Article courtesy of KONG LINGYU | May 4, 2015 | MarketWatch | Shared as educational material
BEIJING — 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.
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.”
‘Black and odorous’
Wu said the government’s most challenging task is cleaning up dirty water in cities. What the plan refers to as “black and odorous water” is heavily polluted. It is easily recognizable, but the government has never set any standards to measure it.
Wu said local governments are using different standards. In Jiangsu, water with ammonia density higher than 8 milligrams per liter and dissolved oxygen of less than 2 milligrams per liter is deemed “black and odorous.”
Wu said in previous water-protection campaigns, governments have paid most attention to major rivers and lakes but neglected dirty water in urban areas, such as the spoiling of water in rivers and ditches due to garbage and waste discharge.
The action plan requires city authorities to complete an inspection of local “black and odorous” water by 2015 and set a timetable for fixing the problem.
The situation varies by city, Wu said. The environmental ministry says one-fifth of city waterways in Jiangsu are designated “black and odorous.” But in the central province of Henan, the figure is 56.7%.
The plan assigns the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development the task of leading the work to manage dirty water in urban areas. Wu said measures would address the sources of discharges, cleaning up garbage and restoring the environment.
Several experts involved in the drafting of the action plan said it provides a policy framework for local governments to roll out specific measures.
The drafters of the plan got the opinion of more than 30 government departments, and figuring out how to make these departments coordinate effectively will be key to implementation, they said.
The departments with lead roles will set timetables for their tasks and work out detailed plans with partner offices. Departments are to be punished if they fail to achieve their goals.
The plan also says the water pollution prevention targets will be part of the State Council’s assessment of local governments and officials. Regular inspections and evaluation of officials will be conducted and made public.
One environmental expert said the approach taken by the plan indicates a possible new direction for future management of the environment, as different government bodies play a role and the environmental ministry supervises them.
Wu said the plan contains a supervision list that includes annual tasks for government bodies. For instance, by the end of 2015, multi-tier water tariffs are to be adopted in all cities, an inspection of heavily polluted water in cities should be completed and an emissions-quota trading pilot scheme is to be launched.
Small factories involved in papermaking, pesticide production and tanning, and other polluters will be shut down by the end of 2016, while closer scrutiny will be paid to highly polluting industries, including the fertilizer, non-ferrous metals and coking sectors.
Starting in 2018, all cities have been told to start publishing data on the condition of drinking water. By the end of that year, agricultural irrigation is to be improved to save water, and new standards for shipbuilding will be adopted.
An expert who participated in the drafting of the plan said the list provides a timetable for media and the public oversight of government work.
Like the 2013 document on air pollution, the action plan for water also mulls publishing city rankings for water quality in an aim to push local authorities to make changes. But Wu said practices for air-quality rankings are not easy to duplicate.
“It only takes one hour to monitor air quality and publish the results, but in many areas water monitoring still relies on manual efforts and cannot be done as frequently,” he said.
Bai Qiuyong, the deputy director of Jiangsu’s environmental protection department, said local authorities perform monthly tests of water and conduct a more comprehensive inspection every year, but the action plan requires more strict and frequent examinations, and cities will be assessed based on the results.
Experts close to the situation said approaches for such assessments are still being discusses, but details will be released soon.