From a poverty alleviation perspective, the rapid growth of the Chinese economy over the last several decades is an unprecedented success story. In 1984, the rate of extreme poverty in China was 84 percent, but by 2010 that number had fallen to 12 percent. At the same time, the rapid industrialization that has driven this growth has produced its own negative effects. Some of these effects are visible on an everyday basis, while others, like the poor water quality in China, are less obvious.
Air quality is the face of China’s struggle with pollution. Images of China’s capital, Beijing, choked by smog have resonated with environmental movements around the world. While water quality in China may not have made as many headlines, it has come under severe strain as well. According to new statistics by the Chinese media, underground water pollution has become a full-on crisis, with 80 percent of the water samples taken from a wide range of wells across northern and central China being unsafe.
Across the North China Plain, which has been hit hard by deforestation and desertification over the last several decades, groundwater is a key water source for both rural and urban areas. Northern China is also the site of the vast majority of China’s coal reserves, a major problem as coal mining is highly damaging to groundwater, unless mitigating measures are taken.
However, cheap supplies of coal are so central to China’s model of economic growth that, thus far, these measures have not been taken, leading to a steady deterioration of water quality in China. According to official statistics, every metric ton of coal mined leads to 1 cubic meter to 2.5 cubic meters of groundwater being destroyed. That number is sobering, considering that in 2015, 3.65 billion metric tons of coal were mined in China.
That same year, The State Council of the People’s Republic of China, the nation’s highest administrative body, issued the “Water Ten Plan.” This ambitious plan laid out a series of steps to improve water quality in China. It includes both broad goals and specific measures for improving groundwater quality. The plan calls for the percentage of groundwater of “very bad” quality to fall to 15 percent by 2020, a target that should be achievable, given that as of 2014, 16.1 percent of groundwater fell into this category.
The Chinese government’s response targets industries that are seen as being major contributors to groundwater pollution, in particular, the coal mining industry. The plan calls for the effective handling of water used during the coal mining process.
It also addresses groundwater depletion, stemming from industrial use of water by declaring a moratorium on further extraction of groundwater from threatened areas. The textile, paper and dyeing industries, significant sources of harmful run-off, are another major target of the plan’s strict controls.
One key aspect of water quality in China is the rural-urban divide that permeates so much of Chinese society. Cities in China benefit from access to deeper underground reservoirs, while those living in rural areas extract shallower water that is more likely to be polluted. Thus, just as industrialization led to the gap in incomes between rural and urban markets, it has also meant that access to safe water supplies has become more bifurcated. Alleviating this divide is vital in the years ahead.
– Jonathan Hall-Eastman