Minister notes one third of all water is polluted; industrial waste, lack of enforcement at fault
By Grace Ng
BEIJING: Although China will double its spending on water conservation projects over the next decade to an eye-popping four trillion yuan (S$805 billion), it is unlikely to improve water quality, a senior official admitted yesterday.
'We are not optimistic about the water quality situation in China,' a surprisingly candid Vice-Minister of Water Resources Jiao Yong told a press conference, noting that one-third of all the water in the country is seriously polluted or of poor quality.
He did not elaborate on his sobering prediction. But analysts say it may be based on the difficulty of reforming China's vast industries - the key source of pollution - and enforcing environment standards.
Some 980 million of China's 1.3 billion people drink polluted water every day - the result of fertiliser and industrial waste dumps that have severely fouled half the country's rivers and lakes.
The shortage of clean water has become so serious in recent years that the World Bank warned of 'catastrophic consequences for future generations'.
China needs to spend up to 3.5 billion yuan a year to bring its urban water supplies up to standard, it has estimated.
But money has never been the problem. Beijing has already splashed about 73 billion yuan a year in the last five years on water conservation projects.
Over the next decade, it aims to raise this annual amount to 400 billion yuan. This will cover water clean-up as well as drought relief, reinforcing reservoirs and improving irrigation systems.
Yet in spite of the huge outlay, the situation has been getting worse, environmentalists observed.
Not only is climate change drying up water resources in northern parts of China, but the country's inefficient power generation is also set to suck up even more water in coming years. A staggering one-fifth of water used in China goes into producing energy from coal.
'By 2020, coal consumption is projected to increase by 30 per cent,' said Greenpeace head of climate and energy campaign Li Yan.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Environmental Protection has expressed concerns after its own survey last year showed that about 40 per cent of the country's major rivers are so polluted that they can be used only for industry or landscaping.
The key culprit is industry, which accounted for nearly 20 per cent of the organic pollutants discharged into the water in 2007, said Greenpeace toxics campaigner Zhang Kai.
'Most of these hazardous chemicals released are not monitored or regulated under China's standards,' he added.
In Henan province, for instance, hundreds of villagers were left without any clean water because some 250,000 tonnes of chromium residue from a local factory were dumped on a hill, state media China Daily reported yesterday.
The toxic waste leaked into groundwater and wells. Local officials have done nothing to clear the waste despite being ordered to do so 10 months ago by the central government, it added.
Corrupt officials also reportedly stood by while several thousand people died in at least 10 so-called 'cancer villages' across China in the past few years, local media and environment groups reported.
These villagers were plagued by various cancers after drinking water poisoned by chemicals from factories, some of which had bribed the local authorities.
Such cases showed that just introducing new policies or throwing more money into projects is not enough to improve water quality, said analyst Wu Qiang from the China University of Mining and Technology. 'You also need better management and surveillance to enforce policies.'
But he is optimistic that things will get better as public pressure pushes Beijing to clamp down on those responsible.
Mr Jiao yesterday said the central government has 'great determination' to tackle these issues by implementing 'strong policies'.
'Because the situation of our country's water quality is relatively serious, the central government (and top leadership) continue to pay utmost attention on preventing water pollution and protecting water sources,' he said.
[Policies and finance without good, honest, non-corrupt government cannot solve the problem. In fact throwing money into a corrupt system is just adding fuel to the fire.]