Beijing Water

Missing, no action

(March 5, 2013) Beneath China’s thirsty farms and cities lies a problem scientists and politicians have known about for more than a decade: groundwater reserves are being polluted. Grand plans to cover one-third of China’s land area with 20,000 groundwater monitoring stations to determine just how serious the problem is remain stuck in Beijing. Without monitoring data to influence policy, groundwater contamination isn’t taken seriously by government. The source of the inertia? No data, no laws, and entrenched departmental interests and poorly-defined powers and responsibilities. Feng Jie reports on China’s groundwater scandal for Southern Weekend.

China’s groundwater scandal: the missing waste water

For over a decade China’s scientists have called for action on groundwater pollution, but there has been little effective response.

By Feng Jie, originally published by Southern Weekend on February 28, 2013

This translated version was reprinted by China Dialogue on March 4, 2013

The illegal underground dumping of waste water is said to be common in northern China (Image from Southern Weekend)

The illegal underground dumping of waste water is said to be common in northern China (Image from Southern Weekend).

Three years ago Ma Zhong, dean of Renmin University’s School of the Environment and Natural Resources, came across an anomaly while researching water prices: Water input to Chinese industry was four times recorded waste water output. 

Even accounting for various losses and uses, 16 billion tonnes of waste water was going missing. Suspecting it was ending up underground, he reported his findings to the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP). But he saw no more done to protect groundwater.

Ten years ago Li Wenpeng, assistant to the director at the Chinese Institute of Geological Environment Monitoring, and his colleagues, joined with 40 academics in signing a letter to the State Council. It called for a central groundwater monitoring body to be established. In 2011 the National Groundwater Monitoring Project got underway to fill that gap, with tens of thousands of people on call – but after the initial excitement, nothing happened.

The earlier letter from experts and academicians evolved into the Proposal for a National Groundwater Monitoring Project. This proposal received approval from a State Council project office in October 2011, was given the nod by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), and then in August 2012 a feasibility study from the Ministries of Land and of Water Resources was submitted to the NDRC.

A year and a half later, not one of the 20,000 proposed monitoring stations has been built. Grand plans to cover one-third of China’s land area within three years of funding remain stuck in Beijing. Already one of the signatories to the original letter, Academic Liu Dongsheng, has passed away.

This article continues in full at the China Dialogue website.

Further Reading

For details on China’s water crisis see Probe International’s Beijing’s Water Crisis 1949 – 2008 Olympics 2010 Update and Oral Histories.

For solutions to water pollution and methods for effective and accountable wastewater treatment see Water Markets.

For Probe International’s recent study on wastewater contamination of the Three Gorges reservoir see An Investigation Into Wastewater Treatment in the
Three Gorges Reservoir Basin by the Chongqing Green Volunteers Association.

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