China’s Glacial Pace of Water Protection

By Laura Ediger 8 February, 2010

A firsthand insight into challenges and frustrations of working to improve China’s water quality.

National laws in place but rely on local officials to monitor and enforce.
Bottom-up approach required - improvement in local knowledge, awareness & accountability necessary.
Several MNCs taking lead to set shared Water Quality Guidelines & Testing Standards for suppliers.

When major water pollution incidents hit the headlines, everyone takes notice—communities, business owners, government, even investors—because water is such a vital and finite resource with many competing demands. The attention helps, because all of these groups then direct a little bit more time and energy into creating solutions and safeguards. However, the daily work of protecting water resources from industrial pollution is decidedly less exciting and rarely gets a mention.

BSR has been working on water issues in China for several years, primarily focusing on industrial wastewater problems, such as water pollutants discharged by textile factories. We help international brands such as Gap and Timberland set standards and establish systems for monitoring the laundries and mills in their supply chain. We’ve been supporting the long, slow process of helping these factories to improve their wastewater management over time. Through this involvement, we have been able to see firsthand the challenges and frustrations of groups working to improve China’s water quality.

Water resources are easily contaminated and difficult to protect because water pollution has so many different sources. Even risk-based enforcement that targets the worst-polluting industries can fail to target offenders effectively. Factories that do clean up their water discharges understandably feel that they have failed to make an impact when their neighbours are still dumping pollutants into the river. Thus, businesses often become proponents of a strengthened regulatory system, as a means of sharing responsibility and also leveling the playing field.

However, the process of building an effective regulatory system for a public good like water quality can be very slow. For years, people argued that China’s laws weren’t good enough. At the national level, a new set of legislative requirements and standards were put in place, but the problems still weren’t solved. This was largely because they relied on the ability and political will of local environmental officials to monitor and enforce them. The even slower process of constructing appropriate systems, allocating resources (both physical and human) and increasing the awareness and expectations of enforcement is necessary for effective regulation.

For businesses, the progress made in reducing supply chain pollution can also be painfully slow. Through BSR’s Sustainable Water Group, several multinational companies worked together to craft a set of shared Water Quality Guidelines and Testing Standards for suppliers. Once the process of vetting the standards and expert review had been completed, the even more difficult task of implementing those standards began. Many brands were not aware exactly which factories were supplying their fabric goods. The piecemeal process of communicating with every single factory was prolonged and tedious. Implementation of a supplier program that effectively enables factories to assess and improve performance requires a significant investment of staff resources. This must also be accompanied by a clear directive from purchasing decision-makers that water-quality impacts will be prioritised as part of the sourcing process. This type of organisational change is in itself slow and difficult, especially in companies that are stretched over wide geographies.

So while water pollution disasters tend to make a big splash, the work of avoiding them is often glacially slow and rarely gets attention. That work includes gradually improving the competence and skill sets of the factory workers who manage and maintain wastewater treatment plants. It includes teaching factory owners that regulatory and reputational risks should be taken seriously. It includes bringing business, government and civil society together to agree on common goals and respective responsibilities. It includes raising customer awareness to purchase responsible products, that may cost more but protect water resources.

Ultimately, the complexity and localisation of water pollution in China defies a top-down solution. Instead, it requires small but steady improvements in local knowledge, awareness, and accountability. Unfortunately, we can still count on the occasional nasty industrial accident to remind people why this work matters.

Laura Ediger
Author: Laura Ediger
Laura Ediger, Environmental Manager at Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), is closely involved with water quality and energy efficiency issues in southern China and is also connecting food and agricultural companies with their suppliers to improve water management. Prior to joining BSR, Laura conducted research in China on land use, migration, forestry and agriculture, and was a research fellow at the Institute of Geography, Chinese Academy of Sciences, in Beijing. Laura also worked as a consultant in Southeast Asia on the impacts of hydropower and extractive industries and has conducted research and project work in several Asian countries for the World Agroforestry Centre, the Economist Intelligence Unit and Oxfam America.
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