China paying dearly for cleaner
rivers By Candy Zeng
SHENZHEN - China plans to spend hundreds
of billions of yuan in the next few years to clean
up major rivers that are seriously polluted, in an
effort to help ease the country's increasingly
acute water shortage.
resources per capita are only a quarter of the
world average and it is also the world's largest
water consumer. It is estimated that about two
thirds of more than 600 Chinese cities are short
of water, among which some 100 are "critical".
The water shortage woe is further worsened
by the deteriorating
quality due to industrial pollution. To help deal
with this, Beijing plans to spend at least 256.5
billion yuan (US$34.2 billion) by the end of 2010
to clean up 11 polluted rivers, said Wang Jinnan,
chief engineer of the China Environment Science
Planning and Research Institute at a forum on
environment and development last month.
These rivers cover a drainage area of 2.75
million square kilometers in 23 provinces, which
are home to 788 million people. The investment,
according to Wang, will be mainly used for major
projects to halt industrial pollution, for urban
sewage treatment and regional pollution
prevention. If other smaller projects and the
daily operation and maintenance are also included,
the total cost for the government to clean these
11 rivers could be as high as 400 to 450 billion
yuan, he said.
The projected budget for
the cleanup accounted for 2% of China's gross
domestic product (GDP) of 20 trillion-plus yuan
last year. According to a white paper issued by
the State Council Information Office, China put
952 billion yuan into pollution control from 1996
to 2004, taking up 1% of the total GDP in the same
The central and local governments
face a daunting task. Some provinces, such as
those near the Yellow River and Huaihe River, are
less developed and the battles against pollution
could be too financially costly for the regional
governments to bear.
For their richer
counterparts in the east coastal area the headache
is how to balance environmental quality and
economic growth. In some places, the pursuit of
faster GDP growth has proven to be literally
toxic, such as in the Songhua River in northeast
China in 2005 when a chemical plant explosion
poisoned the water for thousands of kilometers. In
June, an algae outbreak in Taihu Lake in eastern
Jiangsu province temporarily kept millions of
fearful people away from the water taps.
The price China has to pay for its
breakneck modernization and to clean up its water
systems is a frequent topic of debate and anxiety
for both the public and officials.
don't curb river pollution, people [downstream]
will protest. If we do, the enterprises protest.
But we have to choose the latter ... We can
justify [pollution abatement] to the enterprises,
but not to the general public if we don't take
action," Chen Jingbao, deputy chief of Pingyang
county in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, was quoted
as saying by a recent issue of Life Weekly.
Chen was talking about the township of
Shuitou, renowned as China's "leather capital" for
its tanning industry that at its peak employed
about 100,000 people in 1,200 small workshops that
occupied more than 36 kilometers of land. The
industry's lack of pollution controls combined
with the massive use of sulfide and lime polluted
the local water system so badly that people
downstream were drawing up petitions and
threatening demonstrations unless something was
After years of dawdling and doing
little or nothing, the public pressure forced the
Pingyang county government to take the issue more
seriously. It ordered the industry to reduce of
the number of rotating drums (for leather
coloring) from 3,300 to 500, and reorganized the
1,200 producers into 39 larger manufacturers.
However, many former leather factory owners were
forced out of business and now the county
government is trying to encourage other cleaner
and more value-added industries as the downsizing
of the leather trade will strip at least some 150
million yuan from county finances.
Jiangsu province, the algae pollution finally
forced the closure of more than a thousand
chemical factories in three cities surrounding
Taihu Lake - Suzhou, Wuxi and Changzhou - three
months after the outbreak. Additionally, Zhoutie
township in Yixing City, on the bank of Taihu
Lake, was a well-known chemical manufacturing town
but has had to close two thirds of its 150
small-scale chemical factories, with assets a
little under 5 million yuan.
"Our GDP fell
from being number three in Yixing to number six
because of the closure of these factories, but
fewer people also complain about the environment,"
said Wu Xijun, the party secretary of Zhoutie
The country's northwestern
Qinghai province, a less developed area where the
main livelihoods are farming and livestock,
prohibited permanent construction around Qinghai
Lake recently. However, though the "sacred lake"
worshiped by local Tibetan residents has been
protected from industrial pollution, it is still
filthy from the litter and sewage generated by an
increasing number of tourists.
area received more than 890,000 visitors last year
and the number could exceed 1 million this year.
Hostels and restaurants were found to be pouring
untreated sewage into the lake, and drink and food
containers tossed by tourists dotted the banks.
"The environmental crisis curbed local
governments' competition for larger economic
growth in favor of ecology and social stability,"
said Ma Jun of a Beijing public and environment
have also joined hands in the campaign against
river pollution because several jurisdictions are
often affected by one river. A new regulation in
Jiangsu requires cities in the upper reaches of
Taihu Lake to compensate those downstream if the
water is found to be substandard.
province also signed an agreement with neighboring
Shandong, Anhui and Zhejiang provinces to
collaborate on river pollution issues. Under the
so-called "regional ecology compensation"
arrangement, provinces downstream will alert the
upstream provinces about any environmental
emergency, demand the closure of polluting
manufacturers in other provinces and ask for
compensation from the polluting provinces.
The environmental campaign has led to the
closure of many polluting businesses around highly
contaminated rivers and legislators are soliciting
public opinion on methods to strengthen water
pollution laws. Some people have complained that
the current pollution penalties are too low and
basically serve as a license to continue to
pollute for a low price. Besides calling for
higher penalties, there have been calls for daily
fines as long as the polluter continues to foul
There is also a strong cry from
the public to include environmental protection in
the performance evaluation of local governments.
Currently, GDP growth is a major factor and
environmental protection counts for little or
nothing. And experts worry that the polluting
factories will move to less-developed land in
China's vast, underdeveloped northwest. As an
elderly woman told Life Weekly magazine: "Water
will be tainted somewhere in the country by these
leather makers even if our [river] is clean now."
Candy Zeng is a freelance
journalist based in Shenzhen, China.