China Polluted




by Joakim Larsen

December 2015



Prosperity affects some - pollution affects all. China with its massive population, industrial development and economic growth is facing a serious problem: pollution of the rivers. Clean water is becoming a scarce resource in the Kingdom in the Middle.



“Of the worlds ten most polluted cities, five are in China.

Such development is undoubtedly a grave threat to the physical health of the Chinese people."

- Deputy Minister Pan Yue, Environmental Protection Administration



During the last half century China has opened a new coal fire plant station every week and today they admit more greenhouse gasses than any country other than America.



“You can’t solve the problem of poverty without economic development.

And as you speed up economic development you cant help destroying the environment.

To cultivate more land, you have to build roads, chop down forrests. You have to do the same to build a factory. And with this kind of economic development, admissions of industrial waste and gasses massively increase. As does human sewage with the rise in population density and living standards. And so there is more pollution."

- Professor Lei Hengshun, Sustainable Development Expert



The Dark Side of Economic Growth

A booming economy is one of Chinas main priorities. And the environmental administration has limited power to hinder the unfortunate side effects. The environmental law has tens of sections, but it stipulates that the environmental administration can only play an advisary role with no power to shut down polluting companies.


Local protectionism is everywhere in China, these big companies are pillars of the economy. They are powerful tax payers, they play an important role for local finance and development. The complex web of links between local industry and local government is another problem. These links range from legitimate common interests, like maintaining employment to out and out corruption. Some local governments even part own polluting factories. And treating waste leads into profits.


The fines that can be imposed for polluting are tiny. The cost of observing the law is high. But it costs very little to break it.



“Admitting clear water is a sign, that soon it is inspection time."

- words from a Chinese folksong.



According to the Chinese system, the courts are financed by local governments. So if a court finds a local business in the wrong, and orders it to seize production, the local government will stop receiving tax revenues. Consequently there are often interferances in court cases which makes a fair judgement very difficult.


There is no consistent pattern - some local governments resist local environmental groups, others encourage them.


Cancer is Spreading

The Huai river flows for over 600 miles across the middle of China, providing water for over 150.000.000 people. The main tributary to the Huai River is the Sha Ying. Here every day nearly half a million ton of human sewege plus a million ton of untreated waste water from paper mills, tanneries and chemical works is poured into the river. Some factories use processes banned elsewhere; their affluence include ammonium, cyanide and arsenic.



“I was born on the banks of the Huai River. It was in 1987 that I grew worried about the problem with water pollution in the river. I’d gone back to take pictures of the scenery - but there was no longer any scenery. Instead I found myself taking pictures of people dredging up dead fish. Water from Huai River has flown into areas where people live and sunk into the ground. People who have drunk this ground water have become ill. The water of this river - the black and stinking water - brings death with it. It really is a river of death. Before the local rate for cancer in this area was 1:100.000. Now in some willages it is 1:100."

- Huo Daishan, Environmental Campaigner



“It is widely reported that because of the Huai River pollution there are cancer villages. But if you sue through the courts of China, the requirements for evidence is very strict. And if you do not have this evidence you might loose the case. And where the cause of the disease is pollution, it is very difficult to gather evidence. Say you have a disease like stomach cancer or lung cancer and you say it is caused by polluted water, it is extremely difficult to prove the cause and connection between the two. There is no institution in China to inspect and evaluate water. There are two environmental medicine research institutes, but they don’t normally carry out inspections for victims. They usually inspect cases handed to them by the government. And they don’t publish the results of their investigations."

- Wang Ganfa, Environmental Lawyer



“In China, 2.000.000 people die from cancer every year.

There are no accurate figures, but many cancer cases are related to environmental pollution."

- Deputy Minister Pan Yue, Environmental Protection Administration



“According to the authorities around 50.000 people around the Huai River have been found to have cancer. But these high cancer rates and cancer villages of China are just the tip of the iceberg."

- Huo Daishan, Environmental Campaigner



The scale of the problem is daunting. Almost everywhere that there are people, there is pollution. And pollution is easily spread. A third of the worlds population uses water that flows from China. Chinas acid rain falls on Korea and Japan. Pollution from its factory chimneys land in Canada. And there is little incentive for individuals or industries to take responsibilitity of their waste.


A typical scenario is a small factory at the edge of a village. And at the side you find an outflow of waste from the industrial process, whose water is then piped to an errigation channel that provides water for the farmers crops.


"Conquer nature and thereby free yourselves from it."

- General Mao


Grading Water

China grades water into five categories. Over half the countries major river systems are below level three and consequently unfit for any human use. A third of these don't even make level five.


Northern China is Drying Out

From the North the Gobi Desert is expanding into previously fertile land. And along the border farmers are struggeling to get enough water to water their crops.


Beijing’s 20.000.000 inhabitants rely on water from the Mijon Reservoir. This is located just 50 miles outside the capitol. But here the water level has dropped to a third of its capacity. The waters edge has receided so far, that the farmers are now cultivating the land.


200.000.000 people across the North of China face the real possibility that one day the water will run out.


The Water Diversion Project

To head of the catastrophy their leaders plan to spend pounds diverting water from the South of China to the North. Three new canals will be created, each hundreds of miles long. Its total length will be 900 miles. It is the biggest hydraulic project in the history of the world.


The Southern Part of China has plenty of water and the Northern has so little. The Chinese government describes the project as “trying to balance out God’s unfairness”.


The water will have to come partly from the Grand Canal, which however is so polluted, that the provinces to the North are reluctant to receive water from it. The effect on the environment of the South North diversion of water is expected by the Chinese authorities to be little. But all the water going North has to come from the rivers. And the less water that runs through a river, the higher the proportion of pollution.


China is constructing three lines to divert the water North. The river that is going to provide much of the water for the middle line is the Han River. A third of the water from the Han River will be diverted towards Beijing. So farmers and industries must cut their pollution rate accordingly, otherwise the water quality will drop with the diversion. And if the water being diverted hundreds of miles is polluted, then the losses will outweigh the gain.


Pollution is Costly

China has a remarkable growth rate of around 8% per year. But economic growth alone cannot solve the serious problems of overpopulation, shortage of ressources and environmental pollution.


Furthermore, among the officials of China, there is not much appreciation of the relationship between the economy and the environment. Still Chinese experts expect, that the loss due to the environment equals 15% of Chinas GDP.




“You should not pee int the water, that you drink."

- Chinese saying.



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