Originally published in Frontline magazine on June 16, 2007

For millennia China's great rivers have snaked their long meandering courses across the country, providing lifeblood for Chinese civilisation. Along the banks of the Yellow River to the north and the Yangtze to the south, five thousand years of history and culture have unfolded, with agriculture flourishing in otherwise inhospitable terrain and trade bringing prosperity and dynamism in its wake. But the effects of chronic pollution, large-scale damming and climate change are combining to spell catastrophe for the rivers.

Ten per cent of the Yellow River today is sewage. Little surprise when, according to the government, the volume of wastewater flowing into the river increased from about two billion tonnes in the 1980s to 4.3 billion tonnes by 2005. Experts say that since the 1950s the volume of water in the Yellow River has decreased by 75 per cent so that the once mighty river has been reduced to a more or less seasonal body of water that usually dries up 800 km before reaching the sea.

The prognosis for the Yangtze is equally bleak. Earlier this year the first annual health report for the river revealed that 30 per cent of its major tributaries were heavily polluted, with high levels of ammonia, nitrogen and phosphorus. In 2006 alone, more than 26 billion tonnes of wastewater was pumped into the Yangtze, which flows through 11 Chinese provinces and municipalities. One-tenth of the main stream of the river was estimated to be in "critical condition".

The report, the combined output of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Ministry of Water Resources, and the WWF, also found that the annual harvest of fish in the river fell from around 500,000 tonnes in the 1950s to 100,000 tonnes in the 1990s. The Deputy Director of China's State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), Pan Yue, called 2006 "the grimmest year yet for China's environmental situation" with a total of 130 chemical spills having occurred during the year (one spill every three days).

The grim statistics do not end here. According to the SEPA, 70 per cent of China's rivers and lakes are polluted to some degree; the water of 28 per cent is unsuitable even for irrigation. Moreover, 90 per cent of the ground water in the cities is too polluted to drink. As a result, several hundred million Chinese lack access to safe water.

Pollution has aggravated China's natural water scarcity, particularly in the drought-prone north. Already the country's annual per capita water supply is only 2,200 cubic metres, just 25 per cent of the global average according to the World Bank. Factoring in a combination of trends including rapid urbanisation, continuing industrialisation and climate change, it is quite likely that water rather than oil will be at the centre of China's coming resource crisis.

Water is the most ubiquitously needed resource, Professor Liu Changming. Director of the United Research Centre for Water Problems (URCWP), points out. "It [water] is needed for industry, for agriculture and by every living being. We face an energy crisis but we can work on alternative and renewable energy resources. When it comes to the water crisis, there is no alternative for water," he says.

Indeed, water in China as elsewhere is a multi-faceted issue with direct and far-reaching impact on health, economic development, food security, political stability, biodiversity and even international relations.

Pollution Check

One of the major sources of water pollution is untreated industrial waste that is intentionally or accidentally discharged into rivers. Some 21,000 chemical companies line the Yangtze and the Yellow River. Along with paper, steel, textile and power plants, these units are often blatant violators of environmental norms for wastewater management.

The Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPEA), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) run by Ma Jun, author of the influential book China's Water Crisis, maintains a website that keeps track of all the companies known to have violated pollution laws. There are currently 5,500 companies listed on the website, including 80 multinationals.

The crux of the problem underlying the lax enforcement of pollution norms is that for the current generation of local officials, economic growth defined solely in terms of gross domestic product (GDP), is the paramount goal. Promotions are usually directly linked to the amount of investment attracted. As a result, implementing environmental laws is often seen as detrimental to both the local economy and the career prospects of individual officials.

Collusion between polluters and local officials is also commonplace. Thus even companies equipped with wastewater treatment systems rarely use them given the expense of the power it takes to run the machines. Officials in charge of enforcement are paid-off to turn a blind eye. That a large number of offending companies are state-owned complicates the issue even further.

One of China's worst ever pollution spills into its waterways occurred in November 2005 when a blast at a petrochemical plant in Jilin province led to 100 tonnes of the carcinogenic chemicals benzene and nitrobenzene being discharged into the Songhua river. The plant was owned and managed by PetroChina, the country's largest state-owned energy company. Following the blast the four million inhabitants of Harbin city in the north-eastern Heilongjiang province had their water supply cut off for five days.

