China wants more than 90 percent of urban water to be drinkable by 2020. That sounds ambitious in a country where a third of rivers are toxic. But a government action plan released on April 16 is well crafted. Shoring up infrastructure and management of the country’s limited H20 could not only make supplies cleaner but more productive.
The situation today is dire. If demand for water continues to grow at its current rate, it could outstrip supply as soon as 2030, according to a recent report by China Water Risk. Only around a quarter of reserves are in the north, home to most of the country’s agriculture and much of its heavy industry. Yet 60 percent of China’s groundwater is heavily polluted, according to a government report released in 2014.
The new plan is suitably bold. It sets out to both plug holes in the existing system and speed up reforms. That means practical measures like better monitoring, fixing leaky pipes, cleaning up toxic sludge, and probably raising prices. At the same time, the Ministry of Environmental Protection will come down hard on polluters in industries such as steel, textiles, and coal. Repeat offenders will be shut down.
True, it’s a huge undertaking. The high targets are a stretch, and anyway China’s standards for drinking water are less rigorous than those used elsewhere. But at the very least, the new approach represents an encouraging step away from showy projects like the huge canal designed to transfer water from the south to the parched north. In the long run, that means there’s good reason to expect more sustainable improvements.
And even if it’s not possible to reach the plan’s lofty goals, taking steps to improve water quality will make the economy more efficient. China produced roughly $9 of GDP per cubic metre of fresh water used in 2013, according to Datastream. Even the inefficient United States does better, at $30 of output per cubic metre. Faced with a slowing economy, China can hardly take the risk of running short of water. A cleanup will make what it has work harder.