As China comes clean on water quality, the message to polluters is crystal clear
Bao Hang says the new transparency and strictness over water pollution in China will help ramp up public pressure on polluters and regulators, just as it did for toxic air
Last Monday, the Ministry of Environmental Protection released information about the state of China’s water quality. The results were a mixed bag, with 70 per cent of water samples deemed fit for human use, and overall water quality seen as getting better, though slowly.
However, Inner Mongolia and Hebei, provinces noted for their poor water quality, saw standards continue to slide. Moreover, a number of provinces with good water quality were rated as taking a turn for the worse.
What was most impressive about the data release, however, was the release itself. This is the first time that the ministry has made all data about water quality from measuring points across the country publicly available.
This big step towards transparency could be a game changer. Just like the Chinese government’s 2013 decision to increase public access to air quality data, this transparency could lead to greater public awareness of water quality issues and increase civil society engagement and research initiatives – all of which have the potential to put water quality more firmly on the policy agenda.
This is not the only good news this summer on China’s attempts to tackle water pollution. At the end of June, the government updated its Water Pollution Prevention and Control Law – for just the second time since 1984.
The revised law is a step forward, as it increases the accountability for provincial-level governments, requires provinces to meet their water quality targets, and also raises penalties for polluters. For example, provinces were previously required only to reduce the quantity of pollutants entering bodies of water. They are now required to ensure that water quality meets targets, and can be barred from building new polluting factories if they do not meet those targets.
This shifts the emphasis of regulation to the end result of cleaning up the water, rather than simply managing polluting emissions.
Another welcome revision to the law is that water quality targets will now be included in the performance evaluation of local officials, alongside such traditional benchmarks as GDP and employment targets. Success or failure on these targets will directly affect career prospects, providing an obvious incentive for officials to implement the programme.
While most attention tends to be focused on China’s toxic air pollution, the seriousness of its water pollution crisis should not be underestimated. A recent study by Greenpeace East Asia found that, as of 2015, more than 85 per cent of Shanghai’s river water was unusable as a drinking water source, and 66 per cent of Tianjin’s surface water was unusable for any purpose at all. Ministry data released last year corroborated this, showing, for example, that 60 per cent of the country’s groundwater was unfit for human contact.
In light of the severity of the problem, therefore, the newly revised law falls short on a number of counts.
Fines, though doubled in some instances, will remain a mere slap on the wrist for large companies. In addition, the fines often amount to only a fraction of environmental remediation costs – the price of soil and groundwater restoration can be astronomical.
Problems remain, also, in terms of cross-boundary cooperation. Each province is responsible for setting and meeting its own targets. But rivers, of course, run across boundaries, meaning that mediocre targets or lax implementation of standards upstream will affect water quality downstream.
Coordination at central government level is also confused. For instance, the ministries of Environmental Protection and Water Resources use different criteria, both in the process of permitting the construction of wastewater discharge outlets and in the assessment of water quality. This is bureaucratic ambiguity is a long-standing issue yet to be resolved.
Much of China’s water quality is worryingly bad, and progress is not fast enough. Therefore, the revision to the three-decade-old Water Pollution Prevention and Control Law, in spite of its weaknesses, is a step in the right direction.
What could be a bigger game changer, however, is the new levels of transparency from the ministry on water quality data.
This opens up new possibilities for public awareness and engagement, and has all the potential to – as has happened with the air pollution issue – help ramp up public pressure on polluters and regulators at both the local and central levels.
Bao Hang is a Greenpeace East Asia toxics campaigner