China’s battle with water pollution is up-hill all the way

As the debate over revisions to China’s Environmental Law rumbles on, new incidents of groundwater and river pollution pour out of the Chinese media on a near daily basis. New studies are showing the damaging effects of contamination are worse than previously thought and more widespread: only 22 percent of underground water in the densely populated North China Plain qualifies as drinking water.

The calls for reform of the way water is managed by the government, and for harsher legal penalties, are growing louder. The reality is the nation’s water monitoring and protection is not up to scratch.

The latest incident is fairly typical, resulting in five local government officials being suspended following heavy metal pollution along the Hejiang River around Hezhou City, in the China’s Guangxi Autonomous Region. Initially over 100 companies were told to suspend production as police traced the source.

The finger has been pointed at, Huiwei Ore-processing Company, with police alleging it had been illegally producing indium and discharging effluents that contained toxic cadmium and thallium near a river, their levels nearly more than six times the recommended level.

The news hardly surprises anyone any more. Only last month the 2012 Environmental Conditions Report from the Environmental Protection Ministry plainly said that only about 40 percent of China’s groundwater qualified as a source for drinking water. And it wasn’t the only study to effectively castigate the country’s water policies.

Another study claims that pollution in the Huaihe River in Shenqiu, Henan Province, was posing high risks of cancer to villagers living along the river and claimed 1,724 lives in 2010. Just how the cancer illnesses were fully attributable to river pollution is not entirely clear but the deputy director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Yang Gonghuan went on-record with The Beijing News to say: “The cancer death rate in Shenqiu is about twice the country’s average death rate”.

His research showed that while water quality was improving, there will be at least another ten years of high cancer incidence along the river. These so-called “cancer villages”, as named by the Ministry of Environmental Protection earlier this year, are suffering the effects of toxic chemical contamination of drinking water.

Such is the growing concern about these disasters that the media have resorted to graphic storytelling. The Beijing News went to Xiawan Village, about 100 meters from the Shaying River, the longest tributary of the Huaihe. It reported that: “Tombs line up along the river like a long dam”. Since 2003, lung, stomach, liver, esophageal and other cancers have claimed more than 200 lives from a population of 1,000 and about a third of the inhabitants are suffering from hepatitis.

The helter-skelter advance of China’s economy since the 1980s allowed companies to dump toxic waste with impunity. In spite of continued warnings from central government about water pollution, large numbers of big companies continue to ignore the law often aided and abetted by local officials.

But now, with the media taking greater interest, government officials are stepping forward. Chen Ming, head of the water resources department at the Ministry of Water Resources, told China Daily that there were a lack of monitoring sites and facilities were inadequate.

“Out of fewer than 25,000 monitoring sites managed by all levels of the water resources departments, only about 10 percent are equipped with facilities to test water quality, while the rest can only monitor water quantity,” said Chen. He did add that the ministry planned more than 20,000 national-level monitoring stations to be built or upgraded but offered no deadline.

The official figures, while pessimistic, may be under-estimating the problem. The head of the School of Environment and Natural Resources at Renmin University of China, Ma Zhong, told China Daily that according to his research almost 16 billion tonnes of untreated industrial sewage, discharged in 2009, were not included in the official data.

Solutions

According to the ministry’s own men, China needs to upgrade its monitoring and enforcement in every area of water management. But it also needs to sort itself out.

There are four ministries involved in monitoring groundwater quality, each with overlapping responsibilities: the Ministries of Environmental Protection, Water Resources, Land and Resources, and Housing and Urban-Rural Development. Rationalization is needed.

Then there are the penalties. In May the Environmental Protection Ministry revealed the results of a 40-day investigation into groundwater pollution in six provinces in North China. It recommended that 88 out of the nearly 26,000 companies investigated should be fined. But, according to Xinhua, the average fine imposed was less than CNY70,000 (USD11,000).

These penalties not harsh enough as the most recent contamination along the Hejiang River illustrates. Last year the region ran a campaign following a cadmium pollution case that found 79 companies failed to comply with local environmental standards, yet Huiwei Ore-processing Company obviously missed the message.

There are hopes this might change, whatever happens to the environmental protection law. China’s Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate issued a joint interpretation of the conviction and sentencing standards for criminal cases involving environmental pollution. Up until then fines had been the only punishment.

They said they regarded the underground dumping of waste was one of the 14 most serious environmental-pollution offenses and should result in up to seven year prison sentences.

Pressure is building from the civil society for change, increasingly supported by the media and a more vocal expert community. Whether effective change will follow is another matter

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