China’s government says it wants to clean up the country’s rivers, many of which have become cesspools of pollution.
China is famous for a myriad of things, unique cultural heritage and fine cuisine among them. Yet the country has also become synonymous for less laudable features like overcrowding and chronic pollution. Encouragingly, though, the country is seeking to clean up its act by transitioning to low-carbon energy sources like renewables and nuclear power, as well as by investing heavily in electric vehicles.
China’s government has also set out to clean up the country’s heavily polluted rivers, many of which have become veritable cesspools – or “black and stinking,” as the country’s Finance Ministry puts it. According to official data, more than two-thirds (70%) of groundwater samples taken from around the country earlier this year were too polluted to be fit for human use. In 2017, that rate was slightly lower at 67.9%.
In addition, water quality standards were sorely wanting in 39 cities recently surveyed. Even in Shanghai, one of China’s richest cities with relatively environmentally friendly polices, as many as 52 out of 65 monitoring sites were found to have water unsuitable for human use, according to the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs.
Yet the clean-up won’t come cheap, and to their credit senior Chinese officials admit as much. The cost of rolling back water pollution will amount to hundreds of billions of dollars. As the first step, in coming months some 20 cities will receive additional funding of $88 million each so that municipal officials can implement new pollution-control measures and engineering solutions.
Then again, such efforts aren’t all that new. Already in 2014, China’s central government “declared war” on water pollution, in the words of Premier Li Keqiang, with the aim of improving drinking water quality and wastewater treatment standards.
Yet even with all the added investments, China will be facing a Herculean task in seeking to clean up local rivers. Wanton pollution in overpopulated urban areas has become exceedingly bad.
Making matters worse has been that soil erosion from industrial developments and farming has resulted in many rivers silting up, thereby blocking the free flow of water. Officials have routinely turned a blind eye to many factories situated on river banks releasing toxic effluents into waterways.
Implementing anti-pollution measures will require countrywide dedication from officials in a highly hierarchical society with a strict top-down approach where directives from Beijing often go unimplemented at local level, even as local officials carry on paying lip service to adhering to the government line.
“For all that it is represented as a monolithic, authoritarian government, the central government is constrained,” the Global Water Forum, a UN-sponsored think tank, points out. “Although Beijing sets objectives and targets, the design of policies to achieve those targets is largely the responsibility of provincial authorities, and their implementation the responsibility of county- and lower-level officials.”
It doesn’t help that often it is not in the interest of local officialdom and businesses to do much about wanton pollution if that means reducing economic development or implementing policies that come at significant social or economic costs.
“Officials have to meet multiple, conflicting objectives: maintain social stability (for example by supporting factories that provide jobs), maintain desired rates of GDP growth (including encouraging investment by new firms), and clean up water pollution (for instance by prohibiting new polluting factories),” the Global Water Forum adds.
Therein lies the problem: the prices of pollution are steep indeed. As China is learning to its cost, polluting rivers is a whole lot easier than cleaning them up.