News / Asia

After China's Cleanup, Water Still Unfit to Drink

A worker rows a boat in Chaohu Lake, filled with blue-green algae, in Hefei, Anhui province, China, July 23, 2012.
A worker rows a boat in Chaohu Lake, filled with blue-green algae, in Hefei, Anhui province, China, July 23, 2012.
China aims to spend $850 billion to improve filthy water supplies over the next decade, but even such huge outlays may do little to reverse damage caused by decades of pollution and overuse in Beijing's push for rapid economic growth.

China is promising to invest 4 trillion yuan ($650 billion) - equal to its entire stimulus package during the global financial crisis - on rural water projects alone during the 2011-2020 period. What's more, at least $200 billion in additional funds has been earmarked for a variety of cleanup projects nationwide, Reuters has learned after scouring a range of central and local government documents.

That new cash injection will be vital, with rivers and lakes throughout China blighted by algae blooms caused by fertilizer run-off, bubbling chemical spills and untreated sewage discharges. Judging by Beijing's cleanup record so far, however, the final tally could be many times higher.

Over the five years to 2010, the country spent 700 billion yuan ($112.41 billion) on water infrastructure, but much of its water remains undrinkable. The environment ministry said 43 percent of the locations it was monitoring in 2011 contained water that was not even fit for human contact.

"The reason why they have achieved so little even though they have spent so much on pollution treatment is because they have followed the wrong urbanization model - China is still putting too much pressure on local resources," said Zhou Lei, a fellow at Nanjing University who has studied water pollution.

A close look at publicly available documents shows limited environmental ambitions, as Beijing strives to prolong three decades of blistering economic growth and fill the estimated annual water supply shortfall of 50 billion cubic meters required to feed growing energy and agricultural demand.

At the same time, the government faces growing pressure to address environmental effects of fast growth, as public anger over air pollution that blanketed many northern cities in January has spread to online appeals for Beijing to clean up water supplies as well.

The huge costs suggest that treatment, rather than prevention, remains the preferred solution, with industrial growth paramount and pollution regarded as just another economic opportunity, Zhou said.

"They always treat environmental degradation as an economic issue. China is even using pollution as a resource, and using the opportunity to treat environmental degradation as a way to accumulate new wealth," he said, referring to business contracts local governments offer to big water treatment firms.

On top of the 10-year rural water plan, China last year vowed to spend another 250 billion yuan on water conservation, and has since allocated a further 130 billion yuan to treat small and medium-sized rivers over the next two years.

Local governments are also spending heavily, with Dianchi Lake in southwest China's Yunnan province being lavished with 31 billion yuan of investment in the next three years in order to produce ``obvious improvements'' in water quality, records show.

East China's Lake Tai, a test case for China's environmental authorities after suffering a notorious bloom of algae and cyanobacteria in 2007, has spent 70 billion yuan in the five years since, and more is expected.

Both cleanup projects have been designed merely to bring water up from "grade V" - meaning "no human contact" - to "grade IV", which is designated "industrial use only", according to detailed plans listed on local government websites.

Even such negligible gains could be crucial for a country that has the same amount of water as Britain although its population is 20 times as big.

Data from China's Ministry of Water Resources shows that average per capita supplies stand at 2,100 cubic metres, 28 percent of the global average. The government has vowed to cap total use to 700 bcm a year by 2030, but that will still require a big increase in supplies, with consumption now about 600 bcm.

Costly engineering and technological feats, though unlikely to address the underlying causes of pollution, could at least make more water available, allowing marginal quality improvements without interfering with industrial growth or the country's ambitious and water-intense urbanization plans.

"Part of this increase in the supply of water will come from removing all 'grade V' water supplies, which is actually useless even for agriculture," said Debra Tan, director at the China Water Risk organization. "Grade IV is not safe to swim in, but it at least is usable."

You May Like

US, China Have Dueling Definitions of Cybersecurity

Analysts say attribution or or proving that a particular individual or government is responsible for a hack, is a daunting task More

Snowden: I'd Go to Prison to Return to US

Former NSA contractor says he has not received a formal plea-deal offer from US officials, who consider him to be a traitor More

Goodbye Pocahontas: Photos Reveal Today's Real Native Americans

Weary of stereotypes, photographer Matika Wilbur is determined to reshape the public's perception of her people More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europei
Luis Ramirez
October 02, 2015 4:45 PM
European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europe

European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video First Self-Driving Truck Debuts on European Highways

The first automated semi-trailer truck started its maiden voyage Friday, Oct. 2, on a European highway. The Daimler truck called 'Actros' is the first potentially mass-produced truck whose driver will be required only to monitor the situation, similar to the role of an airline captain while the plane is in autopilot mode. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Migrant Influx Costs Europe, But Economy Could Benefit

The influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants is testing Europe’s ability to respond – especially in the poorer Balkan states. But some analysts argue that Europe will benefit by welcoming the huge numbers of young people – many of them well educated and willing to work. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

Video New Fabric Helps Fight Dust-Related Allergies

Many people around the world suffer from dust-related allergies, caused mainly by tiny mites that live in bed linen. Polish scientists report they have successfully tested a fabric that is impenetrable to the microscopic creatures. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Video Burkina Faso's Economy Deeply Affected by Political Turmoil

Political turmoil in Burkina Faso over the past year has taken a toll on the economy. The transitional government is reporting nearly $70 million in losses in the ten days that followed a short-lived coup by members of the presidential guard earlier this month. The crisis shut businesses and workers went on strike. With elections on the horizon, Emilie Iob reports on what a return to political stability can do for the country's economic recovery.

Video Fleeing Violence, Some Syrians Find Refuge in Irbil

As Syrians continue to flee their country’s unrest to seek new lives in safer places, VOA Persian Service reporter Shepol Abbassi visited Irbil, where a number Syrians have taken refuge. During the religious holidy of Eid al-Adha, the city largely shut down, as temperatures soared. Amy Katz narrates his report.

Video Nigeria’s Wecyclers Work for Reusable Future in Lagos

The streets and lagoons of Africa's largest city - Lagos, Nigeria - are often clogged with trash, almost none of which gets recycled. One company is trying to change that. Chris Stein reports for VOA from Lagos.

Video Sketch Artist Helps Catch Criminals, Gives a Face to Deceased

Police often face the problem of trying to find a crime suspect based on general descriptions that could fit hundreds of people in the vicinity of the crime. In these cases, an artist can use information from witnesses to sketch a likeness that police can show the public via newspapers and television. But, as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, such sketches can also help bring back faces of the dead.

Video Thailand Set to Build China-like Internet Firewall

Thai authorities are planning to tighten control over the Internet, creating a single international access point so they can better monitor content. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Bangkok on what is being called Thailand’s own "Great Firewall."

Video Croatian Town’s War History Evokes Empathy for Migrants

As thousands of Afghanistan, Iraqi and Syrian migrants pass through Croatia, locals are reminded of their own experiences with war and refugees in the 1990s. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from the town of Vukovar, where wartime scars still are visible today.

Video Long Drought Affecting California’s Sequoias

California is suffering under a historic four-year drought and scientists say even the state's famed sequoia trees are feeling the pain. The National Park Service has started detailed research to see how it can help the oldest living things on earth survive. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs