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Defending water security

A serious pollution incident in eastern China has raised important questions about legal compliance, local governance and public participation, writes Ma Jun.

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On February 20, tap water plants in the city of Yancheng, Jiangsu province, were closed after the water was contaminated by a phenol compound. Large areas of the city, which is home to 200,000 residents, were left without drinking water. The incident reveals serious failings in China’s water management system, and it is worth a closer look.

There is nothing special about Yancheng. A survey of drinking water sources carried out in 2007 by the Jiangsu environment bureau found problems in every single city in the province. Sources of pollutants were identified in 13 of the 18 sources of tap water for the provincial capital, Nanjing, and in seven of eight sources for the city of Wuxi.

Water pollution statistics for the entire country were issued by the China National Environmental Monitoring Centre in June 2006. Drinking water sources were below standard in just over one-in-five key environmental protection cities. Polluted tap water is a direct threat to the health and lives of residents. According to the government, an environmental incident occurs once every two days on average, 70% of which involve water pollution.

Yancheng draws its tap water from rivers that include the Mangshe River. The extraction points are all surrounded by polluting industries. As early as 2003, local media outlets exposed the dangers posed by the 51 industrial firms that are based in or around areas that are supposed to be protected as sources of drinking water. Eleven of those firms were subsequently closed or relocated.

As has happened elsewhere, a cycle of treatment and pollution was set in motion. The city dealt with the heavy polluters near drinking-water sources, yet it still approved the construction of new projects. Many outlets for waste-water were located upstream of water extraction points on the Mangshe River and Xinxianggang River. According to Article 34 of China’s 2002 Water Law, it is illegal to construct sewage outlets in protected drinking water sources. However, in Yancheng, not only were sewage outlets located in protected areas, but also the waste came from very polluting chemical companies, including the polluters in this particular case, Yancheng Biaoxin Chemicals.

Yancheng factory

Photo by Woocool

After the 2007 algae bloom in Taihu Lake, the State Environmental Protection Administration (now the Ministry of Environmental Protection) and the provincial environment authorities demanded stronger oversight. Yancheng decided to close or relocate at least one-third of key chemical plants that were upstream or near protection areas. The remaining two-thirds were supposed to be dealt with in 2008.

In the meeting that set out the plan, one city leader described the threat from chemical plants as a time bomb threatening water security in Yancheng. He cited a chemical leak at Longfeng Aromatics, strange odours coming from the river in 2004 and 2005 and a waste leak from Anhu Agricultural Chemicals in 2007.

However, one year later Yancheng extended the deadline for closing or relocating 10 of the firms until the end of 2009. These firms included Biaoxin. Indecision and delay meant a serious incident was permitted to happen. On February 20, Biaoxin dumped 30 tonnes of phenol-contaminated effluent into the Mangshe River. The water that reached the tap water plants breached limits on volatile phenols by a factor of 100; 200,000 residents had their water cut off.

This may have been the behaviour of a rogue enterprise, but behind the incident lay weak supervision and enforcement, and a local government that illegally allowed waste outlets to be built near water sources. It is a problem that could have been predicted when dangerous industries were allowed to operate on the river. The locals describe it thus, “keep the rat poison by the stove and something is bound to go wrong.”

Laws have been decreed and policies issued at the highest levels. The environment authorities have put systems in place and launched crackdowns. There is no doubt that water security is an issue that is taken seriously. In practice, however, the environmental authorities are weak. Environmental protection policies are subordinate to the broader economic picture. Environmental impact assessments can be breached if they are a barrier to investment. Once a crackdown has ended, polluting industries can pick up where they left off – as long as it will benefit GDP growth. Faced with the choice between economic growth and protecting water resources, local governments favour the economy. This choice reflects a problem in their understanding of development.

Northern Jiangsu is underdeveloped, and some local governments talk about embracing a rapid, “pole-vault” model of development. Seeking quick economic gains, they have courted profitable, yet polluting, chemical industries. Yancheng has established nine chemical industrial parks.

In northern Jiangsu, chemical industrial parks were in need of tenants; in the south, tougher environmental regulation put pressure on heavily polluting companies. Consequently, a number of firms relocated to the province’s northern coastline.

These movements saw government income in northern Jiangsu rise by 33.9% in 2008, compared to 21.1% for the province as a whole. The majority of subdivisions under the administration of Yancheng city saw their incomes rise by over 40%.

However, an over-reliance on the chemical industry brought environmental pressures. Clean rivers became channels of effluent. In the wake of the Yancheng incident, it is hard not to ask why this was permitted to happen. The area is now covered in chemical industrial parks; even if they are kept away from water sources, what about waste that is released upstream? How do you prevent pollution downstream?

Responding to these questions, a local environmental official told reporters that it is normal to meet basic needs before protecting the environment. An official with the local investment office commented that western countries have shown the feasibility of polluting first and cleaning up later; it is an unavoidable development model, he said. The media summarised his position as, “it is better to be poisoned than poor”.

These views are not unique to Yancheng. Some see environmental problems as the normal consequences of an early stage of economic growth, which will be naturally resolved through further development. However, when pollution is a direct threat to the health and lives of the people, why should we wait? It is mostly the officials – who can afford to drink bottled water, live apart from polluters and eat uncontaminated foods – who think it is best to run the risk of dying. It is vulnerable social groups who suffer most from water and air pollution.

The Chinese central government is aware of the imbalance regarding economic development and environmental protection. The “scientific view of development” was developed in order to achieve balanced and sustainable growth. “It is better to be poisoned than poor” does not fit with the scientific view of development.

The Yancheng incident will spur emergency measures: releasing water from reservoirs to flush out the pollution; finding new water sources; and relocating chemical plants. Similar events have triggered similar reactions in the past. But we must be aware of the limitations of this approach: extra water only dilutes the pollution and washes it downstream; new water sources lead to over-extraction and diminished concerns about local water pollution; the relocation of plants only moves the problem closer to the sea or into rural areas.

If we want to drink clean water, we need to control pollution and stop projects that contaminate our rivers. This requires widespread participation in environmental management and policymaking. Understanding the environmental costs and benefits of various projects will help us find a balance and a negotiated compromise between different interests. We have no time to waste: to protect our water we need a new type of decision-making. It will test the will and the capacity of government at all levels to implement the scientific view of development.

Ma Jun is director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs

Frontpage photo by Woocool

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





two reports

On the 18th March Beijing Evening News reported that tourists can pay to go sighseeing at Beijing’s Huairou reservoir, which is usually closed off from the public.
On 20th March Southern Metropolitan Daily reported that the main reservoir that provides drinking water to Guangdong, Shenzhen and also to the residents of Hong Kong, which was a popular sightseeing destination for a long time, now has dog kennels, waste transfer station, henhouses on its upper reaches. The issue of water safety is incredibly urgent. I hope that a water crisis like that in Yancheng won't happen again.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


苏北的百姓得癌症的人很多 ,是全国癌症高发区,苏北环境告急!

The environment in northern Jiangsu province is in a state of emergency

This is all to do with the behaviour of the government, the common people are powerless. The author definitely has the right idea -- there are too many chemical industrial areas in Yancheng, which pollute not only our water sources and our blue sea, but also occupy a large amount of marshland along the coast. The number of people with cancer in Southern Jiangsu is high, it is one of the most prevalent places for cancer in the whole country. Southern Jiangsu is in a state of environmental emergency! This is a call for environmentalists to appeal to media nationally and internationally and ask them to participate in governmental supervision! Chinese local governments behave lawlessly!

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Do we have water shortage?

The media is always saying that there is water shortage in China. In fact, there is no shortage of water in China.However,we don't manage water resources well. Many high-quality water resources are exploited for commercial purposes. Moreover,we attach not enugh importance to tap water in cities. In addtion, there has been exsiting a problem of the asymmetric water information ,that is to say,our government claims water is in good condition,nevertheless,the non-governmental organization emphasizes water is in bad condition. So both sides need communications.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Notice issued by the Ministry of Environmental Protection -- “Strengthening the work of ensuring the safety of drinking water sources”

This notice points out that in China environmental accidents have been occurring constantly in recent years, and have posed a severe threat to the safety of public drinking water. In 2008 there were more than 135 environmental incidents handled directly by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, of which 46 threatened the public drinking water safety. (Translated by Tian Liang).

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



So that fresh water can come pouring from the source

Water is more important than food -- everyone needs to drink water everyday. The poisoned milk powder incident brought great harm to tens of thousands of children and shocked the whole nation. At that time the subject of ‘Food Safety Law’ was raised. Nowadays, it seems that all we can expect is that cases of water pollution will be more exposed to the public by the media and everyone will suddenly realise how serious this issue is. Can only loss of life cause people to start paying attention?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Fair water

City residents can enjoy the clean water everyday because city water facilities are advanced and the government is quick to react to emergencies. However, in remote mountainous regions people have no idea about when their local water source or river is polluted. Over generations people have drunk the bad water and have naturally contracted a variety of strange diseases.
(Translated by Tian Liang)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

from wxai‘s word


from wxai's word

Drinking water is a long-standing problem. Whose responsibility should it be – that of the environmental protection department or that of the government? On one hand, local environmental law clearly states that local government is responsible for the quality of the environment, including the quality of the environment of the drinking water supply of course. However we are not clear the kind of responsibility the environmental protection department has over drinking water and what kinds of shortcomings they have in this respect, we are not clear about either. On the other hand, drinking water management is also related to the water resources, environmental protection, land and public health departments and the more departments involved, the greater the potential for mismanagement. The environmental protection department really has an impossible job. Now the environmental protection department holds the responsibility, but has no resources to carry this out with. I suggest that it should be the Central Division of the Department of Environmental Protection who is responsible for the quality of the drinking water. If there is an incident, the department head should be sacked or whoever holds the responsibility – (from land, water resources, public health departments), the head of that department will be sacked. This will make things a little better. Sacking the heads of some local environmental protection agencies is like swatting a few flies, who really cares?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Political achievement or morals?

I hope this northern Jiangsu incident should be positively dealt with by all parties involved, for the costs and negative effects of salvation afterwards are incalculable. Local governments should especially pay attention to the inspection in raising political achievement and introducing investment, in particular the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). For the local governments, one thing to bear in mind is that don’t welcome those high-polluting enterprises that are banished from the developed cities to invest in the less developed areas; and don’t let our innocent rural brothers live all day in breathing in high-polluted air and drinking high-polluted water. I thus sincerely wish all parties involved had a far-sight view to protect the pure land of the rural areas, and to give opportunity for the rural people to provide us with environmentally friendly and non-toxic food. -- Beautiful Homeland (Mei Li Jia Yuan)
(Translated by Jieping Hu)