The spill was kept a secret for more than a week. During this time, as the 80 km slick made its way towards Harbin, tens of thousands continued to use the river for drinking and washing. The people of Harbin were initially told that their water supply was cut off for maintenance works. Only after several hours with no water was the real reason made public, almost 10 days after the blast occurred. It was six days before Jilin officials even informed their counterparts in Heilongjiang about the spillage so that they could "avoid spreading panic".

According to Ma Jun, the IPEA is trying to "name and shame" polluters by listing them online as part of the wider fight to create greater transparency and public participation.

Attempts to redress pollution purely from the top-down through administrative measures, Ma Jun argues, will be doomed to failure in the absence of a more active civil society.

Several of the 87,000 "mass incidents" that took place across the country in 2005 were in fact village-level protests against the pollution and the corruption that was perceived to be at its root. Thus in April that year, some 10,000 rioters in Huaxi village in Zhejiang province attacked the police after accusing local officials of allowing a chemical factory to pollute the local river and ground water, allegedly resulting in still-born babies and birth defects.

A few months later, in Xichang village, close to Shanghai, about 15,000 villagers demonstrated against toxic-waste discharges from a pharmaceutical plant believed to have polluted irrigation water and stunted the growth of local crops. It turned into a pitched battle with the police.

It is widely believed that pollution is linked to the increase in different kinds of cancers in China in recent decades. Liver cancer deaths, which are particularly associated with water pollution, have doubled in the country since the 1990s. A recent survey released by the Ministry of Health showed cancer to be China's top killer, accounting for 23 per cent of deaths in rural areas and 19 per cent in cities.

Reports on "cancer villages" in the local media have also become a frequent occurrence. According to a People's Daily report, water pollution drove up the cancer rates in Liukuai Zhuang near Tianjin city, an hour or so east of Beijing, to 25 times the national average in 2004. The village is in an area where dozens of chemical factories have set up shop since the 1980s, bringing jobs and prosperity in their wake. The Tianjin municipality is in fact one of the wealthiest in the region. However, uncontrolled discharges from the same factories also led to severe pollution of local water sources, ultimately causing long-term damage to residents' health.

Water pollution and the corruption that allows it have thus emerged as some of the most politically sensitive issues in contemporary China with the power to challenge the ruling party's legitimacy, by threatening the social stability so crucial to the Communist Party's continuing rule.

Price of Water

But addressing water pollution is not merely a matter of targeting industrial polluters. According to Andres Liebenthal, head of the World Bank's Environment and Social Division in Beijing, industrial pollution only accounts for one-third of the water pollution in China. Another third is the result of municipal waste, and the final third comprises field run-off contaminated with pesticides and fertilizers.

The country pays a heavy economic price for water pollution. Liebenthal puts its cumulative health and economic cost per annum at some 2.3 per cent of China's GDP, a figure that is roughly equal to the annual education budget of the government.

The loss to the economy from depletion of ground water, for example, is estimated at 50 billion yuan ($6.5 billion). The cost to industry of using polluted water works out to another 50 billion yuan. The economic cost of the health impact of pollution, including diarrhoea and cancer, is placed at half a per cent of GDP.

The economic impact of the water scarcity that pollution contributes to will only increase as China's economy continues to industrialise and urbanisation steps up with tens of millions of peasants from the countryside expected to move to the cities in the coming years.

Ma Jun points out that already 400 out of the 650-odd cities in China suffer from water scarcity, over 100 to a critical level. Liebenthal adds that of a total of 55 million hectares (1 hectare is 2.47 acres) of arable land in China, seven million cannot be irrigated at all owing to the water shortage. Another 20 million hectares suffer from water deficiency. The water shortage is aggravated by climate change. According to Li Yan, a campaigner with the China office of the NGO Greenpeace, says that glaciers in the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau, the source for many of the country's waterways including the Yangtze and the Yellow River, are retreating at frighteningly high speeds. She says that the latest report by the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that if global warming continues at the current level, 80 per cent of all Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035.

Prof. Liu adds that while climate change leads to greater precipitation in some areas, it conversely leads to water shortages in others. As an example he points to the fact that rainfall in Beijing has continuously been 20-30 per cent lower than the average since 1998.

