollution across large regions, key to protecting water resources, is extremely challenging. This is largely due to the overuse of chemical fertilizers, more than 30% of which end up polluting surface water and groundwater and a major cause of eutrophication. Finally, a rapidly increasing amount of residential wastewater is discharged to lakes without treatment because tourism and population densities around lakes are increasing rapidly. WATER TEN PLAN: A POTENTIAL GAME CHANGER Poo: In April 2015, the State Council, China's cabinet, issued the Water Pollution and Control Action Plan (known as Shuishitiao or Water Ten Plan). What does it aim to achieve? Liu: It involves 12 government ministries and aims to safeguard the quality of water resources—from source regions to the tap and from mountain tops to the sea. A key focus is to control pollution from industry, agriculture, sewage and shipping. It contains 10 measures, 35 categories of tasks and 238 specific actions. The targets include: 70% of water bodies in seven key river basins and coastal regions shall reach Grade III or better; 90% of urban drinking-water sources shall reach Grade III or better; the percentage of heichouhe (‘dirty and smelly urban rivers’) shall drop to below 10%; the proportion of Grade V groundwater shall decrease to 15%. Poo: How is it different form previous initiatives? Zheng: A major highlight is the shift towards a more holistic approach. We all know a big problem is so-called jiulong zhishui (‘nine dragons managing waters’)—several government agencies are tasked to the job with overlapping functions, unclear responsibilities and a serious lack of collaboration and coordination. For instance, the Ministry of Water Resources (in charge of surface water) and the Ministry of Land and Resources (in charges of groundwater) rarely work together. Neither do different administrative units in charge of different parts of a watershed. The Ministry of Environmental Protection is also relatively weak and unable to push other ministries to instigate anti-pollution polices. Now, for each of the 35 task categories in the action plan, there are clear stipulations of the responsible and involving ministries. Shen: A related development is the river-chief mechanism, which will be fully implemented in 2018. It was first piloted by the Wuxi government after the 2007 water crisis caused by algal blooms in Lake Tai. The idea is that specific personals are dedicated to safeguard the quality of water resources, for which they will be evaluated upon. A part of their job is indeed to coordinate efforts across departmental and administrative divisions. Liu: A system thinking also runs through the plan—with a greater integration between surface water and groundwater, between hydrological and terrestrial environments, as well as between inland and coastal environments. Poo: How is it going to rein in industrial pollution? Liu: It's another key focus of the plan. It will no long be business as usual for industries that exceed the discharge limits. In addition to hefty fines, they will be issued a ‘yellow card’ and required to cut down their production and step up their capacity to treat wastewater. Hopefully, such measures will lead China to a new norm, in which polluters pays and environmental protection is a lucrative business. Shen: Another highlight of the plan is its emphasis on public participation. As part of the river-chief system, for instance, there will be a dedicated platform to disclose information such as who are responsible for which parts for the watershed, their responsibilities and contact details, and the conditions of the water. A reporting system will be in place so members of the public can report pollution incidents. Ma: The Water Ten Plan is certainly the toughest and the most comprehensive plan to date for safeguarding water resources, but its implementation is much weaker compared to the Air Ten Plan. There is much room for improvement. Zheng: I agree. It's definitely a step forward from previous initiatives. I’m not sure if the ambitious goals will be accomplished because some of the fundamental issues are not well understood. For instance, how would you evaluate whether the desired effects have been achieved? Under the new plan, it's still based on sampling at various transects. This is far from enough. We need to take a much more comprehensive approach by studying the loadings, concentrations and distribution of pollutants across the entire watershed. And such studies need to be repeated regularly so we know how the situation evolves over time. The key is to have an integrative, comprehensive monitoring strategy that takes into consideration of both surface water and groundwater. The action plan talks about the importance of a holistic approach but doesn’t seem to articulate how to go about it. Moreover, it remains to be seen the level of government's long-term financial commitments. Prevention and control of water pollution are hugely expensive and there is no such thing as a quick job. We are in for the long haul. It's the only way to make it work. Without sustained financial support, the plan will remain just that—a plan and empty words. INFORMATION TRANSPARENCY AND PUBLIC PARTICIPATION Poo: Why are information transparency and public participation important for protecting China's precious water resources? Liu: The public has the right to know if their drinking-water source is up to standard—be it groundwater or surface. The Water Ten Plan requires that all cities and towns have a timeline to publicize the quality of their water sources, water-treatment plants and tap water. Zheng: Transparency of information is extremely important. Many local governments worry this would cause social instability. It's unwarranted. In 2016, the Ministry of Environmental Protection announced that water from 80% of monitoring wells was badly or very badly polluted. Many media in and outside China, including New York Times, misreported that 80% of China's groundwater was badly or very badly polluted. This is incorrect because monitoring wells are not evenly distributed across China. They are normally near cities and none in remote regions. Moreover, the distribution of pollution in groundwater is also highly uneven. There may be contamination here but water a few hundred metres away is fine. The lack of information may actually