Water Pollution in China

Subject: Environment
Pages: 11
Words: 2808
Reading time:
11 min
Study level: College

China is on the verge of experiencing water crisis. Bao et al. argue, “The country’s per capita water supply is significantly lower than the global average, but its demand for water is astronomical” (103). In China, agriculture and industry require a lot of water and contribute to water pollution. For the past three decades, the country has changed from indigent farming-dependent to an industrial hub. The transformation has come at a high cost. The increased dumping of toxic industrial wastewater and poisonous chemicals has resulted in the contamination of groundwater and rivers. According to Bao et al., China produces at least 3.5 million tons of waste materials daily (105).

The country requires at least 10,000 treatment plants to mitigate the effects of half of its normal waste products. Even though the state has made an effort to establish modern wastewater treatment facilities, it still requires more plants to address the challenge of water pollution. Today, over half of the China’s population does not have access to clean water. As a result, they are vulnerable to waterborne diseases and other health challenges attributed to polluted water. The increased growth of paper manufacturing companies, textile and pharmaceutical industries has contributed to water pollution. The Chinese government requires taking proactive environmental conservation measures to prevent further contamination of the existing clean underground water. This article will address the challenge of water pollution in China.

History of China’s Economic Plan

According to Wang and Yang, China’s economic plan contributed to the rise in air and water pollution (359). Previously, China was a socialist state, but the demand for economic growth resulted in the country embracing capitalistic ideologies. It is imperative to mention the Chinese leaders who initiated political movements that transformed the country’s economy. They include Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong. Wang and Yang allege that the Maoist era (1949-1976) marked the beginning of China’s economic transformation (361).

Wang and Yang posit, “Mao sought to substitute political control and ideological or moral persuasion for material stimulus, to achieve a high rate of capital accumulation, and in a sense, the entire economic reform seemed to be geared towards this particular end” (363). China, which is a communist nation, was determined to use all means possible to be economically secure. Mao adopted the Soviet Union’s economic growth strategy that encouraged the development of heavy industries. The country launched iron and steel production plants, ushering the era of industrial growth. Mao’s strategy intended to promote industrial growth, which would contribute to economic growth. However, it brought a lot of challenges to the country. The approach led to the development of new roads, cities, dams, factories, lakes, and dikes, which transformed the face of China. Moreover, it contributed to significant changes in the country’s environment.

From the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping initiated reforms, which continue to influence China’s economic growth. The country formulated foreign trade policies that facilitated the enhancement of industrial movements. Deng’s primary objective was to help the country become rich. He was determined to do everything possible to realize this aim. Huang argues that Deng’s reforms set the stage “for the state-sponsored campaign to exploit the natural environment for the purpose of economic development” (par. 7).

The participation of China in the global market led to the development of more factories, which contributed to increased pollution. In the past three decades, China has witnessed the fastest economic development worldwide. The country’s gross domestic production has consistently grown at 10%. The economic growth has led to immense air and water pollution. The majority of the Chinese industries are powered using coal, resulting in the emission of toxic gasses into the environment. The quality of air in the majority of the Chinese cities is wanting. In fact, 16 out of 20 most polluted cities in the world are in China. Research shows that only one percent of the Chinese population enjoys the quality air.

China’s economic plan is contributing not only to air pollution but also water contamination. Wastewater and toxic chemicals from the industries find their way into rivers, rendering their water harmful for human consumption. Currently, China is on the verge of experiencing water crisis due to increased contamination of fresh water reservoirs. Environmentalists and medical professionals allege that air and water pollution is leading to higher rate of deaths and sicknesses in China. Lack of strong regulation to control the dumping of wastewater and toxic chemicals have contributed to increasing in water pollution. Today, at least 70% of the rivers and lakes in China are polluted. At least 25% of the Chinese do not have access to clean water.

Usage of Water in China

In China, the categories of heavy water users include bottlers, households, agriculture, beverage companies, hotels, apparel industry, and metals and mining industries among others. These groups compete for scarce water resources in the country and pose significant water risk. Research shows that agriculture consumes at least 50% of water in China. In the North West basins, agriculture uses at least 85% of the water resources. Han and Currell posit, “In the Chinese context, the water use refers to gross water distributed to users, including loss during transportation, which can be significant” (604).

Currently, there is no accurate data on water use in China. The existing data considers the water usage in industry, household, agriculture, environmental protection, and services. The last two groups are quite general and cannot help to estimate water usage in the country. The Chinese government has tried to enhance access to clean water. Nevertheless, at least 300 million people continue to use untreated water (Han and Currell 611). The majority of the Chinese industries use coal as the primary source of energy. Therefore, they use groundwater in their cooling systems. Inefficient use of groundwater in the industries has contributed to a shortage of this critical resource in China.

Today, there has been increased private consumption of water in China. A high proportion of the Chinese middle class uses washing machines and dishwashers, which results in wastage of water. Moreover, changes in lifestyle have contributed to increased water usage. According to Buckley and Piao, China is gradually embracing agribusiness, which contributes to water shortage downstream (par. 7). A high number of people have invested in rice and wheat farming as well as beef production. Wang and Yang argue, “The meat industry requires over 15,000 liters of water to produce 1kg of beef with intensively reared cattle” (361). A study conducted in 2015 found that the average per capita water usage in China was 445.1 cubic meters.

