Wilson Center's Turner says water pollution, supply issues top environmental concern

As China continues to face scrutiny for its poor air quality ahead of this year's Olympics, the country is dealing with an even greater environmental challenge. Water pollution and scarcity continue to be the leading environmental concerns for this growing country. During today's OnPoint, Jennifer Turner, director of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson Center, gives her on-the-ground perspective of the water issues affecting China. She discusses the programs that are in place to help mitigate the problem and explains how global warming could exacerbate the issue. Turner also addresses the impact of poor water quality on the health of the Chinese, particularly those living in rural areas.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Jennifer Turner, director of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Jennifer, thanks for coming on the show.

Jennifer Turner: I'm really happy to be here.

Monica Trauzzi: Jennifer, you study all of China's environment issues at the Woodrow Wilson Center, but today I want to focus on some of the water issues we've been seeing there. How pervasive are water issues, things like pollution, things like having adequate supplies of water? How much are we seeing of those problems?

Jennifer Turner: Well, in many ways, I mean when you look at the news media coverage of China's environment, we often hear about the air issue. Beijing Olympics brought that to the forefront, but water is actually a much more serious problem in China. And there's not just one, there are multiple water crises in the country. I'll do a couple of factoids and then you can cut me off when necessary. I mean in terms of water quality, somewhere around 40 percent of China's water is what the Chinese call grade 5, which means it's the lowest level, and even 5 plus, in that you can't use it for drinking, agriculture, or industry. But they are using it and that's why you do have severe problems of crops that are contaminated with heavy metals and who knows what else. The main source though of water pollution is municipal waste. Nationwide, only about 30 to 40 percent of municipal waste is treated. Beijing is much higher because of the Olympics; they've gotten it up to about 70, on its way to 90 percent. And then also another major source, besides industry, is also meat production. Over the last 28 years, as the economy has boomed, people are able to eat more meat and to meet that demand they have built a lot of factory farms on the East Coast. And only about 10 percent of these types of big factory farms treat their waste, so they produce much more solid waste and nitrogen than even China's industry does. And so there are a lot of sources, and then pesticides from agriculture. China is the largest producer and consumer of pesticides. They've made some moves in the last year, which is very encouraging, banning some of the most toxic pesticides, which mainly, I think driven in part from bans, international bans. The E.U. and Japan really have been on the forefront of banning a lot of Chinese agricultural products because of the pesticide residues, which has the benefit of this is going to be a big improvement of people's lives in China when you get some of these ultra toxic pesticides off the market.

Monica Trauzzi: So, how many people are we talking about here that are affected? Is everybody in China affected or is it just certain areas?

Jennifer Turner: I would say that nationwide is a problem. I mean along all the major rivers, the rivers like the Hai River in northern China, which they've had a campaign for 10 years to clean it up, but it's still not clean. Campaigns don't work and we can talk about that in a second, why. And there's anecdotal evidence of much higher cancer rates, lower IQs in some of these river basins. A lot of talk of cancer villages and many times, I mean sometimes it's air pollution, but other times it's more often than not water. Water pollution has been a major source of rural protests actually where the local government is unresponsive to their complaints about their rivers turning purple, green, yellow. And not only can you not use the water, your crops are contaminated and don't grow or if they do grow, it does become known fairly quickly that your crops are toxic crops. So your livelihood is gone. And people, in these situations, are given no other choice but to protest.

Monica Trauzzi: So, there is public awareness of the issue and the public reaches out to the government for action but there's a disconnect? Is the government acting? What's happening there?

Jennifer Turner: The government, obviously, is not a monolith in China. I mean one misperception that I still find prevalent is that Beijing is powerful or the central government is powerful in China. They're not. I mean, yes, selectively they can do lots of things that show strength, but the last 28 years, the reforms that have turned China into the world's factory were brought about because Deng Xiaoping decentralized power. He gave economic development power and administrative power to local governments. He created a federal system with essentially no checks and balances. And what's encouraging is that over the past 28 years, I mean environmental problems have become increasingly worse because the economy has been booming. I mean amazing GDP growth 10 percent per year. Millions have been brought out of poverty, but the cracks are definitely showing. You know, the Beijing air is one that everyone is pointing to now, but there are many other problems and I think the water issue is one that I personally, because I've done research on water and I'm currently involved in a USAID supported project that's looking at environmental health in China, both in terms of coal emissions and karst water in the southwest. So I've been able to dig a lot deeper in the last two years looking at trying to understand more about the actual health impacts of what's going on, linked with water in particular.

Monica Trauzzi: How do we ameliorate the situation? How do we make it better? What steps should the government be taking to ensure cleaner water or adequate supplies?

