Although 70 percent of the planet is made up of water, only 2.5 percent of that is fresh water. According to the United Nations, each person needs an average of 20-25 litres of water a day to meet their basic needs, including cooking, drinking and cleaning.[i] Yet agriculture is responsible for approximately 70 percent of fresh water usage, with this figure rising to 90 percent in some countries.[ii]
‘Day after day, we pour millions of tons of untreated sewage and industrial and agricultural wastes into the world’s water systems. Clean water has become scarce and will become even scarcer with the onset of climate change’ said UN Secretary General Ban K-Moon.[iii] With water usage growing at more than double the rate of population growth in the last century, contaminated water is a serious problem.[iv] China has 7 percent of the entire world’s fresh water supplies yet has 20 percent of the world’s total population.[v]
A report in China last year recorded the North China Plain experiencing extreme pollution of groundwater. Of the 655 cities in China, over 400 of them rely on groundwater.[vi] 70 percent of groundwater supplies were deemed to be grade IV+, unfit for human touch. The study, conducted by the Institute of Hydro-geology and Environmental Geology, based at the China Academy of Geological Sciences, found that pollution was more severe in shallow groundwater, compared to that found deeper underground. Grade I, the highest quality water, was virtually non-existent in shallow ground, and only occasionally existed at grades II-III. In total, shallow groundwater pollution at levels unfit for human touch represented 77.8 percent of all the water sampled. At a deeper level, this was only marginally better, at 73.5 percent. The North Plain of China is one of the country’s major agricultural regions, and also suffers from severe air pollution.[vii]
In March this year, Minister for Environmental Protection, Zhou Shengxian, described the work the government had to do to improve the quality of China’s natural environment. The government will ‘declare war against pollution’ in a way that they did against poverty, he said. ‘To resolutely declare war against pollution is the internal demand for improving people’s quality of life.’ Acknowledging it was also essential to show that China dealt with its environmental problems in order for the public to restore their trust in government, he noted that a healthy environment ‘is the fairest public good and the most universal well-being’. In addition, it would show the world China was a responsible country.[viii] Turning on a tap and having a glass of water might be something that, in Britain at least, we take for granted. Yet in China, tap water often has to be boiled before it is safe to drink but even then, citizens often do not trust that it is safe and 320 million people in that country alone have no access to clean drinking water.[ix]
Although air pollution in China has received much analysis in the media in recent months, there has been far less discussion of the country’s problems with polluted water and soil. A report released in April this year by the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Ministry of Land and Resources highlighted the poor state of China’s soil across the country. The report, a survey of contamination between April 2005 and December 2013, found the state of the country’s soil in a poor condition.[x] Pollutant indicators included 13 types of inorganic pollutants (arsenic, cadmium, cobalt, chromium, copper, fluorine, mercury, manganese, nickel, lead, selenium, vanadium and zinc) as well as 3 different kinds of organic pollutants (insecticides such as DDT).
In describing the contaminated soil in China, both Ministries released a joint statement answering questions to journalists. Noting the difficulties associated with recording soil pollution, when it is not visible in a way that pollution of the air or water is, the statement described soil contamination as being long-standing and lagging behind efforts to control polluted water and air. It is a cumulative process, as soil prohibits the movement of pollution more than air or water, meaning that toxic levels build up over time. It is non-linear, depending on the type of soil and the geographic distribution as well as the pollutant in question. It is also often irreversible or at least very difficult to decontaminate, as many heavy metals are non-degradable, so if they do contaminate the soil, the process cannot be undone. Moreover, protecting soil is a difficult task. When a contaminated section has been identified, remediation requires more than simply cutting off a pollution source to renew the soil. It is chronic, expensive and difficult to achieve.
Grain supplies might also contain excessive levels of heavy metals, from the soil and polluted groundwater, putting food supplies at risk. Climate change and water scarcity only make this situation worse, as increasing areas of farmland undergo desertification. In response to a question about government action towards soil conservation and remediation, it was said that the Chinese State ‘will develop an action plan against soil contamination’ run by the Ministry of Environmental Protection. The legislative process for soil environmental protection will also be accelerated and a soil protection law is already on the agenda.[xi]
Gao Shengda, secretary of the China Environmental Remediation Association, claims much of the pollution in China’s soil comes from mining and industry. ‘China’s 30 years of rapid economic growth have inevitably caused many environmental problems. … Polluted farmland is more serious in provinces with mining areas … In urban areas pollution is mainly due to heavy metal and petrochemical production’. The action plan is much needed, he said, but as it focuses mainly on farmland (and with it being a five-year plan) longer-term solutions are still absent.[xii]
As China is now the ‘Factory of the World’, Greenpeace claims, the fact many of our goods are made there comes with problems: the demand for saving money by multinationals has caused them often to turn a blind eye to environmental standards of their supplies, resulting in environmental destruction. China’s rivers and lakes are seeing the results of a global demand for goods at low prices. The Yangtze, Greenpeace argue, one of China’s great rivers, is now known for its pollution whilst the Yellow River, another iconic waterway in the country, is also facing environmental problems.[xiii]
Because accessing clean tap water is a problem, many Chinese people buy cheap and readily-available bottled water. This however increases environmental problems further with the accumulation of plastics and litter. Bearing in mind the old mantra ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’, better means to clean, drinkable water is preferable.
