Water Health Educator - Promoting advocacy for access to clean water
Issues Asia: China
Water Pollution and
Scarcity in China

By Elizabeth Hanfman

China is the most populated country with more than 1.3 billion people and by 2030 the population is expected to be 1.5 billion according to the United Nations (UN).  They are currently facing a water shortage and quality problem.  It ranks fourth in the world for total water resources yet it is second lowest in per capita water resource availability.  There is a huge regional disparity in that Southern China gets approximately 79 inches of rain per year and in Northern China average rainfall is between 7 to 16 inches per year.  Despite the lack of rainfall, about 65 percent of agriculture is located in Northern China so they are very reliant on irrigation systems and underground aquifers.  Of China’s 640 major cities, more than 300 have water shortages and 100 have serious scarcities.  The more than 300 million Chinese who live in rural areas lack access to safe drinking water.
China’s water sources are groundwater, surface water and glaciers.  As surface water quality has gotten worse, the extraction of groundwater has increased to meet demand.  Groundwater provides potable water for approximately 70 percent of the population and irrigation for about 40 percent of its agricultural land.  In order to avoid polluted water, farmers are pumping from deeper levels- some wheat farmers pump at a depth of 1,000 feet according to the U.S. embassy in Beijing.  According to one estimate, half of the groundwater in Chinese cities is contaminated.      
Water is divided into six categories.  From a study done in 2010 by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, which took samples from all major rivers and lakes, results showed that 49 percent was in the first three categories which are safe for drinking and bathing, 27 percent is in the fourth and fifth category which is safe for agricultural and industrial use, and the remaining 24 percent is in category 6 which is unsafe for any use.
Over the past few decades, the number of lakes has decreased from 4,077 to just 2,800. Forty-eight of the major lakes have been designated as seriously polluted.  The Yangtze River is the longest river in China and one quarter of water sampled from there was found to be so polluted that it couldn’t even be used for farm irrigation.  Approximately 21,000 chemical companies in addition to paper, steel, textile and power plants are located along the Yangtze and Yellow rivers.  The origin of the Yangtze and Mekong rivers is at the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau which has over 35,000 glaciers.  Seasonal melting supplies water to the rivers however due to climate change they are shrinking by about 7 percent per year.  These glaciers are also the water source for other rivers that run through India, Bangladesh, Burma, Bhutan, Nepal, Cambodia, Pakistan, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.
The main causes of water scarcity and pollution in China include increased demand due to rapid economic and population growth, the migration from rural to urban areas, industrialization, inadequate infrastructure investment and management capacity, climate change, the conversion of lakes to rice paddies, agricultural use, and inefficient irrigation systems.  Untreated wastewater from factories and cities is discharged into lakes and rivers.  Sixty-seven percent of China’s water is used for agriculture, specifically for irrigation, forestry, breeding livestock and maintaining fisheries.  China is also the world’s largest consumer of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers which can impact water quality.  The most prevalent crops grown, wheat and rice, are also some of the most water intensive.
Half of the population consumes drinking water contaminated with animal and human waste which contributes to the country’s leading infectious diseases- diarrheal diseases and viral hepatitis.  China has the highest liver and stomach cancer death rates in the world and links have been made to these types of cancer and water pollution.  Rates are more than three times higher in polluted rural areas when compared to cleaner areas and birth defects are also more than four times higher in areas with polluted water.  Due to the lack of funding for studies linking water pollution and human health effects in China, there is limited data to fully absorb the impact.

China’s water resources are managed
unsustainably.  Water is highly subsidized by the government so prices are very low and there is no incentive for people to conserve it.  The government does regulate water pollution however the water laws are rarely enforced and if fines or punishments are given, they are generally not sufficient enough to prevent future abuses.  Also, it is difficult to enforce water laws when economic benefit could be impacted.  Municipal and industrial wastewater is inadequately treated.  There has been investment in water treatment plans however they are expensive to run and are often not in operation unless inspectors are present.

