A Watershed Moment

By Christine Loh 8 February, 2010

Christine Loh reminds us not to overlook or discount its importance – water is the source of life.

Water policies for any country must be top priority as sufficiency of supply is under threat in many places.
A new government survey showed water pollution levels in 2007 were twice as bad as the official estimate.

Water issues are finally taking centre stage in policy circles in China and elsewhere around the world. The obvious needs to be said and repeated just so we don’t overlook or discount its importance – water is the source of life – we cannot do without clean water. Water policies for any country must become a top priority as sufficiency of supply is under threat in many places.

The good news is the Chinese government has done its own comprehensive homework and now knows the problem is as big as it is urgent. A new government survey of the country’s pollution sources has shown water pollution levels in 2007 were twice as bad as the official estimate largely because agricultural wastewater hadn’t been adequately included before. The prior knowledge of this at senior government levels may well have provoked the 2008 financial stimulus package to include a large chunk for water treatment infrastructure.

The survey has also ignited calls for the full data sets to be publicly released so that details can be better understood, which should lead to improved monitoring and regulation. Industries will have to invest in water treatment, and regulators will have to ensure treatment is in fact done. Hopefully, official will power has been strengthened as promotions are now tied to meeting environmental goals as well as economic ones. Municipal authorities are investing in sewage plants, but the plants must operate. Difficult issues relating to the setting of water and sewage treatment prices must be reviewed to eliminate the temptation to turn off the treatment plants to save money.

2010 is a crucial year. National plans require wastewater pollution to be reduced by 10% from 2005 levels. This won’t be easy in light of the underestimate in agriculture wastewater. At least there should be a lot more dialogue and debate in China for greater efforts to be made to clean-up. This might just turn out to be a “watershed” year in every sense of the word.

Christine Loh
Author: Christine Loh
Christine Loh is the Chief Development Strategist at Institute for the Environment, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. She was the Undersecretary for the Environment in the HKSAR Government (2012-17). Between April 2019 and March 2020, she was the Special Consultant to the Office of the Chief Executive of the HKSAR Government on the ecological civilization aspects of the Greater Bay Area Outline Development Plan. She has a long history in public policy and politics, having been a legislator between 1992-2000, and then was the CEO of Civic Exchange, a non-profit public policy think tank. Loh taught a course on nonmarket risks at the Anderson School of Management, University of California at Los Angeles between 1998-2022. She has a wide and unusual range of expertise that spans the environment, energy, development, politics, and US-China relations. She is a published author of many academic and popular works including on the history of the Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong, and SARS. Her latest book, soon to be published by Hong Kong University Press, is about COVID-19 and its socio-economic and policy implications. Professor Loh is a Director and Trustee of CDP Worldwide, and Director of the Global Maritime Forum, New Forests Pty Ltd, and Towngas Smart Energy Company Limited. She is Advisor on Sustainability to Hong Kong Science and Technology Park, and Senior Advisor to Teneo. She is also a member of BASF’s Stakeholder Advisory Council in Germany. She is a lawyer by training, and a commodities trader by profession.
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