Cleaning China’s polluted Pearl

The harmful effects of rapid urbanisation and industrial growth have been felt on the Pearl River delta, writes Tang Hao. While the worst pollution has been controlled in recent years, he argues, prevention is always better than cure.

Cities grow around water; almost every urban settlement relies on a river, a lake or a sea for its life. But water is not just necessary for survival; it becomes part of a city’s culture and its soul. Take the water away, and the spirit of the city will often be lost.

Before the 1980s, south China’s Pearl River delta was known for its lakes and rivers. The city of Guangzhou was famous for its six waterways that divided the city. Only three decades ago its residents would go swimming in the Pearl River, or watch dragon-boat races from its banks. Further upriver, Foshan enjoyed over 5,000 kilometres of waterways. People lived by the Pearl River – and on the river – as boats plied its length.

But after decades of industrial development and urbanisation, China’s cities are becoming ever thirstier for water. Pollution is worsening, and people are becoming separated from the water that their city drinks. The Pearl River is known as Guangzhou’s “mother river,” but the city’s people are tragically estranged from their mother. And they have only their irresponsibility and greed to blame.

Guangdong is the most developed province in the Pearl River basin, and it is responsible for most of the region’s pollution. China’s system of environmental standards classify water quality with a series of benchmarks, with “class one” the cleanest and “class five” the dirtiest. In 2004, water flowing into Guangdong was of a “class three” quality, but it was a “class five” – or even below – when it reached the Pearl River delta. Quality was worst of all in Guangzhou. It was “class four” for seven months in 2005, but from January to March that year it was below “class five” the entire time, meaning it was very seriously polluted. “Class four” water is not supposed to ever come into direct contact with the human body. Water must be of “class three” or higher before swimming is permissible. Locals could only dream of taking a dip in the Pearl River. Not only were traces of life steadily disappearing from the river, but the water was also black, oily and malodorous. This all-important artery was dying, and many sections were concreted over. Years of pollution turned the Pearl River and its tributaries into dark and stinking sewers.

As if that was not bad enough, polluted rivers also spread disease. For instance, the pollution of London’s River Thames reached its worst point in the 1850s, when the local population suffered cholera outbreaks. As of June 20 this year, Guangzhou had two confirmed cases of cholera, which were traced to local river products, such as fish, crab and shrimp. Such cases are rare in Guangzhou, and in China, yet they have reappeared after all these years of economic growth.

Cleaning up

Guangzhou started trying to clean up the Pearl River in 2005. Key methods included water treatment, improving the pipe network, removing silt, adding clean water and stopping pollution. The construction of a number of large water-treatment plants did result in some improvements, and massive investment in treatment is still the main cleanup strategy. The city invested 25.4 billion yuan ($US3.3 billion) in new treatment plants last year, and is now able to treat an extra 635,000 tonnes of water every day.

However, if we distinguish between “pre-emptive” and “after-the-fact” methods of dealing with water pollution, there is little doubt that the best method is to deal with the source of the problem: forcing factories to make changes or to close down. Now we only try to solve the problem after it has appeared – we pollute first, and clean up later. It is not only Guangzhou, of course, that has made this choice. It is very common to see efforts concentrated on cleanup, rather than prevention. Foshan invested 10.2 billion yuan last year in cleaning up over 1,000 kilometres of its waterways, yet little progress was made on reducing effluent from big polluters.

These conflicting cleanup methods reflect the wider contestation between different interest groups in Chinese society. Treatment, rather than prevention, tends to win the battle because building sanitation plants presents no threat to the polluters. Local government see quick results, and it is less problematic than closing down factories. The only problem is that the taxpayers have to foot the bill. So the public bear the cost, even though they suffer most from pollution.


Guangzhou has put a lot of effort into controlling pollution with water-treatment plants, river cleanups and treatment of industrial effluent. The provincial governor and city mayor even went so far as to swim in the Pearl River to demonstrate their success and determination. But the construction of ever more treatment plants fails to solve the problem at its root. Aside from the greater costs compared to prevention, it is also far less effective. The treated water will reach “class three” at most. Despite the testing stations along the river, which report greatly increased water quality, anyone walking along the Pearl River will be struck by the stench and the rubbish that litters its banks. The water quality fluctuates, and we have to wonder how effective the treatment actually is. 

Pollution in the Pearl River cannot be blamed entirely on Guangzhou. Most of the cities in the delta contribute to the problem. And even if Guangzhou would make its water crystal clear, it would not make any difference in cities upstream. But cleaning up the river requires a comprehensive approach: it’s not just a matter of treating the water. I funded a survey of the river with some friends last year. We found that in recent years, numerous dams have been built to reduce the risk of floods and to generate power, but these also worsen the pollution. The dams slow the flow of water and reduce the river’s ability to purify itself. This could, in fact, neutralise the benefits of water treatment.

Investment in water-treatment plants does work for Guangzhou, of course; the improvement in local water quality cannot be denied. But there should be a wider range of choices, or the water will simply continue to worsen as the sources of pollution increase. The number of water-treatment plants will never keep up with industrial growth; pollution will always be one step ahead of treatment. To truly solve the problem we cannot rely on building more water treatment plants or on moving the factories to other rivers. We need to change the way we approach our water resources, their exploitation and pollution. This will be a hard and thankless task, but it is not a task we can avoid. We need increased government oversight, with strict controls on waste discharges and the closure of polluting factories. We need to encourage companies to treat their own waste, and bear their responsibility to wider society. We need to mobilise the public to monitor pollution and get involved in stopping it themselves. And besides this, we must develop a more environmentally-friendly economy and bring local industry into the future. This is the long-term solution to the problem of China’s polluted rivers.

Tang Hao, born in 1974, is a newspaper columnist, deputy editor of Shimin (Citizen) magazine, and assistant professor of politics at Huanan Normal University. His essays and opinion pieces have appeared in Contemporary International Relations, International Studies, Nanfang Daily, Yangcheng Evening News, Southern Window and many other publications.

Homepage photo by Steven Schroeder