China’s groundwater scandal: the missing waste water

For over a decade China’s scientists have called for action on groundwater pollution, but there has been little effective response 


Three years ago Ma Zhong, dean of Renmin University’s School of the Environment and Natural Resources, came across an anomaly while researching water prices: Water input to Chinese industry was four times recorded waste water output. 

Even accounting for various losses and uses, 16 billion tonnes of waste water was going missing. Suspecting it was ending up underground, he reported his findings to the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP). But he saw no more done to protect groundwater.  

Ten years ago Li Wenpeng, assistant to the director at the Chinese Institute of Geological Environment Monitoring, and his colleagues, joined with 40 academics in signing a letter to the State Council. It called for a central groundwater monitoring body to be established. In 2011 the National Groundwater Monitoring Project got underway to fill that gap, with tens of thousands of people on call – but after the initial excitement, nothing happened. 

The earlier letter from experts and academicians evolved into the Proposal for a National Groundwater Monitoring Project. This proposal received approval from a State Council project office in October 2011, was given the nod by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), and then in August 2012 a feasibility study from the Ministries of Land and of Water Resources was submitted to the NDRC.

A year and a half later, not one of the 20,000 proposed monitoring stations has been built. Grand plans to cover one-third of China’s land area within three years of funding remain stuck in Beijing. Already one of the signatories to the original letter, Academic Liu Dongsheng, has passed away. 
The latest word on the project is that it is awaiting the MEP’s environmental impact assessment; a stability assessment (an assessment of the project’s risks to social stability); and more importantly decisions by the new leadership on the body that will undertake the project, funding and staffing, and responsibilities. That latter process will start after the Lianghui in March. 
Lin Zuoding, head of the Bureau of Hydrology at the Ministry of Water Resources, is also anxious to get started. In 2002, the ministry drafted plans for groundwater monitoring and in 2004, submitted plans for an automated monitoring of groundwater on the plains around Beijing. Seven or eight years later, as work was about to start, the new stability assessments again held things back.
Although pollution of groundwater has long been a problem, under the 2011-2020 National Groundwater Pollution Prevention Plan it will be 2015 before we have a “basic grasp” of how bad the pollution actually is, and 2020 before we have “complete monitoring” of the typical sources of groundwater pollution and the mechanisms to prevent groundwater pollution are “basically established.”

Lack of pollution monitoring

The data is also lagging behind. Shi Jiansheng, head of the Institute of Hydrogeology and Environmental Geology (IHEG) at the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences, said that both in the 1980s and again around 2002, the Ministry of Land carried out two rounds of groundwater evaluation. The overall data obtained in those surveys is still often quoted and reprinted today. “But groundwater changes, while the last survey was a decade ago,” said Tian Yanshan, deputy head of the Chinese Institute of Geological Environment Monitoring.
One hydrology expert revealed that the Ministry of Land spends a mere 100 million yuan on monitoring groundwater every year – an average of 200,000 yuan per province. A complete analysis of pollutants in a groundwater sample costs at least 1,000 yuan – or 2,000 yuan if organic pollutants, a worsening problem, are to be tested for. At these levels of funding only a few standard tests can be done. 
The same expert worries that a vicious circle has formed: the problem is not taken seriously, so funding is inadequate, so experts do not have the data to influence policy, so the problem is not taken seriously.
No government leaders are writing memos about dealing with groundwater pollution, and in China, that’s what matters. 
Around October of 2011 the Ministry of Land had the IHEG submit a report to the State Council, documenting groundwater pollution on the northern Chinese plain, and presenting suggestions for dealing with the problem. 
The report was based on a full and accurate survey – and the data was shocking: overall shallow ground water on the plain was of poor quality and heavily polluted, and only 55.87 of sampling points were not polluted. (Note: But polluted groundwater is not the same as undrinkable “toxic” water)
“Illicit underground dumping of waste water is common in the north of China,” said Lu Yaoru, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering. And research bodies have had no choice but to write directly to the Premier: “groundwater pollution is already extremely severe, no one ministry can deal with it – they need to work together.”
The Premier quickly handed the task down to the relevant departments, including the Ministries of Land, Water Resouces, and Housing and Urban-Rural Development – with the MEP to head up the effort. 

The wait goes on…

A year of “discussions” between the recipients followed. In September 2012 there was still no sign of a plan for joint action, leaving Lu Yaoru with no choice but to speak out at the conference of the China Association for Science and Technology. Soon a preliminary plan of work was produced, but “they sent it up for approval, and nothing’s come back.”
In 2011 the MEP published both technological principles for evaluating environmental impacts on groundwater and the 2011-2020 National Groundwater Pollution Prevention Plan, and also started a nationwide groundwater evaluation. 
Now, things are starting to happen. In response to rumours of pollution, Shandong has started a project to clean up groundwater, while repeated exposure of cases of groundwater pollution around the country have forced the authorities in Beijing to pay attention, with investigation teams understood to have been dispatched. Experts spoken to all hoped that groundwater, ignored for decades, would finally receive the attention it deserves. 
China has long researched groundwater pollution – there’s a monitoring well inside Capital Normal University, just outside Beijing’s West Third Ring Road. That well has been used since the 1960s, and is even known internationally. 
The Ministries of Land, Water Resources, and Environmental Protection are responsible for the monitoring, extraction and environment of groundwater, respectively. Their main concerns are, again respectively, preventing subsidence, quantity of supply, and water quality and pollution. 
So we have three ministries, with tens of thousands of employees, all working on groundwater for decades – yet there is no sign of action on groundwater pollution. There is no data, no legislation, no new monitoring wells, and much less any high-quality restoration of polluted groundwater.
“Discussions” between the ministries are actively underway, but much time has been wasted. Lu Yaoru has studied groundwater for 60 years and cuts to the heart of the problem: “Departmental interests and poorly-defined powers and responsibilities.”
And as the government fails to act, the markets are cherry-picking the more profitable aspects of groundwater treatment.

There’s no money in public health

In September 2011, clearer government policy made soil restoration a favourite on the capital markets. In just a few years dozens of soil restoration firms were founded. But the start of plans for cleaning up groundwater pollution did not meet the same enthusiasm.  
“The motivation for cleaning up the soil came from property developers, but there’s an obvious lack of a similar motivation when it comes to groundwater,” explained Gao Shengda, chief editor of an industry website, China Environmental Restoration.
And insiders all agree that dealing with groundwater pollution is a much tougher proposition. 
The only company to participate in the MEP’s plans was BCEG Environmental Remediation. Gao Yanli, general manager of the firm, once said that the soil restoration sector had expanded “beyond expectations”, but was much more cautious when it came to groundwater. 
“With groundwater there’s no profit for money spent – the main benefit is public health. But who pays for it?, ” says Li Wenpeng. 
This article was originally published in Southern Weekend on February 28, 2013