Beijing Water

Beijing’s new water polluter – the suburbs

(July 4, 2013) A new study reveals that sewage treatment facilities in Beijing’s suburbs are operating below standard and are poorly regulated. The absence of tough water protection laws and enforcement is turning Beijing’s townships into regional sources of pollution in a city already overburdened by threats to water safety.

A new study by the Canadian environmental watchdog, Probe International, and a team of Beijing-based environmental researchers has found that poor municipal wastewater treatment facilities and increases in small town sewage discharge, often untreated, has led to increasing surface water pollution that is taking a serious toll on the environmental health of China’s capital city, where safe drinking water is a constant concern.

According to the study, because small towns and rural areas suffer from slower economic growth, lower living standards, poor access to state infrastructure funds, and less skilled civic management, domestic sewage is either poorly treated or randomly discharged without treatment directly into local rivers. This damages the landscape, creates conditions for the breeding of disease-spreading mosquitoes and flies, and pollutes groundwater through infiltration, diminishing the quality of domestic and industrial water. “While the existing sewage collection and centralized treatment systems in the downtown core of Beijing city are relatively advanced, an effective sewage treatment system specifically suited for small suburban towns is urgently needed,” the authors advise.

Sewage treatment rates in suburban Beijing’s small towns varied depending on the area, the study reports, typically running between 10% and 20%, with significant variations between different counties, and even different towns within counties. This uneven performance is caused by a shortage of professional management staff, which handicaps proper operation and maintenance of treatment facilities. Sewage treatment rarely achieves expected water quality levels, system failures are not solved in a timely fashion, and, from time to time, treatment fails altogether.

There are solutions, the authors say. For example, if water treatment was properly priced, water recycling, would become economically attractive. To that end, they explain, sewage discharge rates must be set to recover the full cost of treatment, distribution and use.

The authors also say that independent auditors and regulators must have unlimited access to treatment plant operational performance and the results of their findings must be made transparent to the public. “The performance of the regulators themselves must also be subject to public review and challenge before judicial or quasi-judicial bodies,” they add.

Meanwhile, the authors found private water and wastewater service providers were well positioned to help municipalities, large or small, address the challenges they face, as many of these providers have access to large pools of capital, have decades of experience and have developed extraordinary operating expertise as a result. Private providers should also be subject to competitive contracting, incentive regulation (that promotes efficiency and performance improvements), and performance based-contracts.

Ultimately, the study’s authors conclude, Beijing’s watershed can only be protected if the rule of law and economic incentives make polluters and profligate users pay; if independent water regulators can ensure transparency and accountability, and prevent monopoly abuse in defence of both providers and consumers; and, if water markets allow water rights to be traded to manage competing water uses and reduce pressure on surface and groundwater supplies.

To read the study in full, see here: An Investigative Report on Sewage Treatment in Suburban Beijing Small Towns in Beijing Municipality.

For more information, contact the lead investigator, Hu Kanping at hukanping@hotmail.com

Publisher, Patricia Adams, Executive Director, Probe International: Office 416 964-9223 (ext 227), EMAIL: patricia.adams@probeinternational.org

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