One day in late February last year, Ma Jun’s home phone started ringing and didn’t stop.
The director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in Beijing had yet to have breakfast, so he ignored it. When he finally answered, the news was momentous.
The Chinese government had admitted for the first time that decades of reckless pollution had spawned a string of “cancer villages.”
These are communities near chemical, pharmaceutical or power plants with unusually high death rates. Environmentalists, NGOs and academics had long argued that contaminated water, which villagers rely on for drinking, cooking and washing, was the prime suspect.
The cancer villages — there are an estimated 450 across China — were identified in the late ’90s but the government had never acknowledged them. Until now. The belated recognition appeared in the environment ministry’s five-year plan for tackling pollution.
Ma, a well-known environmental activist, couldn’t believe it.
The document said: “In recent years, toxic and hazardous chemical pollution has caused many environmental disasters, cutting off drinking water supplies, and even leading to severe health and social problems such as ‘cancer villages.’”
This, says Ma, was the government’s first step in solving the “big problem” of water pollution.
“If I give you data about (water) pollution in China, you will be shocked,” he says. It is worse than what people know, believe or have read about.
“But I have hope that this (the water situation) will turn around in the next few years.”
More than 70 per cent of China’s rivers and lakes are polluted, government reports have said, and almost half may contain water that is unfit for human consumption or contact.
And China’s more than 4,700 underground water-quality testing stations show that nearly three-fifths of all water supplies are “relatively bad” or worse.
Early last year, Jin Zengmin, an eyeglass entrepreneur from eastern China, announced he would give $32,000 to the chief of the local environmental protection department to swim in a nearby river for 20 minutes. Jin’s offer, made on social media, went viral. Not surprisingly, the chief declined.
How did it get this bad?
During the past few decades, China has gone from an impoverished farming-reliant country to the “factory of the world.” For the most part, industries have been unregulated: the widespread dumping of toxic chemicals and industrial waste water has poisoned rivers, lakes and groundwater.
The Yellow and Yangtze, two of China’s major rivers, traverse the country’s industrial belts as they flow from west to east: they are among the most polluted rivers in the world. By the time they reach coastal cities, their waters require extensive treatment before being potable.
Jennifer Turner, the director of the China Environment Forum with the Wilson Center, a think-tank in Washington D.C., says the country has a water crisis.
“Having said that, you have to keep in mind that every year for the past 40, China’s GDP has grown 10 per cent,” she adds. “It doesn’t mean water had to pay this kind of price, but it has happened.”
Turner wrote her dissertation on water management in China in 1995.
She says the water quality has remained at a “steady awful level for the past decade.” A lot of current efforts maintain that level, “not let it get worse.” Water plants are now treating as much as 70 per cent of water, but agriculture runoffs and contamination from industries — such as chemical spills and deliberate dumps — are getting worse.
Agriculture runoffs are the No. 1 cause of contamination, says Turner.
The other big problem is that China simply doesn’t have enough water, says Charles Jia, a professor at the University of Toronto.
China has about 7 per cent of the world’s fresh water but sustains more than 20 per cent of the population. (By comparison, the Great Lakes contain 21 per cent of the world’s fresh water supply.)
Large-scale industrialization has overwhelmed scarce supplies and drinking water has become the biggest casualty, says Jia.
“The one thing (China) has failed at miserably,” says Ma Jun, “is keeping up with demand for clean water.”
China is the world’s largest grain producer. It has also become the world’s largest producer and consumer of fertilizers and pesticides, according to China’s Journal of Arid Land. Its fields are a bigger source of water contamination than factory effluent, the Chinese government said in its first pollution census in 2010.
More than half of China’s water pollution comes from fertilizers, pesticides and livestock waste that is carried into lakes, rivers, wetlands, coastal waters and underground aquifers by rainfall and snowmelt.
(Pig and poultry farms have also rapidly developed; in 2002, the total livestock waste was more than four times greater than the production of industrial organic pollutants.)