Jennifer Turner: A promising trend is that over the last two years we've seen more action on air in China, because the air is in your face and it's a trans-boundary problem and the climate change issue, I think has galvanized things. And there's also been a lot more international assistance and projects on the air energy efficiency in China, more is coming in on water. But I think that they've strengthened some of their water pollution control laws for example, but then they've also done things to try to empower people. There's a law that's not specifically for water, it's any environment, the environmental impact assessment law was redone. And then shortly thereafter, notably after two major water incidents, in 2005 there was a spill on the Songhua River of 100 tons of benzene that a local government tried to cover up. And when it was revealed, I mean it was a huge scandal. It was the first time we've had a large environmental crisis reported in China. And the other one was actually a national movement by grassroots groups to protest dam building on one of China's last wild rivers. And so the timing is interesting, right after these two incidents that both occurred, both were 2005 actually, we saw the passage of regulations for public participation, public hearings, and environmental impact assessments. And then just last month there was a release of kind of an environmental information act, so more information dissemination is being encouraged, disclosing information. And I see a lot of the new laws also market law, sorry, is kind of like workarounds of the local government. I mean if you can't do command and control, you have to find other ways to check this problem.

Monica Trauzzi: So, in terms of public action then, how much interest is there from the public to do things, to conserve perhaps, to be more efficient? Are those things that are being encouraged within the public community?

Jennifer Turner: Yeah, I mean that's the other side of the water, obviously, the quantity, which we didn't talk about yet. Water pricing is still quite low. It's being raised in some of the major cities, but the government, I mean in this case it's the Ministry of Water Resources, they've only in the last couple years really started shifting over and even talking about things like ecological flows in rivers and wanting to conserve. But they've been using very much kind of top-down, you know, ordering provinces, this is your allocation. And you don't really see as much in terms of people's consumption. I mean some of the grassroots groups in China try to encourage this, but yes, you may have water metering, but if it's not very expensive it doesn't do much. But most of the water, just like in the United States, is actually used by the agricultural sector. And there are many problems facing China's rural folks that are on the farms. I mean besides, there's a lot of fees and prices of grain and fertilizer going up and local governments, while they may be protecting their industry from pollution regulations, they also sometimes protect their farmers from increased fees for water. So that's kind of unfortunate, but there is some movement to maybe look into water trading. It's not yet legal yet in China, but there have been some kind of spontaneous trades happening between companies and farmers and counties and things. And so I think that they're studying that, trying to figure out how do they redo their water? They don't have a water rights system, so it's a tough nut.

Monica Trauzzi: And one of the other things that's being discussed there is to divert water from rivers and lakes in rural areas to these more urban centers. I can see why that would help the urban areas, but I can also see how it might pose some problems in the rural areas. Talk a bit about that.

Jennifer Turner: There's some pilots going on in China and no real legislation supporting it, you know, like the payment for environmental services. Basically you would need to compensate people if you're taking the water away. And a lot of times, I mean there are water transfers, which are very top-down. In fact, for the Olympics, I mean right after China was granted the Olympics one of the very first things they did was approve the long debated South Water North Ward Water Transfer Project, which is constructing three huge canals to bring water from the Yangtze River up north to thirsty Beijing and other regions. Of course, once again, the world's largest, you know, we have the world's largest dam and now this is going to be the world's largest water transfer project and the first canal on the East Coast is done. I mean that was working on existing, actually ancient Grand Canal infrastructure. The middle one is in the process and questions now about whether the far western Canal, these are 1200 kilometer canals and the final one would be drilling through mountains. I mean, amazing engineering work would be needed and there's a lot of questions, like, well, do we always need to do supply-side management of water? And I think that there are more protests. I mean Sichuan Province, finally the government officials and scientists were coming up in opposition to this final western canal because Sichuan is becoming drier, some people say even climate change. That the glaciers are melting and that's going to impact the water and they need it themselves. So, there are more protests, again, by the provinces themselves against these kinds of transfers.

Monica Trauzzi: So, when all the world is in some Beijing this summer, are people who have not visited China before going to be able to see and tangibly understand that there are water issues there? Is that going to be something that's evident or has the government done enough in order to ensure an adequate supply in Beijing?

Jennifer Turner: Beijing will have enough of a supply. I mean I think that's one of the little heralded benefits of the Olympics was that it really accelerated municipal waste water treatment in Beijing, which is great. And they've done things to clean up the canals in Beijing and the Olympic village itself is a model. The main stadium has rainwater harvesting. There's water recycling to use the gray water for the grass areas and so I think that the air issue, literally, pun intended, will be in their face. But the wider issue, I don't think most people will see it. I mean if they go outside in Beijing, definitely in northern China. Going outside of Beijing, I mean there's the deserts, the grasslands, I mean they have 1/10 the water per capita as the rest of the world average, I mean it's a desert. But actually, even if you go down in southwest China, which they have monsoons and which looks very lush there's also very low water availability because almost all of southwest China is karst. Are you from either with the term karst, where that's just like Kentucky. The soil is like a sponge and so water flows down very quickly and most of the rivers are underground. So when it's not rainy season it's actually kind of a rocky desert in a lot of southwest China. And people have difficulty accessing water. Again, it's one of those kind of hidden causes exacerbating poverty in a lot of the rural areas of southwest China.

Monica Trauzzi: OK. We're out of time.

Jennifer Turner: OK.

Monica Trauzzi: I have to end it there.

Jennifer Turner: Sorry.

Monica Trauzzi: It was very interesting.

Jennifer Turner: OK.

Monica Trauzzi: Thanks for coming on the show.

Jennifer Turner: No, I hope that was OK.

Monica Trauzzi: That was great. This is OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Thanks for watching.

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