The ‘big three’ problems of pollution in China (air, water and soil) are not simply individual issues but part of a wider concern and China is coming from behind to catch up and deal with them. However, Greenpeace East Asia noted early in April that the state-owned Chinese coal company the Shenhua Group – which by volume is the world’s biggest coal producer – is set to stop extracting groundwater for their coal-to-liquid project in Inner Mongolia, an area blighted by severe water shortages.[xiv] As Zhou Shengxian said in March, ‘Without a sound ecological environment, it will be futile to talk about the building of a moderately prosperous society in an all-round way. … Pollution control is helpful to create a reversed transmission mechanism that … promotes green development, circular economy and low carbon development’.[xv]
If the Shenhua Group stays true to their word, other companies might follow suit. If China does tackle its pollution problems, it could be seen as a world leader, an example to other heavily polluted nations, giving it more bargaining power on the world stage.
[i] UN Water, ‘A person needs 20-25 litres of water a day for basic needs’: http://www.unwater.org/statistics/statistics-detail/en/c/211765/. See International Fund for Agricultural Development, ‘Water facts and figures’: http://www.ifad.org/english/water/key.htm.
[ii] UN Water, ’70 percent of global freshwater withdrawals are used for irrigation’: http://www.unwater.org/statistics/statistics-detail/en/c/211204/.
[iii] UN Water, ‘International Decade for Action “Water for Life” 2005-2015’: http://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/quality.shtml.
[iv] See http://www.climate.org/topics/water.html.
[v] See ‘Global Water-Nomics’ section: http://chinawaterrisk.org/big-picture/china-water-crisis/.
[vi] Debra Tan (China Water Risk), ‘The War on Pollution’, 12 March 2014: http://chinawaterrisk.org/resources/analysis-reviews/the-war-on-water-pollution/.
[vii] China Water Risk, ‘North China Plain Groundwater: >70% Unfit for Human Touch’, 26 February 2013: http://chinawaterrisk.org/notices/north-china-plain-groundwater-70-unfit-for-human-touch/.
[viii] Ministry of Environmental Protection, ‘Get Prepared for Three Battles While Declaring War against Pollution’, 31 March 2014: http://english.mep.gov.cn/Ministers/Speeches/201404/t20140408_270218.htm.
[ix] Ma Tianjie (Greenpeace East Asia), ‘World Water Day: 10 facts you ought to know’, 22 March 2013: http://www.greenpeace.org/eastasia/news/blog/world-water-day-10-facts-you-ought-to-know/blog/44439/.
[x] Ministry of Environmental Protection, ‘MEP and MLR announce the report on national general survey on soil contamination’, 28 April 2014: http://english.mep.gov.cn/News_service/news_release/201404/t20140428_271088.htm.
[xi] Ministry of Environmental Protection, ‘Q&A about national general survey on soil contamination’, 28 April 2014: http://english.mep.gov.cn/News_service/news_release/201404/t20140428_271089.htm. See also Ministry of Environmental Protection, ‘MEP and MLR announce the report on national general survey on soil contamination’, 28 April 2014: http://english.mep.gov.cn/News_service/news_release/201404/t20140428_271088.htm.
[xii] Interview with Zhang Chun and Gao Shengda, ‘China Lacks Experience to Clean Dirty Soil’, 13 May 2014: http://chinawaterrisk.org/interviews/china-lacks-experience-to-clean-dirty-soil/.
[xiii] Greenpeace East Asia, ‘Water Pollution in China’: http://www.greenpeace.org/eastasia/campaigns/toxics/problems/water-pollution/.
[xiv] Greenpeace East Asia, ‘World’s biggest coal company Shenhua to stop exploiting groundwater in China’, 8 April 2014: http://www.greenpeace.org/eastasia/press/releases/climate-energy/2014/shenhua-coal-china-water/.
[xv] Ministry of Environmental Protection, ‘Get Prepared for Three Battles While Declaring War against Pollution’, 31 March 2014: http://english.mep.gov.cn/Ministers/Speeches/201404/t20140408_270218.htm.