Inside China’s grand plan to fight water pollution
Water lettuce, or pistia, blankets a portion of the Xizhi River in China’s southeastern province of Guangdong.
BEIJING (Caixin Online) — The government’s recently released plan for water pollution sets ambitious goals for cleaning up the country’s heavily polluted bodies of water, a step forward in a long battle against heavy pollution.
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On April 16, the State Council, China’s cabinet, unveiled its Action Plan for Water Pollution Prevention and Control, the official roadmap for tackling the worsening water pollution, a source of rising public discontent.
Sources close to policy makers said the drafting of the plan took about two years and underwent 30 revisions. Dubbed “10 measures for water,” the plan is the latest official effort to tackle China’s pollution problems, following a similar version targeting air pollution in 2013.
The latest plan says that by 2020 some 70% of seven major rivers, including the Yangtze, Yellow, Pearl and Huai, will be in good condition. The figures will rise to 75% by 2030. Overall improvement of water quality nationwide and of aquatic ecosystems can be expected by 2050, it says.
Wu Shunze, deputy director of the environmental ministry’s Chinese Academy of Environmental Planning who participated in the drafting of the plan, said the plan contains 26 detailed requirements and 238 measures to help meet the 2020 targets. Each measure is assigned to a specific government department to implement, said Wu.
Rapid industrial growth over recent decades has caused great environmental problems for China. Cities across the country are regularly shrouded in smog, and soil and water pollution are constantly generating concerns over food safety and public health. Environmental and health experts have produced research that links the rising number of cancer patients along the Huai River, which flows through central China, to water pollution.
And dirty groundwater poses risks to even more people. State media cited research from 2013 by the Ministry of Land and Resources as saying that only 22% of groundwater under the North China Plain, which covers 409,500 square kilometers of land and is the most populous area in the country, is safe for drinking.
It takes time
The first visible improvements the plan pledges to the public are to eliminate black and smelly water in urban areas while ensuring the safety of drinking in the next five years.
The Ministry of Environmental Protection puts the country’s water into five classes based on quality, ranging from first class, or drinkable water, to fifth class, or heavily polluted water that is black and smelly. Classes one to three are deemed being in good condition. Under the plan, by 2030, 70% of major waterways will be class three or better, rising from the 66.7% found in a 2013 survey.
Wu said one of the main focuses of the plan is to protect water sources by carrying out protection schemes and setting up preservation zones. Protection plans for major source areas — including the Dongjiang River in the eastern province of Jiangxi, the Luan River in the central province of Hebei, and Qiandao Lake in Zhejiang Province in the east — must be done by 2017.
Also, heavily polluted, smelly water must be reduced to 10% of the total in urban areas by 2020 and eliminated by 2030. The plan did not specify the requirements for rural areas.
In addition, the plan also set targets for improving the quality of urban drinking water, groundwater and coastal waters. By 2020, 93% of urban drinking water supplies must be better than class three, 0.2% higher than in 2013. Meanwhile, severely polluted groundwater will be reduced from 15.7% to 15%, and clear coastal water will be increased to 70% from 66.4%.
Wu said cutting pollution of groundwater and sources of drinking water is difficult and will take time to show results.
“(Contamination) of groundwater is complicated,” he said. “After cutting off pollution, a long process is needed to make repairs and changes will not be apparent in one or two years.”