Pan Yue: Water Pollution Approaching Tipping Point

China’s outspoken environmental official is sounding the alarm again, in his article published by Reporters’ Observation magazine. Translated by CDT:

Since this summer, a succession of blue algae bloom cases in Lakes Tai (§™Êπñ), Dian (ʪáʱ†) and Chao (Â∑¢Êπñ) signaled a strong message: the traditional development model’s accumulated environmental costs have reached a tipping point. Water is the the most severe area and one that will expose itself the earliest, because it is the bloodline for industrialization and urbanization, and for people’s survival.

Water will remain the most important and the most urgent subject in China’s environmental protection in the foreseeable future. Curbing water pollution will pose a serious test for various agencies in conducting a scientific development mentality (ÁßëÂ≠¶Âèë±ïËßÇÁöÑÊâßË°åÂäõ). If we cannot well answer this question, then it will be our failure to perform our duties.

Water pollution has approached the tipping point, with 26% of the seven major water systems running grade E (五类) or E- (劣五类), and seven of the total nine large lakes just as bad (grade A indicates the best water quality, grade E is not to be touched by human body and is even not good for agricultural use). This is to say, all the tributaries of the seven major rivers are rotten, except for the main streams, thanks to the large volume of continuous water flow. And 80% of the water in the lakes is dead too.

If we cannot effectively control water pollution, we may be confronted with a serious issue of social harmony before we complete our industrialization and urbanization.

Where’s the problem? There’s a major flaw in the current water management system that gives different powers to various agencies across the board. Agency A is in charge of water conversion, agency B of treatment of waste water, agency C of agricultural pollution, agency D of industrial pollution, etc. This creates a scenario where there are no clear areas of responsibility and it also leads to buck-passing of obligations. We cannot effectively control water pollution without a cross-regional and cross-departmental mechanism. The State Environmental Protection Administration strongly advocates creating such an institution.

Another major issue is the weakness in law enforcement. SEPA experienced resistance while a team was trying to examine a copper mill in Tongling City (ÈìúÈôµ) in Anhui. Even when we produced our paperwork for law enforcement, the boss refused entry. Every year, there are hundreds of resistance cases like this, with or without violence.

To solve the problem at its root, we not only need to have more tools in legislation, we also need to have the forces of market and public scrutiny to come into play. Now the environmental law enforcement cannot fine a company more than 200,000 yuan, SEPA doesn’t have the power to shut down polluting plants. The market element is to internalize the cost of resources and the environment so that the price to break the law is higher than that of abiding it.

With the energy efficiency and pollution reduction targets set for the 11th Five-Year Plan, there are still a lot of challenges. For the first quarter this year, six major energy intense and highly polluting sectors are growing even faster, that is electricity, steel, colored metals, construction materials, petroleum and refinery, and chemicals. [Full Text in Chinese]

August 25, 2007 8:55 PM
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Categories: Environment