2013 State of Environment Report Review

By China Water Risk 9 July, 2014

MEP says the 'overall environmental quality was average'; but a closer look reveals mixed news

Groundwater continues to worsen over the last three years with Bad & Very Bad categories at 60%
Overall river quality improves except the Yellow, Songhua & Hai; data of lakes are now not comparable
EIA reform & special funds help to meet 12FYP targets; funds for cleaning up heavy metal fell by 37%

“overall environmental quality was ‘average’”

MEP’s 2013 State of Environment Report, June 2014

The MEP 2013 State of Environment Report issued on 4 June 2014 says that the overall environmental quality was ‘average’.
It added that as there was no serious degradation of the ecosystem, the overall ecological environment quality is ‘stable’.
However, upon a closer look, we find mixed news:

  • The groundwater quality continues to deteriorate;
  • 28% of China’s key rivers are still unfit for human contact (Grade IV-V+);
  • The rural environmental situation ‘remains grim’ with degradation of arable land;  and
  • Year-on-year pollution data of key lakes & reservoirs are now not comparable;

In addition, there are discrepancies in different sets of pollution data published by various environmental protection authorities – we cover this in Pollution: Is the Data Real?”.
Here’s a summary of the mixed news:

Groundwater has continued to deteriorate over the past 3 years

Groundwater pollution remains severe in 2013 with groundwater in the ‘bad’ to ‘very bad’ categories at 60% compared to 57% in 2012. Groundwater conditions have now worsened year-on-year over the past three years since 2011 despite the National Groundwater Pollution Prevention and Control Plan issued at the end of the same year. This is worrying as 70% of China’s 1.3 billion population plus over 60% of China’s cities primarily rely on groundwater as drinking water source.
Groundwater Quality Trends 2011-2013

Rivers – Overall water quality improves but the Yellow, Songhua and Hai have deteriorated

The overall water quality in the river basins has been improving since 2009 with water “unfit for human touch” falling from 43% to 28%. Grades I-III water quality of China’s rivers has significantly improved since 2012 rising from 61% to 72% in 2013. Even water that is not useable for industrial or agricultural use (Grade V+) water has shrunk from 11% in 2012 to 9% in 2013.
Overall River Water Qualtiy Trend 2009-2013
However, when we look into the key rivers, we can see that some have fared better than others. The breakdown of water quality of the 7 major river basins is as follows:
2013 Water Quality of Chiona's 7 Major River Basins
At a glance, the rivers in the South still fare better than the rivers in the North but a deeper dive into the river’s historic performance reveals mixed results. The good news first …

Significant improvement in the Yangtze Huai & Liao Rivers

Water quality of the Yangtze, Huai and Liao Rivers has improved significantly with Grade V+ water falling by 30%, 35% and 63%, respectively. Only 3.1% of the Yangtze and 5.4% of the Liao remain not useable for industry and agriculture; these percentages are the lowest out of the seven rivers. This is a considerable improvement in Liao in particular as 36% was not useable for industry or agriculture in 2009.

2009-2013 Water Quality of the Yangtze, Huai & Liao Rivers


Mixed news for the Pearl & Yellow Rivers

2009-2013 Water Quality of the Pearl & Yellow Rivers

Although the Pearl River saw a rise in Grades I-III water quality from 91% to 94%, the amount that is not useable for agriculture and industry has worsened and Grade V+ water in the Pearl River is now over 5%.

The Yellow River on the other hand saw deterioration in overall water quality with amounts unfit for human touch reaching 42% compared to 32% in 2009.


Songhua & Hai Rivers have given back some previous gains

Finally, the Songhua and Hai Rivers have given back the previous year’s improvement.

2009-2013 Water Quality of the Songhua & Hai Rivers

The Songhua is slightly worse off with a 4% fall in Grades I-III water and an increase of 6% in Grade IV-V water, whilst Grade V+ water remained flat.

The Hai remains the most polluted river with 61% of water categorized as unfit for human touch but Grade V+ water that is not useable by both agriculture and industry has risen from 33% in 2012 to 39% in 2013.