cause unnecessary panic. Liu: I’d like to stress when groundwater is below the standards, it may be caused by geological factors that than human activities. In some parts of China, for instance, there are excessive amounts of iron, manganese or arsenic. When disclosing the information, I’d suggest to open up the whole chain simultaneously—from the wells, treatment plants to tap water. Ma: The disclosure of groundwater pollution is much worse than that of air and surface-water pollution. While the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Ministry of Land and Resources have released the percentages of contaminated monitoring wells, the locations of those wells—which are directly relevant to public health—are not publicly available. Disclosing such information will be a powerful way to spur governments and industries into action. Is there a timeline regarding when the construction of 20 000 monitoring wells will be completed and the data becomes publicly available? Liu: The construction of those wells should be completed in early 2018. They will be managed by a new national groundwater engineering centre jointly set up by the Ministry of Land and Resources and The Ministry of Water Resources. I’m not sure when they will begin monitoring. Poo: Information transparency and public participation are the founding philosophy of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), isn’t it? Please tell us more about your institute. What is it about and how has it been going? Ma: IPE was established in 2006. Our mission is to protect China's bishui lantian (‘green water and blue sky’). The idea is that environmental protection needs the participation of all sectors in the society, especially the public. But the public can effectively participate only when it has access to pollution information. From the very beginning, therefore, we set up pollution databases, based on information released by various ministries, especially the Ministry of Environmental Protection. It includes not only information on water and air quality, but also industries that discharge pollutants beyond the legal limits. In the first year, we had fewer than 2000 pieces of information. In 2016, the Ministry of Environmental Protection released over 76 000 pieces of violation records regarding illegal discharges. Now we have over 300 000 pieces of information in our databases. Since 2014, China began to release for Environmental protection needs the participation of all sectors in the society, especially the public. But the public can effectively participate only when it has access to pollution information. —Jun Ma the first time real-time monitoring data of key state companies. Putting all the data together, we created an app called weilan ditu (‘Blue Map’). The app provides real-time pollution data of major industries, especially paper mills, dyeing factories and over 3000 wastewater treatment plants. Poo: How can such data affect the big polluters—in addition to public shaming? Ma: Major companies, including multinationals, now use such data to determine and manage their purchase in China. Factories that do not have a good environmental track record may not be selected for purchasing. Last year, it was reported that one of China's largest dyeing factories discharged over 40,000 tons of untreated wastewater into Qiantang River every day. It was under pressure by companies such as Gap, H&M, Uniqlo and Walmart to clean up. Eventually, it was forced to install a new wastewater treatment facility at the cost of 200 million yuan (US$30 million). Our efforts of publicizing pollution information have been crucial for the Green supply chain. We are now in the process of pushing for the Green finance. Our Blue Map app also has a function for treating heichouhe (‘dirty and smelly urban waters’), an important aspect of the Water Ten Plan. If our users take a picture of their local heichouhe, it would get into a reporting platform at the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development. This is an unprecedented level of public participation. There are over 2,000 heichouhe across China. We know exactly what they are, where they are, who are responsible for cleaning them up, what the deadlines are. ENVIRONMENTAL LAWSUITS: STILL A LONG WAY OFF Poo: There are also increasing environmental lawsuits in China. What's their role in combating pollution? Ma: Environmental lawsuits have an important role in reining in polluters in the West. There is a saying that 80% of environmental problems in the USA are resolved in the court. Many of the first environment NGOs in the USA, such as NRDC (specialized on environmental justice), were established by lawyers. Based on the Clean Water Act, any citizens and organizations can not only sue polluting industries but also environmental-protection officials who haven’t done their job—with enormous impact. Zheng: I totally agree. Environmental lawsuits have a critical role in environmental protection in the West. I lived in the USA for many years and was often involved in this as an environmental consultant. But it still has a long way to go in China. Ma: Indeed. China's new Environment Law, which was revised for the first time in 25 years and enacted in 2015, includes a new provision that allows citizens and certified environment organizations to conduct public-interest environmental lawsuits. It's a significant progress, but the implementation is extremely challenging because China's judicial system has yet to be ready for it. Local governments at all levels have significant influence over courts and it's hard for the public to win cases that involve major industries. An important basis for environmental lawsuits is the transparency of pollution information. In understand that the Ministry of Environmental Protection is in the process of establishing pollution permit pollution. An important element is information transparency. If industry discharges exceed the limits, they can be sued according to their pollution permits. These elements are all connected, working towards safeguarding China's green waters and blue sky. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of China Science Publishing & Media Ltd. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
National Science Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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