2016 State of Environment Report Review

By China Water Risk 14 June, 2017

Positive signs for China's environment in 2016: improved groundwater & monitoring but mixed for rivers & lakes

Groundwater quality improved after 5 years of decline; “very bad” fell to 14.7%, meeting Water Ten's limit of 15%
Average quality of China's 7 major rivers improved slightly overall (again) from 2015 but Songhua deteriorated
Progress in lakes & reservoirs hits setback: water unfit for touch rose to 34%; more effort needed to build on 2016

As China embarks on its 13th Five Year Plan (13FYP), the commitment to environmental issues appears stronger than ever. As President Xi Jinping stated clearly in his Davos address, China’s growth can no longer be at the expense of the environment. Adding to this, the revised Environmental Protection Law is gaining in strength and the “Air Ten” “Water Ten” and “Soil Ten” have all been released. But is China’s environment reflecting such positive rhetoric and measures?

“It is important to protect the environment while pursuing economic and social progress so as to achieve harmony between man and nature and between man and society”. 

President Xi Jinping, World Economic Forum, Davos, January 2017


2016 was a decisive year for the foundation of a good environment

On 5 June 2017, the MEP released the 2016 State of Environment Report. The key message is that 2016 was a decisive year for the foundation of a good-quality environment. Governments and departments at all levels are encouraged to follow the State Council’s lead to promote environmental protection.
Overall, the report shows significant improvement in several water-related aspects but also emphasised that much progress is still needed to win the “war on pollution”. Below are key points from the report:

  • Groundwater – proportion of ‘very bad’ has fallen, reversing years of deterioration;
  • Key rivers – overall proportion of China’s seven major rivers meeting Grade I-III level is 71.2%, but five rivers fall below this average;
  • Key lakes & reservoirs – despite improvement in recent years; proportion of Grade IV-V has risen; and
  • Monitoring coverage – large numbers of monitoring stations have been added to the existing network across water bodies.

Groundwater quality has bounced back after years of steady decline

Groundwater pollution has been a concern for China in recent years. Between 2012 and 2015, the proportion of groundwater stations with “excellent” quality fell from 11.8% to 9.1%; while the proportion of groundwater stations with “very bad” quality rose from 16.8% to 18.8%. This deterioration even received widespread media attention in 2016 with claims from the Epoch Times and various media outlets that more than 80% of China’s groundwater was polluted.

“Very bad” quality groundwater fell to 14.7%, meeting the Water Ten Plan’s target limit of 15%

Amidst such negativity, the 2016 report brings good news. The gradual decline in groundwater quality seems to have been arrested and reversed. In particular, “good” and “excellent” groundwater points have increased by 1.4 percentage points in 2015-2016. Also, “very bad” quality groundwater points decreased drastically by 4.1 percentage points to 14.7%, meeting the Water Ten Plan’s target limit of 15% by 2020.
Overall Groundwater Quality - 2016 State of Environment (3)
In addition, the monitoring coverage of groundwater has expanded considerably between 2015 and 2016. While only 340 monitoring stations were added in 2013-2015, more than 1,000 new points were set up between 2015 and 2016.

More than 1,000 new groundwater monitoring stations added between 2015 & 2016

No of monitoring stations (groundwater) (1)
The 2016 report also shows that shallow groundwater in China’s river basins is improving at a fast pace. Between 2014 and 2016, the percentage of “very bad” shallow groundwater stations has decreased from 35.5% to 19.8%. In the same period, the share of “good” or “excellent” shallow groundwater stations has risen from 15.2% to 24%.

30.5% of the Yellow River Basin’s shallow groundwater has “very bad” quality

The picture is however not so rosy for certain key river basins. 30.5% of the Yellow River Basin’s shallow groundwater stations show “very bad” quality while almost 90% of the stations in the Songhua and Liao River Basins report “bad” quality or worse. Clearly more needs to be done in these river basins.
shallow groundwater by river basin (2)

Rivers – Overall surface water quality improved slightly but Songhua falls behind

The first thing of note regarding surface water in rivers is the impressive improvement in monitoring coverage. While the number of monitoring stations hovered at around 700 in 2012-2015, the 2016 report provided river surface water quality data from 1,617 stations. Although this helps form a better picture of the real status of water quality, this means that it is no longer meaningful and consistent to compare percentage trends across the last five years.

