China Faces Water Woes

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CHINA, Beijing : A Chinese worker clears away rubbish from a typically polluted river in Beijing, 16 April 2007. PHOTO: AFP

Tougher penalties may help China in its war against water pollution, but it could take years to improve the quality of contaminated rivers and lakes, experts say.

On August 26, legislators submitted a draft measure to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress that could raise fines for dumping into waterways and increase penalties for pollution accidents.

The amendment to the decade-old Water Pollution Prevention and Control Law will now make it harder to ignore the costs of environmental damage. Because fines have previously been capped at 1 million yuan ($132,000), some factories have found it cheaper to keep dumping than to install pollution devices, according to a Reuters report.

“The amendment will end the anomaly [of] high cost for those who comply with the law and light penalties for violators,” said Zhou Shengxian, minister for China’s State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), quoted in the official China Daily.

Though fines for factories will still be limited to a range of 500,000 to 1 million yuan, the measure could also impose penalties of 20 to 30 percent of the “direct economic loss caused by polluters,” China Daily said.

In the case of the 2005 spill of toxic benzene into the Songhua River in northern Jilin province, such a fine would have been colossal, since the accident forced the shutdown of water supplies to the nearby city of Harbin for five days, with effects felt as far away as the Amur River in Russia.

‘Political will’ needed

In the current issue of the policy journal Foreign Affairs, Elizabeth Economy—director for Asia studies at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations—writes that over 75 percent of the river water flowing through China’s cities “is considered unsuitable for drinking or fishing.”

I think there are some areas of the country—some river systems and tributaries—that are not as badly off as others. But if you’re talking about parts of the Huaihe River, parts of the Yangtze, parts of the Pearl River delta, those areas probably could take a decade.

Economy cited reports that one-third of all industrial wastewater and two-thirds of household sewage is released untreated. “As a result, nearly 700 million people drink water contaminated with animal and human waste,” she wrote.

In an interview with Radio Free Asia, Economy said that while raising fines is important to curbing pollution, Chinese officials must also demonstrate political will.

“It’s not clear to me, from at least the initial statements, what it is they’re going to be doing to ensure that the fines, in fact, are enforced,” Economy said.

Economy said that even if fines are increased and enforced, it may take years for factories and municipalities to build wastewater treatment facilities that will allow them to operate without polluting rivers and lakes.

And even after treatment plants are built, Economy said, officials will have to make sure they are used as intended.

“We’ve had repeated statements from local officials and from Beijing officials that even when these plants are built, you find that municipalities and factories are reluctant to use them because they’re expensive to operate.”

It could also take many years before cleanup efforts lead to improvements on some of China’s dirtiest waterways, Economy said.

“I think there are some areas of the country—some river systems and tributaries—that are not as badly off as others. But if you’re talking about parts of the Huaihe River, parts of the Yangtze, parts of the Pearl River delta, those areas probably could take a decade.”

Enforcement is ‘key’

Trevor Houser, director of the energy practice at China Strategic Advisory, a New York-based consulting firm, agreed that the enforcement of fines will be key to a Chinese cleanup campaign.

Houser noted, though, that SEPA is staffed by only about 300 officials in a country with a population of 1.3 billion.

“It’s one thing for SEPA, a relatively understaffed environmental ministry, to have strong enforcement on the books. It’s another for them to have the capacity, the manpower, to be able to make those rules and regulations stick.”

It is also unclear whether the authority to license wastewater discharges will rest with China’s central government or with local authorities, Houser said. If SEPA controls the process, it may be swamped with applications. If local governments provide the permits, the problem of lenient treatment for polluters may persist.

Local officials “are more focused on economic growth,” Houser said.

“So if there’s a type of approval that needs Beijing’s stamp, then that beefs up environmental regulation.”

Original reporting by Michael Lelyveld. Edited for the Web by Richard Finney.


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