Year-on-year data of key lakes & reservoirs are not comparable

In 2012, 62 key lakes and reservoirs were measured. In 2013, only 61 key lakes and reservoirs were measured. No explanation was given as to the why there are only now 61 key lakes & reservoirs. Also, the evaluation criteria has changed from Grades I-V+ to excellent, good, light pollution, medium pollution & heavy pollution. Again no explanation was given.
The overall quality of China’s key lakes and reservoirs in 2012 & 2013 are as follows:
Water Quality of Key Lakes & Reservoirs (2012 & 2013)

Considering that lakes and reservoirs are often drinking water sources, such incomparability of year-on-year data is concerning

Changing definitions and sample sizes, makes it difficult to compare year-on-year performance and no explanation of the change does cast suspicion toward a cover-up of worsening conditions. Considering that lakes and reservoirs are often drinking water sources, such incomparability of year-on-year data is concerning.
Besides not being able to compare the progress on lakes, quality of water in China’s lakes & reservoirs are now also not comparable to China’s rivers.

Can EIA reform & special funds help to achieve the 12 FYP emission reduction targets?

Pollution emissions need to be controlled at source. Aside from increased and consistent monitoring of discharge, China needs to prioritise EIA reform so that the EIA becomes an effective tool in preventing the construction of polluting projects.

In 2013, 241 EIA approvals were given to construction projects amounting to investments of around RMB1.9 trillion whilst 32 projects amounting to RMB118.4 billion were rejected or suspended as environmental requirements were not met. Rejection and suspension rates have respectively risen 10% to 13% from the previous year. Could this be an indication of a more stringent EIA approval process in the future?

Special funds have also been set aside to tackle pollution:

  • RMB3.4 billion for remediation of heavy metal pollution in key areas – this is 37% less than the amount set aside in 2012 despite increasing amounts of heavy metals found in China’s rivers carried to the sea – more on this here;
  • RMB1.6 billion for ecological protection of lakes – this is 36% less than the amount set aside in 2012; and
  • RMB6 billion for rural environmental protection including RMB4 billion for livestock & husbandry pollution treatment – this amount is 9% more than that set aside in 2012, reflecting that the MEP’s stance that the rural environment still ‘remains grim’.

MEP indicated that they are on track to meet the 2013 targets

That said, the MEP indicated that they are on track to meet the 2013 targets for COD, Sulphur Dioxide, Ammonia Nitrate and Nitrogen Oxide with reductions of 2.9%, 3.5%, 3.1% and 4.7% respectively. So it does look like we will make the 2014 12FYP reduction targets.

But is meeting these targets enough when there are discrepancies in different set of pollution data published by various environmental protection authorities? More on this here.

For now, given the war on pollution in 2014, we expect to see a much clearer and less grim picture in next year’s State of Environment Report.

Further Reading

  • Pollution: Is Data Real? – Inconsistencies in the recording and reporting of pollution data begs the question: is the data real? With 7,700 tonnes of lead in China’s rivers carried to the sea unaccounted for in 2011, is the real state of environment worse than we thought?
  • China’s Coast: The Unbearable Weight of Heavy Metal Pollution – Environmental toxicologist Dr. Tan Qiaoguo from Xiamen University on historical trends of heavy metal pollution in China’s coastal waters & the worrying amount of heavy metals carried by China’s rivers to the sea
  • Pollution: 5 Reasons to Remain Optimistic – Given the recent release of depressing groundwater & soil pollution statistics, Debra Tan gives us 5 reasons to stay optimistic – from changes in the law to water tariff hikes in Beijing
  • The War on Water Pollution – Premier Li has just declared war on pollution. Tan expands on the government’s stratagems & offensives and fundamental changes required to shore up the MEP’s arsenal in order to wage a successful war
  • 2012 State of Environment Report Review – The Ministry of Environmental Protection says that the “national water quality is not optimistic”. The 2012 State of Environment Report released on 4 June 2013 delivers mixed news
China Water Risk
Author: China Water Risk
We believe regardless of whether we care for the environment that water risks affect us all – as investors, businesses and individuals. Water risks are fundamental to future decision making and growth patterns in global economies. Water scarcity has emerged as a critical sustainability issue for China's economy and since water powers the economy, we aim to highlight these risks inherent in each sector. In addition, we write about current trends in the global water industry, analyze changes occurring both regionally and globally, as well as providing explanations on the new technologies that are revolutionizing this industry.
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