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    China Business
     Nov 14, 2007
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.

China's water 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

water 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 period.

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.

"If we 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 done.

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.

In 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 township.

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.

The lake 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 research institution.

Local governments 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.

The 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 the water.

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.

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