Water Pollution

Kaiman argues that it is difficult to find accurate information about water contamination in China (par. 3). Nevertheless, a study by the Water Resources Ministry found that at least 80% of the country’s underground water “drawn from relatively shallow wells used by farmers, factories, and mostly rural households is unsafe for drinking because of pollution” (Yi par. 4). A study of 2,103 wells found that water from 32.9% of the reservoirs was fit for agricultural and industrial use only. Water from 47.3% of the wells was not fit for human consumption (Kaiman par. 5). Currently, most households rely on water from deep aquifers, reservoirs, and rivers.

The water is first treated before it is declared safe for human consumption. In China, the extent of water pollution becomes apparent when one enters a hotel room. Schmitz avers, “Visitors can quickly detect the smell of a contaminated river emanating from the showerhead” (par. 8). It is hard for people to brush their teeth or quench their thirst. The majority of the Chinese do not trust bottled water. Research conducted by the Chinese government in 2011 revealed that at least half of the country’s biggest reservoirs and lakes were polluted and their water was unsuitable for domestic use. The country’s over 4,700 water-quality assessing facilities maintain that at least three-fifths of China’s water supplies are unfit for human use. The water that over 50% of the rural residents use does not satisfy the international standards regarding quality.

The data from the Ministry of Supervision shows that China records at least 1700 instances of water pollution annually. For example, in 2012, the Longjiang River was contaminated with heavy metal. In the same year, the Zhenjiang City reported an incidence of phenol leakage that found its way into the Yangtze River. About 20,000 chemical factories, a majority of which are located along the Yangtze River, release their effluents into the country’s rivers.

Current and Future Problems

The present level of water pollution in China is alarming. At least 20% of the rivers in the country are contaminated, and 40% are categorized as severely polluted. Research shows that over 50% of China’s cities have contaminated water. The increase in the number of industries is making it hard for the country to fight water pollution. The amount of wastewater discharged into lakes and rivers continues to grow. Schmitz avers, “The situation of China’s water environment is still very grim” (par. 6). Currently, the annual volumes of ammonia nitrogen emissions and chemical oxygen demand (COD) are 2.45 million tons and 24 million tons respectively.

For the country to enhance the quality of its water, it requires reducing the annual volumes by at least 30%. According to Schmitz, the level of wastewater discharge is higher than the country’s environmental bearing capacity (par. 9). Over 300 million Chinese are in the danger of contracting waterborne diseases as they cannot access clean water. China may not manage to deal with the challenge of water pollution soon unless it implements stringent regulations. Currently, the country does not have strict laws on the management of wastewater. Industries continue to release their effluents into rivers and lakes, leading to water pollution. China’s increased participation in the global market will result in the growth of more industries. Hence, it will be difficult for the country to mitigate water pollution in the future.

Measures Taken by the Government

China has come up with numerous initiatives aimed at combating air and water pollution. The country has enhanced the production of hydroelectric power to minimize the use of coal. According to Wu et al., the use of coal to power industries contributes to water and air pollution (124). The country has already constructed many dams to boost the generation of hydroelectricity. The construction of Xiluodu hydropower station helped to minimize the use of fossil fuel and mitigate water and air pollution. Apart from the production of hydroelectric power, China has invested in traditional water treatment and supply infrastructures. The country has multiple wastewater treatment facilities that help to treat effluent before it is released into rivers or lakes. The country has already constructed over twenty sewage disposal plants across the Shaanxi province in northwest China. Statistics show that industries in the region discharge over 800 million tons of toxic wastewater and sewage into rivers annually (Wu et al. 127).

The Chinese government has partnered with private investors to construct sewage treatment plants. For instance, in 2007, the government, in partnership with Guangzhou Wastewater Treatment Co. Ltd, built a water treatment plant in Guangzhou (Wu et al. 129). The plant helped to reduce the discharge of contaminated effluent into the Xinjiang. China appreciates that it would be difficult to enhance the quality of water without embracing technology and implementing strict laws. The Chinese agree that failure to adequately enforce the existing environmental laws has contributed to the high level of water pollution.

The country has enacted strict rules to minimize pollution. Moreover, companies and individuals who violate the rules incur hefty penalties. In 2010, the state adopted tougher emission standards to curb the release of toxic gasses into the atmosphere. Today, all companies that discharge pollutants are supposed to get clearance from the government before they start operating. The move has helped to reduce the release of harmful waste materials into the rivers. Yang et al. claim that the use of agricultural fertilizers contributes to water pollution in China (par. 6). The Chinese government is encouraging farmers to use organic fertilizers to curb water pollution.

