China: Annual Pollution Report Indicates that Situation is Improving as Political Pressure Mounts

17 May 2017 Jane Robinson, Research Assistant, Food and Water Crises Research Programme

Background

The Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) recently released its annual report on pollution. Overall there has been an improvement in air, water and soil pollution over the past year. The report came just weeks after the Chongqing Liangjiang Voluntary Service Center, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), discovered toxic ponds of improperly disposed industrial waste in farmland in northern China. The onus lies with China to address pollution in several provinces, notably Hebei and Tianjin. The widespread publicity that the pits received suggests that China is willing to minimise pollution, but these efforts are held back by pollution in some areas.

Comment

Beijing continues to push for changes to its environmental conditions, which are undeniable to nearby countries as smog regularly filters through state borders. The sheer reality of China’s pollution is infamously linked to cities like Linfen, where pictures show the magnitude of daily smog that closely mirrors the 1952 Great Smog of London. Air quality is ranked according to different levels of concern across the country, allowing authorities to target key locations of concern, such as Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei in the north and the Pearl and Yangtze deltas in the south-east. In an attempt to reduce air pollution, China launched a five year Air Pollution Action Plan in 2013. Although the goals are reachable, Chinese media continues to question whether the country is capable of meeting its 2017 goals.

China has ambitious development plans that could impede anti-pollution efforts, including the development of two megacities. Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei are expected to converge to form a megacity being referred to as JingJinJi. The megacity is set to become a regional hub with over 130 million people. Under the plan, Beijing will continue to be the capital and cultural hub, Tianjin will revitalise its presence as a crucial port and an advanced manufacturing hub while Hebei province will shift its focus to clean manufacturing and wholesale trading. China’s plans to expand current trade in the region are appealing but will face discouraging difficulties. The region is one of several that run a water deficit. Water security in the region has worsened as water availability in the North China Plain has fallen by nearly two-thirds since the 1970s; and reports suggest that 70 per cent of the plain’s groundwater is not suitable for human contact.

The second major megalopolis under development is situated in the Yangtze River Delta, an area that includes Shanghai, while a third megacity will incorporate key urban centres along the Pearl River Delta. The major trading and manufacturing sectors in both regions will be expanded significantly, potentially contributing to worsening pollution levels. Agriculture is slated to become a major economic sector in these regions despite a clear pollution problem in the area. The link between pollution and water security is undeniable as water pollution presents a massive risk to the Chinese population. Over half of China’s surface water is undrinkable even with treatment. Awareness of the extent of water pollution in China increased after dozens of dead pigs were found in the Huangpu River in 2013. Since this incident, Beijing declared a “war on pollution” and imposed harsher penalties for major polluters. In 2016, China detained 720 people and the government received 33,000 tip offs of environmental violations. Fines issued were reportedly worth 440 million yuan ($84 million). The success of this approach is questionable, but it must be noted that progress is being made. The Ministry of Environmental Protection has overseen the clean-up of cesspits. Reports suggest that approximately 18 cesspits were cleaned up in 2014 and China has continued to address the problems as they are exposed by NGOs. The role of NGOs is crucial in addressing pollution in China. These organisations continue to pressure the government and keep it accountable in its efforts to address key environmental issues that could see pollution levels improve.

While Chinese claims that pollution levels are improving, this is barely a reason to celebrate. Chinese policy makers have a difficult task ahead in the economic expansions that are likely to put strain on China’s pollution levels. NGOs, which are becoming increasingly active in publicising pollution problems, are vital in ensuring that the government acts upon its commitment to effective environmental stewardship.

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