When it comes to industrialization and pollution, China also faces the seemingly insurmountable task of recovering from years of damage to the environment. In particular, the issue of wastewater is one of China’s biggest problems. For example, industrial and biological pollution has contaminated almost 90 percent of the underground water in Chinese cities. Furthermore, China’s environmental regulators have designated 48 of China’s major lakes as seriously polluted. One-fourth of the water sampled along China’s two largest rivers － the Yangtze and Yellow － was designated as too polluted for farm irrigation. Hence, it is abundantly clear that wastewater is a prominent issue that the country has to address in the near future.
Given that the wastewater discharged by industrial functions made up 44.7 percent of the national total in 2006 and pollutant discharge per unit of industrial added value was one of the highest, China should focus on reforming its industry structure to lower the proportion of industrial added value in GDP. Also, in dealing with wastewater treatment and recycling, new regulation on water resource utilization will limit the annual consumption of water to 635 billion cubic meters by 2015, further increasing the need for water recycling facilities. For this reason, China expects to spend $69 billion on industrial wastewater treatment. Since per capita water resource in China is only a quarter of the world’s average, and industrial water consumption constitutes a quarter of the country’s total water consumption, the recycling of deeply treated industrial waste water is imperative and should be expedited in the near future. As long as China exerts effort to clean up and mitigate the harmful effects of the water crisis, the World Bank projects that China’s wastewater emissions will decrease in the years to come.
To discourage the building of too many coal plants, China should levy taxes on pollution through taxes on carbon and sulfur emissions. The purpose of these taxes would be to internalize the external cost of dirty energy such as coal, and to force coal and power enterprises to use cleaner technologies that would cut down on their water usage.
Industrialization and the pollution it has left behind have brought about irate citizens and a fury of riots, given that environmental concerns are a significant cause of mass protests in China. Endemic corruption and a weak legal infrastructure contribute to devastating pollution accidents, as well as to long-term degradation and pollution. Without effective legal redress for environmental wrongdoing, victims of environmental pollution often resort to demonstrations to draw attention to their plight (including 180,000 demonstrations in 2010 alone.) In the summer of 2010, for example, thousands of villagers in Guangxi province protested against the heavy pollution caused by an aluminum company, which had contaminated the villagers’ drinking water and caused their crops to suffer. In the end, three protestors were killed and a number of villagers were wounded. The intensity of these protests demand compensation for those affected by water pollution.
To address its pollution problems, China already has a fairly complete set of environmental laws and regulations. For example, the Water Pollution Prevention and Control Law provides stipulation that water pollution victims can seek class action lawsuits to directly obtain civil compensation from polluters. On paper, such laws appear to be very effective. But in actual practice, justice does not always happen—China lacks the necessary personnel, standards, and mechanisms to uphold the rule of law effectively. To address this, China should increase the number of dedicated law enforcers and encourage enforcers to take more initiative. Also, clearer standards must be set and more efficient mechanisms should be set in place to monitor and curb industrial malpractice.
One such mechanism would be to enforce harsher punishments for breaking environmental regulations. As it stands today, it is cheaper to break the law and pay a small fine than to obey the law and spend substantial amounts of money on eco-friendly functions. This is precisely why some penny-pinching Chinese companies only run pollution-reducing equipment in the day time, or only when inspectors are here to check up on them; when the inspectors leave, the pollution-reducing equipment gets switched off immediately. Simply put, the current system naturally spawns a game of cat and mouse. To prevent this, polluters will have to pay higher fines or even go so far as to undergo criminal proceedings in order to strongly discourage these Chinese companies from breaking environmental laws.
Although reforms will be difficult to implement, they can be carried out. Persistent conservation of water, the regular recycling of water, and a wise allocation of this precious resource will ensure stability and prosperity for the future. Better accountability in terms of water malpractice will also bring about a culture of water conservation. The arduous journey ahead requires China to unite as a country to overcome the water crisis.