The State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) has encouraged local authorities in areas prone to water pollution to implement environmental conservation measures. The local authorities in the Yangtze, Yellow, Hai He, and Huai He River basins initiated environmental conservation campaigns that culminated in the closure, renovation, and suspension of companies that contributed to water pollution. Nevertheless, the campaign was not very effective as the majority of the closed companies reopened the moment the authority turned its attention elsewhere. Previously, in China, water conservation policies focused on the affected rivers, dams and lakes. The government has altered the protection policies to facilitate the management of the ecological system. The current action plan covers the entire ecological system, which comprises water bodies, forests, and mountains.

In 2015, the Chinese government released a water pollution action plan that sought to enhance the quality of water. The action plan targeted the major polluters across the country. The government ordered the closure of many small-scale companies that contributed to water pollution. They included oil refineries, paper mills, small tanneries, and fertilizer plants. Additionally, the government ordered major industries to come up with measures to enhance waste management. The government decided to close the smaller enterprises after realizing that it was costly to improve waste management systems and minimize wastewater in the companies.

Ordering the smaller companies to close did not help to reduce air and water pollution in the country. Instead, the move resulted in the relocation of the polluters to other areas. According to Yang et al., “the cap on coal use under the air pollution management plan pushed polluters into poorer and more arid areas, which led to more widespread damage to river systems and water quality” (par. 9). Failure of the government to monitor the implementation of the action plan led to the transfer of the problem to areas that did not have the capacity to handle them. Implementing environmental conservation laws at a local level is a challenging endeavor. The central government does not have the ability to ensure that the local authorities stick to the established regulations. The majority of the local authorities give priority to economic development. The central government encounters challenges in the effort to change the mindsets of the local authorities.

In 2016, the top legislature revised environmental laws to curb water pollution. The laws required the local authorities to set deadlines for enhancing water quality and commit to enacting stringent pollution control regulations. The government improved environmental monitoring systems and encouraged companies to monitor their levels of pollution. The enacted laws have gone a long way towards helping China to cut down on chemical oxygen demand and discharge of ammonia nitrogen.

Pollution as a Grave problem

The factors that contributed to pollution being a serious issue in the past decade included the country’s economic plan. China’s effort to be an economic powerhouse led to the establishment of many industries that used coal as the primary source of energy. The use of coal to power industries resulted in air and water pollution. Additionally, the amount of wastewater that was released into the water bodies increased significantly (Yadong and Shangyou 24). The local governments were reluctant to implement environmental laws because they affected economic development.

The parties were determined to use all means possible to develop their economy. In the process, they allowed companies to engage in economic activities and use sources of energy that contributed to air and water pollution. Yadong and Shangyou argue, “The problems associated with water contamination in China are institutional and cannot be sufficiently addressed until the underlying issues are changed” (31). In the past decade, China had not enhanced the water rights regime, recentralized environmental enforcement, and promoted water efficiency. Additionally, the central government had not empowered the top environmental agencies. Consequently, it was hard for the agencies to enforce the environmental laws.


China has made significant strides in the fight against air and water pollution. The country has enacted many laws that aim at ensuring companies use clean sources of energy and manage their waste. The central government has come up with a five-year plan that seeks to reduce air and water pollution across the country. The goal of the government is to realize 70% reduction in air and water pollution by 2020.

Even though the Chinese government may not achieve its objective in the next five years, the move to implement stringent environmental regulations is a positive step towards combating water pollution. Currently, the majority of the Chinese understand the significance of controlling air and water pollution. Encouraging companies to implement waste management strategies will go a long way towards ensuring that industries do not release untreated sewage and wastewater into rivers. The country should involve stakeholders and key local organizations in the fight against water pollution and abandon the present top-down approach.

Works Cited

Bao, Lian-Jun, et al. “China’s Water Pollution by Persistent Organic Pollutants.” Environmental Pollution, vol. 163, no. 1, 2012, pp. 100-108.

Buckley, Chris, and Vanessa Piao. “Rural Water, Not City Smog, may be China’s Pollution Nightmare.” The New York Times, 2016.

Han, Dongmei, and Matthew Currell. “Persistent Organic Pollutants in China’s Surface Water Systems. Science of the Total Environment, vol. 580, no. 1, 2017, pp. 602-625.

Huang, Yanzhong. China: The Dark Side of Growth.

Kaiman, Jonathan. “China Says More than Half of its Groundwater is Polluted.” The Guardian, 2014.

Schmitz, Rob. A Warning for Parched China: A City Runs Out of Water. 2016.

Wang, Qing, and Zhiming Yang. “Industrial Water Pollution, Water Environment Treatment, and Health Risks in China.” Environmental Pollution, vol. 218, no. 1, 2016, pp. 358-365.

Wu, Haoyi, et al. “Westward Movement of New Polluting Firms in China: Pollution Reduction Mandates and Location Choice.” Journal of Comparative Economics, vol. 45, no. 1, 2017, pp. 119-138.

Yadong, Mei, and Feng Shangyou. “Water Pollution in China: Current Status, Future Trends, and Countermeasures.” Chinese Geographical Science, vol. 3, no. 1, 2012, pp. 22-33.

Yang, Hong, et al. “Quenching China’s Thirst for Economic Growth.” East Asia Forum, 2013.

Yi, Lin. “More than 80 Percent of China’s Groundwater Polluted.The Epoch Times, 2016.