A lot of fertilizer and pesticides are fakes in China and thus largely ineffective, says Turner, which is one reason why farmers overuse them. “It is a hard sector to regulate because it cannot be traced back to one source, like pollution from a factory can be.”
Fertilizer runoff wrecks the soil, too, in the long run.
Recently, a team from Greenpeace East Asia’s Detox campaign spotted a black plume of waste water, the size of 50 Olympic swimming pools, on the sea’s surface near the city of Shishi, a big centre for children’s clothing manufacturing. Greenpeace found that the plume came from a waste-water treatment plant that treats 19 of the city’s textile dyeing plants.
Tests showed it contained many hazardous chemicals.
“Every day that the industry continues dumping hazardous waste water, the problem is escalating,” says Ilze Smit, a Greenpeace researcher in Amsterdam. “This kind of pollution doesn’t disappear but it takes decades to clean up and will cost the society billions of dollars.”
Adding to China’s list of water problems is desertification.
The process by which land turns desert-like is not restricted to Africa, where the Sahara is stealthily expanding southward by about 48 square kilometres a year.
The root causes are climate change and poor soil conservation, which degrade the soil. Simply put, the overuse of chemical fertilizers, failure to rotate crops and irresponsible irrigation robs the soil of its nutrients. Eventually, the land gives away to sand.
According to China’s State Forestry Administration, more than 27 per cent of the country suffers from desertification, with Inner Mongolia, in northern China, being among the worst. Desertification has hit 18 provinces and impacts more than 400 million people.
While China loses arable land, the government is reclaiming land, too. Loess Plateau, in central and northern China, for example, covers more than 620,000 square kilometres and is highly susceptible to erosion because it is very silty.
It is believed that many centuries ago the plateau was fertile and easy to farm, but deforestation and overgrazing turned it into a desert. One Chinese government study called it “the most severely eroded area in China and even the world.”
About 20 years ago, the government began planting millions of trees, constructing terraces and small-scale dams. It also banned grazing from some areas.
Since then, large parts of Loess Plateau have been reclaimed.
According to 2012 statistics from the Ministry of Supervision, water pollution accidents in China have risen to more than 1,700 annually — almost five accidents every day.
(The environmental protection ministry reported more than 1,200 environmental accidents in 2004 alone, most related to chemicals flowing into rivers, lakes and ground water.)
Experts believe the accidents are vastly under-reported.
Can China find a permanent solution to its water troubles?
George Arhonditsis, an associate professor in the department of geography at the University of Toronto, says Chinese experts grasp the scale of the problem.
“Over the past 10 years, there has been significant improvement in understanding of problems and how to alleviate water problems,” he says.
Since the early ’90s, the government has enacted or amended at least one environmental law every year.
Central and provincial governments have cleaned up water bodies and recycled water in homes, industries, even in fields. They pay or subsidize local government and business initiatives, such as adding biogas equipment in pig farms and spreading the residue on fields as a more natural alternative to synthetic fertilizers.
There are strict penalties for breaking environmental laws.
In one of the biggest announcements to date, the ministry of environmental protection announced in February a $320-billion (U.S.) plan to tackle water pollution.
Ma Jun says the Chinese are no longer satisfied with economic prosperity at the cost of environmental damage.
“They want the basic, which is clean water,” he says, adding that protests, unthinkable until a few years ago, now happen regularly. “People are not happy . . . they want more.”
Class-action cases over water pollution are going to regional courts — putting them beyond the reach of local officials.
Turner points out that protests, particularly on the east coast, have led local governments to increasingly move dirty industries farther inland.
Recognizing the scope of the problem has led to some improvement, she says, “but there are still a lot of institutional barriers to implementing the policies.”
There is also more political space for some NGOs, such as Ma Jun’s IPE, which has been expanding its water pollution map and other activities to promote transparency around water pollution.
“It is another sign that the government is indeed hungry for solutions to the water-pollution challenge.”