China's deadly water problem

Matthew Garland says the dead pigs found floating in a Shanghai river are only the tip of China's massive water problem, which the government is already desperate to tackle

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 March, 2013, 3:28am

There is an old saying in Chinese culture that the appearance of a fat pig at the front door augurs abundance and good fortune. The sight of a bloated one floating dead down the nearest river portends something else entirely. In the past two weeks, more than 16,000 dead pigs have been fished out of the Huangpu River, near Shanghai, and its tributaries. Outraged Chinese citizens have decried government negligence of the environment, flooding online forums with photos of riverbanks dotted with puce-coloured carcasses.

The Huangpu's cavalcade of swine follows on the heels of a recent factory spill in Shanxi province that resulted in nine tonnes of the potential carcinogen aniline being dispersed in the Zhuozhang River. Factory officials waited five days to report the spill, forcing neighbouring Handan city to temporarily cut off drinking water to a million people.

These recent episodes are but the latest in a long list of incidents that testify to China's growing water problem. As much as 70 per cent of Chinese rivers and lakes are polluted from industrial facilities like chemical and textile plants. "Cancer villages" have sprouted along waterways across the country, by-products of the ugly reality that 300 million Chinese in rural areas lack access to safe drinking water. Perhaps even more unnerving are the findings of a recent report by the China Geological Survey estimating that 90 per cent of Chinese cities are tapped into polluted groundwater supplies; groundwater in two-thirds of those cities is considered "severely polluted".

This discontent has not been lost on China's new generation of top leadership, which has pledged to more aggressively tackle China's pollution challenges in coming years. Recalling a recent visit to the heavily polluted Lake Tai, newly installed president Xi Jinping quipped this month that "the standard that internet users apply for lake water quality is whether the mayor dares to jump in and swim". Xi was referring to recent news that residents in Zhejiang province had challenged local government officials to swim in polluted waterways for up to 300,000 yuan (HK$370,000).

Pollution, however, is only half of the country's water problem. Not only is China's water toxic, it is also comparatively scarce. China supports 20 per cent of the world's population on only 6 per cent of the world's water; freshwater reserves declined by 13 per cent between 2000 and 2009 alone.

The country's most industrial regions are some of the driest, with 45 per cent of the country's gross domestic product produced in water-scarce provinces such as Hebei, Shandong and Shanxi. Some 24,000 villages have been abandoned because of the desertification effects of the Gobi desert advancing eastwards. Moreover, water scarcity is not unique to China's arid western provinces. In Beijing, the amount of water available per person is just one-tenth of the UN standard of 1,000 cubic metres; across the country more than two-thirds of cities have water shortages.

Furthermore, chronic droughts in important agricultural regions are complicating the government's focus on assuring food security. Beijing has long tried to maintain a balancing act between the spread of industry, continued support for agriculture and ensuring a clean supply for consumption by 1.3 billion people. As water supplies dwindle, competition may arise over which is given priority. All three are needed to ensure stability.

Beijing is not short of bold strategies to try to tackle the problem. Over the next decade, China plans to quadruple its desalination capacity. Even more ambitious, and controversial, is the government's south-to-north water diversion project which aims to channel 44.8 billion cubic metres of water a year from southern rivers to drier northern provinces.

Beyond increasing supply, Beijing has also committed billions to promoting water conservation in agriculture through sustainable irrigation practices. Industry is also pulling its weight by fitting new factories with mandatory water recycling systems and by participating in water rights transfers with farmers. China is also investing heavily in renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power, and sea-water-cooled nuclear plants, which are less water-intensive than traditional coal plants. Moreover, China already has many of the regulations needed to stop the adulteration of its rivers and lakes. Unfortunately, most have been rendered toothless by a bureaucratic culture riven with corruption.

China's new prime minister, Li Keqiang , appeared to acknowledge as much in his first press conference since his appointment this month. "Corruption and the reputation of our government are as incompatible as fire and water," he said. "Poverty and backwardness in the midst of clear waters and verdant mountains is no good, nor is it to have prosperity and wealth while the environment deteriorates."

Li's candour certainly comes across as a breath of fresh air in a political environment that often discourages public discussion of China's problems. Still, it remains unclear how the state will go about curbing rampant corruption, especially without engaging in potentially destabilising political reform.

What is clear, at least in the short term, is that China's economy is likely to continue growing at impressive rates. The country's economic transformation has ushered in an era of unprecedented prosperity for hundreds of millions of Chinese. Sadly, there is little such abundance in terms of water, and much of the little that exists is dangerously toxic.

As events move increasingly towards environmental reckoning, many Chinese might prefer a less ironic portent than a river flowing with swine.

Matthew Garland is a Princeton-in-Asia Fellow at the Hong Kong-based Asia Business Council