Number of river surface monitoring stations has more than doubled from 2015 to 2016…
… thus it is no longer meaningful & consistent to compare percentage trends across the last five years

No of river surface monitoring stations (1)
That said, the 2016 report does provide a comparison of main river water quality between 2015 and 2016 based on the new number of stations, and small improvements can be identified (see table below for details).

  • The share of monitoring sections with Grade I-III water quality in China’s major rivers increased from 69.0% in 2015 to 71.2% in 2016;
  • The proportion with water “unfit for human contact” (Grade IV or worse) has shrunk from 31.0% to 28.8%; and
  • The proportion with “unusable” Grade V+ water dropped by 0.8 percentage points.

This is in line with our 2015 State of Environment Report Review, which found that overall river surface water has gradually improved during the 12FYP. So are individual rivers facing similar conditions?

The proportion of rivers with water “unfit for human contact” (Grade IV or worse) has shrunk from 31.0% to 28.8%

surface water quality standards (2)
River basin quality overall
Yangtze, Yellow & Pearl Rivers keep up progress
During the 12FYP, the Yangtze, Yellow and Pearl all saw progressively better surface water quality. Has this continued in 2016?

  • Yangtze River – Share of monitoring points with Grade I-III water has slightly increased from 81.8% in 2015 to 82.3% in 2016. Share of Grade V+ water stations declined from 6.1% to 3.5%.
  • Yellow River – Share of monitoring points with Grade I-III water has slightly increased from 56.2% in 2015 to 59.1% in 2016. Share of Grade V+ water stations declined from 16.8% to 13.9%.
  • Pearl River – The river with the best surface water quality. Share of monitoring points with Grade I-III water has risen to almost 90% in 2016. Share of Grade V+ water stations remained the same at 3.6%.

Yangtze Yellow Pearl
“So-so” performance for Huai, Hai & Liao Rivers; Songhua worsens
In 2011-2015, the Huai River’s surface water quality fluctuated while the Hai River’s water presented mixed results. At the same time, the Liao River’s surface water had deteriorated since 2013. From 2015 to 2016, these three rivers showed an average performance in improving water quality.

  • Huai River: Share of monitoring stations with Grade I-III water essentially stayed the same at 53%. While stations with Grade IV-V water increased to from 36.7% to 39.5%, this was compensated by stations with Grade V+ water decreasing to 7.2%.
  • Liao River: Good and bad news. The proportion of monitoring stations with Grade I-III water increased from 37.7% to 45.3% but the proportion of monitoring stations with Grade V+ water also increased from 10.4% to 15.1%.
  • Hai River: The river with the most Grade V+ surface water. The proportion of monitoring stations with Grade I-III water increased from 36.0% to 37.3% but the proportion of monitoring stations with Grade V+ water also increased from 37.9% to 41.0%. This trend of “more good water; but also more really bad water” has been apparent since 2012.

Songhua is the only river with a noticeable decline in surface water quality

In 2011-2015, we found the surface water quality of Songhua River to have improved markedly.
From 2015 to 2016 however, this trend has reversed. Not only has the share of Grade IV-V water monitoring stations increased from 32.4% to 33.3%, the share of monitoring stations with Grade V+ water also rose from 3.7% to 6.5%.
Huai, Hai  Liao Songhua
Northern rivers struggling to meet Water Ten target
Despite slight overall improvement compared to 2015, the surface water quality of individual rivers are not close to reaching the Water Ten target of 70% surface water meeting Grade III or better by 2020. In particular, Northern rivers are the ones which are struggling the most while Southern rivers (Yangtze and Pearl) are doing relatively well.
7 major river basins

Lakes & reservoirs’ water quality improvement suffers setback

The water quality of China’s lakes and reservoirs had improved considerably during the 12FYP. Nearly 60% of key lakes and reservoirs were “unfit for human contact” in 2011, but by 2015 this had pretty much halved to just 30.6%.
This progress however has been set back in 2016. Most notably, the share of key lakes and reservoirs with Grade I-III water declined from 69.35% to 66%, leaving 34% of these water bodies “unfit for human contact”. The good news is that monitoring coverage has also increased in these areas, with 112 monitoring points in 2016 compared to 62 in 2014-2015.

The share of key lakes & reservoirs with Grade I-III water declined from 69.35% to 66%…
…leaving 34% of these water bodies “unfit for human contact”

Lakes & reservoirs

All set for a good environment? No… More progress needed!

