China’s Water Scarcity Crisis

China is currently dealing with water scarcity due to heavy water pollution.  China has many water resources, but much of the water in China is not available.  Sadly, all of China’s water bodies are polluted, including the country’s seven major watersheds: Chang (Yangtze), Hai, Huai, Huang (Yellow), Liao, Songhua, and Zhu (Pearl).  The pollution has arose mainly due to agricultural and industrial waste, with much of the water in China containing traditional pollutants such as excreta, but also modern pollutants from toxic substances. 

China is considered to be a rapidly industrializing developing nation.  However, with the increase of industry comes a heavy price – air and water pollution.  China is now dealing with the consequences of poorly monitored industrial practices which has led to recent spills and contamination.  For instance, in 2010, an explosion at a petrochemical plant released pollutants containing Benzene into the Songhua River affecting cities such as Harbin, which has a population of 3.4 billion. 

In addition, just recently on January 31, 2012, Chinese officials detained 7 company executives after tons of industrial waste was dumped into a river in Hechi city, sparking fear and unrest among citizens in both Hechi and neighboring Liujiang city.  One of the suspected companies, Jinhe Mining Co. has been accused of dumping cadmium – a  known carcinogen which can cause serious injury to bones, kidney, and lungs- into the river during a spill on January 15, 2012. According to the China Daily, Chinese officials have decided to inspect around a dozen factories that line the river and have also decided to stop production at 7 different plants.

The initial spill occurred in Hechi city but is now moving downstream toward Liujiang city, endangering drinking water for 1.5 million people.  The polluted water is also feared to be approaching Liuzhou city, which has a population of 3.7 million people.  It has been reported that shopkeepers in Liuzhou city have been selling large amounts of bottled water due to fear over the safety of available drinking water.

Chinese authorities have ordered thousands of soldiers to dump aluminum chloride into the river to dilute the cadmium. However, the spill is so severe that levels of cadmium were still 25 times higher than the official limit in some parts of the river.  Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, has expressed alarm over these recent reports, stating that cadmium – which can be found in batteries, cement, and fertilizers – can be hard to dissolve naturally and is highly toxic.  Ma Jun fears that the pollution may be hard to get rid of and may persist for a long time.

As noted above, this is not the first time that faulty industrial practices have led to the pollution of many of China’s waterways.  Environmental activists are blaming Chinese officials for often turning a blind eye to harmful industrial practices in the pursuit of economic development.  In addition, activists have blamed local officials for poor supervision, which they claim led to the occurrence of the recent pollution in Hechi. 

Due to severe water pollution, China now faces extreme water shortages, with 300 out of the 640 major cities in China facing water shortages.  Another major threat to water quality arise from inadequate treatment of municipal and industrial wastewater.  For instance, in 1995, 37.29 billion cubic tons of wastewater was dumped into lakes, reservoirs, and rivers.  60% of the wastewater came from industries and only 77% of this wastewater was treated. Furthermore, in 1995, half of the industrial wastewater that was discharged into China’s waterways did not met government standards. Thus, a leading problem in China’s water scarcity crisis is inadequate wastewater and sewage treatment, along with lax regulations and monitoring of agricultural and industrial practices.

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