China is facing a water crisis. Its per capita water supply is 70% lower than the global average, but its demand for water is astronomical. Both industry and agriculture use massive amounts of water – and create massive water pollution.
Over the last three decades, China has transformed from impoverished farming-reliant country to the “Factory of the World,” but at a high price. The widespread dumping of toxic chemicals and industrial wastewater has poisoned rivers and groundwater – and the people who rely on them.
A woman of Yanglingang fishing village fetches water from the Yangtze River
But “Made in China” comes at a price: the demand for cheap goods that multinational companies are all too willing to turn a blind eye at their suppliers’ environmental practices – practices that would never be allowed in their home countries.
It is tragic that the global demand for cheap jeans and shoes is poisoning China’s rivers and lakes. But with the commitment of companies to take responsibility for their goods – and consumer pressure – this can change.
Too Dirty to Drink
Water fetched form the Yangzte River used as drinking water.
In China, 320 million people are without access to clean drinking water and 190 million people are drinking water severely contaminated with hazardous chemicals.
According to a long-term study completed in 2011 by the Ministry of Environment Protection and the Chinese Academy of Engineering, over 90% of the groundwater in cities was polluted to different degrees. Of 118 major cities, 64 had seriously contaminated groundwater supplies. This is highly alarming, as 70% of China’s population relies on groundwater for their drinking water.
Cancer Villages and Industrial Pollution
China’s development into the “Factory of the World” may have lifted millions out of poverty, but it has also brought disease and poverty to many more.
A new kind of village is appearing in rural, post-industrialization China – the cancer village. These villages are usually located near factory complexes, and rely on rivers for their drinking, washing and cooking water.
An angry woman blames the polluted stream and well water for the illness and death blighting her village, Zhangyuzhuang, in Henan province. The cluster of paper and chemical factories about 15km upstream is discharging polluted waste water into the stream used by the villagers.
The rates of cancer in these villages are horrific and shocking. Many of the cancer victims are in their youth, and many of them have rare cancers of the esophagus, rectum, stomach and liver. The death rate is high, as many patients cannot afford the money for treatment; in Xingang, Jiangsu province, 40 out of 55 cancer victims have died.
According to Environment magazine, there are over 450 cancer villages in 29 out of 31 provinces. Though industrial pollution cannot be absolutely confirmed as the cause, there is a close link between the locations of cancer villages, factories and polluted rivers.
According to the 2005–06 national environmental safety survey, out of the 7,555 chemical and petrochemical projects surveyed, 1,354 were located on the banks and shores of rivers, lakes and reservoirs; 2,489 were next to densely populated cities or areas; 535 were on major tributaries of key rivers; and 280 were on the upper reaches of protected drinking water-source regions.
Poor environmental regulations, weak enforcement and local corruption mean that factories can discharge their wastewater directly into rivers and lakes.
What’s more, many hazardous chemicals that are restricted or banned completely in Europe and elsewhere are not regulated in China. These chemicals have already been recognized as having serious threats to the environment and health, but in China they can still be used in large quantities and without oversight.
Rivers in Crisis
A pulp and paper factory in the Pearl River Delta region.
The Yangtze River is one of China’s most legendary rivers, but today it’s known for its pollution. In 2008, over 21 billion tons of wastewater – 70% of which came from industrial sources – were dumped into the Yangtze.
The Yellow River, China’s iconic “mother river,” is severely over-exploited. Parts of the river have run dry, while the water is polluted and underground aquifers are severely stressed out.
Industrial pollution is the main threat to the Pearl River, which runs through Guangdong province, the site of China’s earliest factories. Industrial waste makes up 60% of all water emptied into the Pearl River, and clean drinking water is a critical issue for this densely populated region.
It’s estimated that 13,000 petrochemical factories (out of a national total of 21,000) are located along the Yangtze and Yellow rivers. Many of these freely dump their wastewater into the Yangtze, threatening lives and health in villages such as Taicang.