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.
Reuters
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

Obama: Alaskans Feel Signs of Climate Change

They're seeing bigger storm surges as sea ice melts, more wildfires, erosion of glaciers, shorelines More

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

Magical Photo Slides Show Native Americans in Late 1800s

Walter McClintock spent 20 years photographing the Blackfoot Indians and their vanishing culture at the dawn of the modern age More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs