The Thirsty Dragon: Despite National Improvements, Water Quality Deteriorates in North-East China

Via Future Directions International, a report on China’s other water related issue – pollution:

Water pollution is a major environmental issue in China and is a leading cause of “mass incidents”, as public protests are called in China. In 2014, more than half of the water tested from 4,778 sources was unfit for human consumption. According to tests conducted by China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment, water quality has continued to steadily improve, with most major rivers less polluted than they were in 2017. The Liao and Songhua rivers in north-eastern China, however, were found to be even more polluted than in 2017. Water pollution is particularly severe in that region, with more than 80 per cent of the groundwater unsafe for drinking. Phosphorus and ammonium nitrate, which are mainly found in industrial wastewater, pesticides and fertilisers, were again identified as the major pollutants.


Before the start of the Chinese “economic miracle” in the late 1970s, the country’s heavy industry was centred in the three north-eastern provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning. The region produced the machinery, industrial chemicals and raw materials that fuelled the initial phase of China’s economic development. In recent years, however, the economies of the north-eastern provinces have faced considerable headwinds. They rely on state investment and (mainly loss-making) state-owned enterprises. Their populations are the oldest in China due to low fertility rates and the outflow of young, skilled workers.

Residents in the north-east are growing increasingly hostile towards the industries that their provincial economies once relied upon. For instance, plans to build four alumina plans in Liaoning were cancelled in 2018 due to public environmental concerns. The 2017 Jilin economic report suggests that the north-east’s economy could be improved by investing in labour-intensive, light industries, such as agriculture, pharmaceuticals and industries such as textiles, home appliances and electronics. Most of those industries continue to carry the risk of heightened water pollution, however, particularly if environmental regulations remain weak or poorly enforced.

The north-east is already a major producer of agricultural goods. Most of China’s soybean and corn is grown in the region, which also accounts for 20 per cent of the country’s milk and beef production. That industry is also a source of water pollution, however, with many farms allowing untreated agricultural waste to flow into the region’s rivers and groundwater. Efforts to revitalise the economies of the north-east are likely to be frustrated by concerns about environmental pollution. Addressing those concerns will be vital to any economic plan.

Some doubt must be cast over the claim that water quality has improved across the country after it was revealed that companies and local government officials have concealed chemical spills and falsified water tests. In parts of China, water tests have been falsified by replacing river samples with bottled mineral water, sections of rivers have been covered in tarpaulin to hide pollution from inspectors, chemicals have been added to waterways to temporarily improve water quality ahead of tests and polluted river channels have been filled with soil to avoid detection. Pollution has continued to rise in coastal waters, where rivers meet the sea, calling into question the accuracy of water testing procedures further upstream.

Water pollution is likely to remain a major environmental concern across China and while Beijing has enacted tougher anti-pollution laws they are unevenly enforced. If government reports are to be believed, water quality has generally improved across the country with the exception of the north-east. Beijing plans to release its second environmental census in 2019, which could give the clearest indication of the direction that China’s “War on Pollution” is heading. If it relies too heavily on questionable data, however, it is more likely to be an exercise in futility.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, January 30th, 2019 at 2:50 pm and is filed under China.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

Comments are closed.

© 2023 Water Politics LLC .  'Water Politics', 'Water. Politics. Life', and 'Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty World' are service marks of Water Politics LLC.