There have been efforts to improve the availability and quality of water.  In 2005, the government became involved with the World Bank’s Analytical and Advisory Assistance Program who would provide assistance in developing, adopting and implementing water policy and reforms that can help to improve the management of
water resources.  The government has also set goals for 2015 and 2020 to make industries more compliant with water regulations and two years ago a more powerful Ministry of Environmental Protection was formed to replace the State Environmental Protection Agency.
Multiple projects are underway along the Yangtze River which includes strengthening embankments, building structures for flood control, hydropower plants, dams, soil erosion prevention schemes, water quality monitoring networks and environmental protection
A 2009 World Bank report recommends that China should move from a traditional water management system where the government is in control to a more modern system based on a “sound legal framework, effective institutional arrangements, transparent decision-making and information disclosure and active public participation.”  It suggests that China raise the price to reflect the scarcity of water and determine clear property rights.  It is clear that with the increased urbanization, industrialization and population, China is in need of a long-term plan for water management.
The Contribution of
China’s E-Waste
to Water Impairment

by Kellie Frizzell

The introduction of new technology over the years has brought about exciting changes in our society and devastating consequences.  About 20 – 50 million tons of electronic waste is disposed by people every year and most of this waste ends up in China.  According to the United Nations, China is the largest e-waste dumping site in the world, holding about 70% of the world’s electronic waste.  The e-waste that is dumped in China consists of computers, mobile phones, printers, televisions, and refrigerators.  Not only does it have a negative impact on the health of its people, it damages the water systems in the country as well.  If the e-waste is not properly recycled, the waste is stripped down and burned which releases toxins in the air, soil, and groundwater in the area. 

The city of Guiyu in southeastern China has experienced heavy metal contamination from the e-waste in its water systems.  These high levels of lead, mercury, and cadmium have affected its food supply.  The city’s inhabitants have difficulty cultivating rice or fish because the water is so heavily polluted by e-waste.  The people in the area can’t wash laundry in the river without turning their linens yellow.  Tests were performed on the sediments and water in Lianjiang River in Guiyu to see if specific metals were contaminating the water.  The river showed abnormally high concentrations of Cadmium in the water.  Cadmium is very dangerous and toxic.  If ingested, the chemical can damage the kidney and bones. 

Over the past several years, Chinese officials have begun to take action regarding e-waste.  China’s government has enhanced existing environmental laws and programs to reduce the amount of e-waste being illegally dumped in the country.  New recycling programs have also decreased the electronic waste that is burned and dumped. Greenpeace has lobbied manufacturers to lessen the amount of toxic chemicals in their products.  Chinese authorities have implemented stricter regulations which limits the e-waste that enters the country. With the changes that are being enforced to reduce e-waste, especially in the water systems, the Chinese may avoid a total environmental disaster.

Water Pollution in China
by Emily Bremer
Pollution issues are nothing new to China, as that country and air pollution has become synonymous with each other, with daily reports of both visibility and health issues. With common reports of haze so thick and dark you can look directly at the sun during the afternoon and it is like looking at the moon, air pollution in China is nothing new. However, water pollution is a growing problem in the country. China’s huge population already places a strain on its limited water resources. Inefficient use of water and droughts in recent years have dwindled China’s clean, fresh water resources. 

Recent reports state that almost 40% of China’s rivers are contaminated, and considered to be poor quality. (Any water considered poor cannot be used for drinking water.) Additionally, another 20% are too toxic to come in contact with.  Water quality is deteriorating all over the country, and in the past year decreased in 754 areas.  China’s booming population (currently around 1.3 billion and counting), the rapidly expanding industrial and chemical industries, and the lack of proper water regulations have created the perfect environment for water pollution to run rampant.  As the number of factories and plants being built along China’s major rivers increases, more and more chemicals and pollutants are being dumped and leaked into them.  Run off and waste from these factors have leached fertilizers, pesticides and heavy metals into the food supply and this has led to serious health problems for many people. Many people in China are not sure if their tap water is even safe to drink. This uncertainty is due to inconsistent regulations, and infrastructure in place to clean and test water. For instance, many treatment plants do not have the capability to test and there are few independent facilities that can test water quality. Additionally, a 2012 study found that while the levels of DDTs found in all rivers and lakes were lower than the levels set forth by China, they exceed the limits set by the European Union.

To address the pollution problem China has revised the environmental protection law to create stricter regulations. The revision has an additional 23 articles, and holds companies responsible for the pollution they create. The revision will go into effect in January 2015, and hopefully will be a step in the right direction for addressing pollution in China.
Water Pollution in China

by Mariah Monroe

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