Chinese cities can’t hide water pollution

originally posted on July 9, 2016


BEIJING • Chinese environmental officials are increasingly turning to naming and shaming cities that fail to bring down pollution levels.

The latest effort involves water pollution which, like that of air and soil, has reached toxic levels across much of China.

The Ministry of Environmental Protection has said it plans to release rankings of cities by water quality. It already does this with air quality, which is how ordinary Chinese know that coal-burning cities in Hebei province, surrounding the capital Beijing, are among the worst offenders when it comes to smog.

Chinese media reported on the plans this week, after the ministry released a draft proposal last month.

“The authorities will set up monitoring points in different cities to take samples of water to monitor the quality of rivers and lakes in 338 prefecture-level cities in 31 provinces,” the ministry said. Municipal-level cities such as Beijing, Chongqing and Tianjin and autonomous regions would be included.

The system will use 21 metrics to test the levels of metals, harmful chemicals and other pollutants which will help determine a City Water Quality Index. Each month, the 10 best and 10 worst cities will be announced.

“The city ranking publication could put pressure on responsible city governments to take action to improve the water quality, and also introduce a sense of competition… as a kind of motivation,” said Ms Ada Kong, who oversees the toxics campaign at Greenpeace East Asia, which is based in Beijing.

But Ms Kong said more information could be disclosed under the proposed plan. For example, the list does not have to be limited to the top and bottom 10 cities. The ministry could also release the 21 measurements for each city, she added.

Widespread environmental pollution is one of the issues of greatest concern to ordinary Chinese.

The Environment Ministry said inspection teams will be sent to eight more provinces and regions.

The latest round of inspection will cover the huge coal-producing regions such as Inner Mongolia and Ningxia in the north-west, the north-eastern industrial heartland of Heilongjiang and the poor rural regions of Yunnan and Guangxi in the south-west.

Separately, the Environment Ministry yesterday said it had fined several state-owned polluters in May for exceeding emission limits.

The Communist Party has been forced to respond to a rising outcry over this, especially among middle- class urban residents. Premier Li Keqiang has said China is committed to a “war on pollution”, and the government has enacted policies to limit coal-burning in large population centres as well as declared a “red alert” in Beijing on several recent occasions to warn residents of intense smog days.

Mr Ma Jun, an environmental transparency advocate, said that monitoring water quality in cities was far more difficult than monitoring air quality.

Officials can set up air monitors throughout a city to get average readings. With water, he said, officials will have to choose carefully which rivers and lakes around the cities to monitor and how to interpret the readings to make general statements about pollution levels.

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