China’s Environmental Report Card

The Guardian’s Jonathan Watts assesses China’s recent environmental performance following the publication of the government’s annual “State of the Environment” report. He gives grades in areas from biodiversity to heavy metals, but two categories stand out in light of recent droughts:

Freshwater quality

Ministry of Environmental Protection:

“Surface water pollution across the country is still relatively grave … 59.9 percent of rivers were grade 3 or better, 23.7 percent of rivers were grade 4 or 5 and 16.4 percent failed to meet any grade standard. Among 26 lakes or reservoirs, 42.3 percent are affected by eutrophication.”

Interpretation: Two-fifths percent of river water can make you sick. This includes a sixth that is so contaminated it is not fit for any use. Four in every 10 lakes are turning green and choked by algae

Grade: F


Drought and dams


“Hebei, Jiangxi and Hunan are in the midst of severe drought. The main reason is a lack of precipitation … The water in some large lakes has fallen to a level rarely seen in history … We believe this will have a big impact on environmental and ecological protection.”

Interpretation: OK. It may sound obvious that droughts are caused by a lack of rain, but I am saying this so you don’t blame the Three Gorges Dam, the South-North Water Diversion Project or any other massive hydro-engineering project.

Grade: D-. Kudos for mentioning the ecological impact, which is often overlooked in assessment of the loss of drinking water, irrigation supplies and hydropower capacity. But this dodges the man-made factors that could be exacerbating the situation.

Overall, Watts gives a dismal D+ for effort and E for outcomes. However:

… I sympathise with the Ministry of Environment Protection, which faces one of the world’s biggest challenges. Many of the country’s problems can be attributable to its stage of development and wider global trends. When assessing China, there are always two comparisons to make: horizontal (with current top level world standards) and vertical (with its own past performance). They produce very different results.


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