23 February 2019
Chinese rivers are getting severely polluted, posing several long-term risks. Photo: Bloomberg
Chinese rivers are getting severely polluted, posing several long-term risks. Photo: Bloomberg

Lanzhou water crisis just the tip of the iceberg

Tests on some water samples in Lanzhou in China’s Gansu province have revealed excessive levels of benzene, triggering a health scare in the northwestern region in recent days. With local authorities admitting to problems, people began shunning tap water and started hunting for bottled mineral water in supermarkets.

Some officials have pinned the blame on the Lanzhou unit of China Petrochemical Corporation, or Sinopec Group, saying one of its pipelines had leaked, contaminating the area near the water supply source.

The incident appears to be an accident. Yet, it serves as a reminder of the continuing troubles faced by the country with regard to water pollution.

In 1995, the State Council had issued provisional regulations on water pollution control along the Huaihe River basin, which set out some targets to be achieved by 2000 regarding the water quality of the main branch, lakes and reservoirs of the river basin.

According to reports, by the end of 2000, most of the proposed 52 city sewage processing plants were still under planning, despite parleys among then State Planning Commission, National Economic and Trade Commission, National Environmental Protection Administration, and the ministries of water resources, construction, agriculture, chemical industry, finance, the People’s Bank of China and China Light Industry Association, as well as local governments of provinces along the Huaihe River basin, including Shandong, Anhui, Henan and Jiangsu.

At the end of 2000, less than five of the proposed sewage plants were operating in their designed scale.

Criticizing the slow pace, mainland media has outlines various reasons. For instance, before building a sewage treatment plant, an office building has to be constructed first to house the huge staff.

An average sewage plant in China has a minimum staff of 60, while in the UK such facility is usually run by 6 people, it was pointed out.

Meanwhile, foreign countries tend to use standard testing equipment, while the Chinese prefer customized facilities. That leads to low utilization rates and higher costs.

China has made many pledges over the years on pollution control in the Huaihe River, yet one can hardly see any improvement there, not to mention the situation at other rivers.

Even in a big city such as Shanghai, which has the most modern and top management in the country, people have complained of strong smell of the tap water. Odor sewage is said to be all over the place, even in tourism attractions in Shanghai, Yangtze River Delta, Zhouzhuang and Shaoxing. Critics say one does not need any tests to figure out that there is a serious problem.

Some official data, which may have already been toned down a bit, sound terrifying enough.

The Ministry of Water Resources had once evaluated a 100,000-kilometer stretch of the nation’s more than 700 rivers. The study found that 46.5 percent of the river line was suffering from prolonged pollution, with 10.6 percent being so heavily polluted that the water has lost its functional value. Also, 90 percent of urban waterways were under serious pollution.

Water pollution is spreading from East to West, stretching from the branches to the main rivers, from cities to rural areas in all directions. Over 70 percent of the sections along the Liaohe, Huaihe, Haihe and Huanghe rivers are contaminated.

Coming back to the latest incident in Lanzhou, there had been reports as far back as three year ago that the particular section of the petrochemical pipeline had serious flaws. But authorities apparently failed to take timely action.

The Lanzhou incident is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg. There are probably countless other contamination cases left unreported. No wonder people are shifting to bottled water.

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Freelance journalist

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