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By Michael Standaert
April 17 — In a bid to address severe water pollution following decades of rapid development, China's government issued a long-awaited water pollution action plan that expands scrutiny over polluters and heavy users of the country's water systems.
The plan released by China's Cabinet, the State Council, aims for gradual improvements of the country's water systems by 2020 and major improvements by 2030, with a fully established system to protect and preserve water resources by 2050, according to the announcement April 16.
By 2020, China aims to have more than 70 percent of the water resources in seven key river basins—including the heavily polluted Yangtze and Yellow rivers—clean enough to use for drinking water.
The plan takes effect immediately, but provincial and local governments will begin crafting and implementing their own local strategies in the next several months.
Water price reforms, first for industrial water use and later for agriculture, are included in the plan, as are calls for establishing tax and financial policies to guide water conservation and protection.
Provincial and local governments will be graded on how they are controlling water pollution and resources through a new water quality monitoring system to be established, the plan said.
Water scarcity and pollution have become major problems for China, where most power generation is heavily reliant on water resources, and clean drinking water has become an issue in some areas. The action plan's focus on penalizing polluters is similar to the country's air pollution action plan released late in 2013.
Major focuses include conservation and protection of groundwater resources, tackling the most polluted water bodies and improving coastal water resources, particularly around the Bohai Sea basin near the capital of Beijing.
Further detailed action on controlling wastewater discharges will be implemented, promotion of recycling and reusing water will grow, strict water management rules will be expanded and environmental protection and advanced water use technologies will be supported, the government said.
Under the plan, 10 key industries must come up with specific ways to clean up their processes as they relate to water pollution. Those industries are paper, coking, metals, textile dyeing and finishing, nitrogen-based fertilizers, food processing, petrochemical raw material processing, tanning, pesticide production and electroplating.
In an indication of the amount of work needed to clean up some industries, the government will mandate that some smaller-production facilities shut down entirely. This will include some small companies dealing with paper production, leather work, textile dyeing and finishing, coking, sulfur refining, arsenic refining, electroplating and pesticides.
Debra Tan, director of Hong Kong-based China Water Risk, told Bloomberg BNA April 17 that the plan will push for a change in the industrial mix “away from backward and polluting industries.”
For example, “textiles and pulp and paper are very polluting with little industrial output value,” Tan said, and are “two times more polluting” than core industries such as agriculture, coal, iron and steel. Those type of industries will “probably find it very difficult to meet new industrial standards,” Tan said.
Linda Greer, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Beijing, who is working with major clothing brands and textile mills to achieve major cuts in water use, told Bloomberg BNA April 17 that many mills have “already done quite a bit and don't have much further to go” in reducing water use, but others could “upgrade and seriously reduce the amount of water used.”
“The biggest problem is a lack of motivation for mills to do something,” Greer said. “Generally they don't have to do this, so the water plan may really help with that motivation, particularly ones with big, bad wastewater problems or water supply problems.”
Wu Shunze, vice dean of the Chinese Academy of Environmental Planning, an institute under the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), said in a statement that the plan is of “great historical significance” to China and an “important part” of the country's overall battle against pollution.
Wu said studies conducted by his institution indicate that 5.7 trillion yuan ($920 billion) of spending and investment could be generated across the economy over the next five years to six years from the plan, particularly in construction, environmental protection equipment, integrated technologies, financial services and other industries related to water utilization and protection.
On March 23, the MEP released a catalog of 283 advanced water conservation and water pollution remediation technologies that the government wants to encourage for use during the implementation of the plan.
Three key regions—the major urban areas of Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei, the Yangtze River Delta around Shanghai and the Pearl River Delta area in south China's Guangdong province—have been identified to implement many policies earlier than other regions, as they were with the country's air pollution action plan.
Alvin Lin, China climate and energy policy director for NRDC, told Bloomberg BNA by e-mail April 17 that the plan “sets important measurable targets to reduce water pollution, planning and investment in technology and equipment to clean up pollution and monitoring and public information transparency and participation to ensure that polluters are held accountable.”
"As with the air pollution plan, it sets the tone for a new, strengthened approach to tackling China’s severe water pollution problems, which will require solid implementation to change the behavior of polluters and developing strong water pollution enforcement, information and accountability systems,” Lin said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Michael Standaert in Shenzhen, China, at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Greg Henderson at email@example.com
The Water Pollution Action Plan is available, in Chinese, at https://tinyurl.com/onmo7nj.
The Ministry of Environmental Protection interpretation of the main points of the plan is available in Chinese at https://tinyurl.com/masgsas.
The MEP list of 283 advanced technologies for implementing the water plan is available in Chinese at https://tinyurl.com/pjvqlf5.
The China Water Risk report released April 15 is available at https://tinyurl.com/qxkttrb.
The Natural Resources Defense Council report on what the textile industry is already doing in China to reduce water consumption is available at https://tinyurl.com/o8vg4de.
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