The northern part of China, always water deficient, has begun to suffer from chronic drought. In the 1980s, he says, the north accounted for 19 per cent of China's total water resources. This proportion has now dropped to 16 per cent, a change Liu attributes to climate change.

The third factor contributing to China's water crisis is inefficient use of water. Apart from pollution and global warming, the fact that water is heavily subsidised in China means that neither farmers nor ordinary consumers have any incentive to save water or recycle it. In the case of industry, China's water consumption efficiency is one-tenth that of developed countries.

Both Liu and Liebenthal thus agree that the government could help the situation by introducing certain market mechanisms that would create incentives for consumers to use water more efficiently.

But given the concern for food security, raising the price of water, particularly for farmers, is politically difficult for the government. Moreover, Ma Jun is of the opinion that even if the government manages to increase the cost of water without suffering a negative political fallout, the measure will not tackle the real culprit behind water crisis: pollution.

Water Diversion Project

He has similar criticisms against what is currently Beijing's most ambitious solution to the country's water problems: the South-North Water Diversion Project.

The project, the largest of its kind, is expected to cost $62 billion by the time of its completion in 2050. Involving the construction of three 1,280-kilometre-long channels connecting the water-rich south to the arid north, the project is eventually expected to divert 44.8 billion cubic metres of water annually to the population centres of the north. Large parts of the construction of the eastern and middle routes are scheduled for completion by 2010.

"The south-north water diversion can only function as an emergency relief project," says Ma Jun. "Even when it's complete it will only make up a part of the water shortfall in the north and given its expense I doubt whether it is an economical solution to the problem," he concludes.

Liu agrees that the grandiose project will not fix any of the fundamental issues underlying China's water woes and may even create further environmental problems of its own in addition to necessitating the relocation of 250,000 people.

The planned diversion of water from the southern rivers also has some foreign governments worried, given that several rivers that originate in China eventually cross borders and flow into neighbouring nations. Dams along the Mekong have thus caused concerns in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. India and Bangladesh are also known to be keeping a close eye on reports that China may be planning to divert the waters of the Brahmaputra.

China has a long history of linking development and "progress" with large-scale engineering projects like the Three Gorges Dam. The country thus boasts some 46 per cent of the total dams in the world, including 20,000 that are classified as "big".

"But although there are still some within the Chinese government who believe you can fix everything through engineering, over all there is a realisation that this is simply untrue," says Liu.

Ma Jun agrees, "For the current administration the priorities are sustainable development and a more harmonious approach between man and nature rather than the traditional dominant notion that nature is simply there for man to harness," he says.

The reasons for this change, according to Ma Jun, are in the central government having realised the linkages between the water crisis, public health and social stability. "They (the leadership) cannot afford economically or politically to ignore the issue anymore," he says

In March 2006, China's 11th Five-Year Plan thus set a target of reducing pollution discharges by 10 per cent in 10 years. Although the pollution control goals for 2006 were not met, Premier Wen Jiabao announced earlier this year that he himself would lead a new task force to ensure better compliance with targets in the future. Greater recycling of water and more aggressive treatment of wastewater are being promoted. A wastewater levy was introduced in 2002, followed by a 2003 regulation that raised the fines for polluters.

Beijing is also threatening to cut central government funding to localities that fail to meet pollution-control targets. Some provinces have even announced financial incentives of up to one million yuan for city officials who prove effective in combating pollution.

The central government's efforts have thus far met with mixed results. Enforcing Beijing's will on largely fiscally independent and powerful local governments is a formidable challenge.

But Ma Jun points out that despite the imperfect way in which the writ of the centre is implemented countrywide, the very fact that the centre is taking serious cognisance of the water crisis holds out hope. "I am optimistic," he says, "because China is still a very top-down country and you need support from the top to achieve anything. That's the first step and we now have that."

"What we really need is to develop the rule of law. To ensure that the government's own rules regarding social and environmental impact assessments are followed before granting permission to factories or infrastructure projects," he says. He points to NGOs like his own as well as to a growing domestic media engagement with environmental issues as proof that civil society is already becoming active in China.

While there is room for debating Ma Jun's position, what is clear is that unless fundamental policy changes are made and implemented China's aspirations to superpower status may be thwarted by something as taken for granted as water. For the country's leadership, the management of its water resources is thus a litmus test and the manner in which Beijing passes this test will determine whether China's future will be great or simply thirsty.