The 2016 report refers to the past year as the starting point for a “successful phase” in environmental protection. Some of the results, such as the improvement in groundwater quality and the expansion of monitoring coverage, certainly support the view that the tide is turning. This is even more evident when considering the significant strides that the revised environmental law has made in enforcing environmental protection.

Polluters beware…

  • Total fines handed out for environmental violations have more than doubled from RMB3.2bn in 2014 to RMB6.6bn in 2016
  • Total cases of seizures, administrative detention, criminal charges, production halts and daily fines have also more than doubled from 11,800 to 22,730 in 2015-2016
  • Total administrative penalties against violations have risen by almost 50% since 2014, from 83,195 to 124,000
  • 10,257 enterprises are set to be monitored in a new national online real-time monitoring platform
– 2016 State of Environment Report

However, this does not mean we are set for a good environment. As shown above, a closer look at the 2016 report reveals some areas of concern. In addition, China’s top auditor said earlier this year that RMB17.6 billion of environmental funds for water pollution and resource management were “not effectively used”. Furthermore, nearly half of China’s provinces have failed to meet their surface water quality targets over the 12FYP.

To really achieve a “Beautiful China”, much more has to be done…
… the signs from the 2016 report are positive

To really achieve a “Beautiful China”, much more has to be done. At the micro scale, wastewater treatment and other technologies need to become mainstream and more robust. Corporates and businesses have a key role to play here by adopting water stewardship. At the macro scale, the government needs to ensure that pollution does not simply relocate to “havens” by addressing environmental problems holistically and fostering inter-regional cooperation.
Blue skies, green land and clear running water” will not appear overnight, but the signs from the 2016 report are positive – can we build on this?

Further Reading

  • Environmental Law: 2 Years On – China’s new Environmental Protection Law has been in force more than two years now. Has it been enforced? What has the impact been? Who has been hit? Professor Wang Canfa from the University of Political Science and Law in Beijing reviews
  • 12FYP Water Quality Report Card – Bao Hang & Deng Tingting from Greenpeace East Asia share key findings from their report on provincial performance in the 12FYP. Which provinces met water quality targets? Which failed?
  • No Safe Haven For Polluters – As affluent eastern Chinese provinces are cleaning-up, companies are relocating to inland provinces with more lenient regulations. China Water Risk’s Hubert Thieriot explores this pollution haven effect & why it can be a short-sighted strategy
  • Integrated Wastewater Treatment In PRD – Guangdong needs RMB39.8bn for wastewater treatment in the 13FYP. Hear from CT Environmental Group’s Liang Xiangjing & Zeng Sasha on how a key wastewater plant can help pollution control in the region as well as benefit its various stakeholders
  • Flushing With No Water – 2.4bn people still lack clean sanitation but flushing toilets may not be the answer with limited or no access to water. Derek Lam expands on an affordable alternative – a waterless, chemical-free toilet system named DEHTLET


  • 5 Trends For The Year Of The Rooster – The Rooster crows a new pecking order as China leads the global climate fight & drives structural changes at home. Stay on top with our 5 trends and make sure you are not walking on eggshells but laying golden eggs
  • Key Water Policies 2016 – 2017 – Missed out on the key water and water-related policies in China over the last year? Get up to speed with China Water Risk Dawn McGregor’s review, including the latest on the water law
  • Can The Water Ten Protect Water Sources? – Some 40% of urban residents drink bottled water. This could change with the Water Ten Plan which aims to eventually deliver safe drinking water from the tap. Are the water source protection targets tough enough or will the bottle water market proliferate? CWR’s Liu & McGregor expand
  • Water Ten: Comply or Else – China’s new Water Ten Plan sets tough action on pollution prevention & control. While this is good for the water sector, less obvious is who or which sectors will be impacted. China Water Risk’s Tan on why China is serious about its fast & furious pollution reforms to propel China to a new norm
  • 5 Regulatory Trends: From Enforcement To Finance – Since 2016, China’s environmental policy landscape has undergone a series of important changes. CWR’s Xu summarises key regulations & 5 trends you need to know, from greater enforcement to green finance

River Basins

  • Yangtze Flows: Pollution & Heavy Metals – Areas along the Yangtze River dominate Chinese production but at what cost? With Grade V water in its tributaries, rapid growth in upstream wastewater plus concerns over a disproportionately large share of the nation’s heavy metals discharge, can the Yangtze River Economic Belt still flourish? CWR’s Hu takes a closer look
  • Water-nomics: Trade-offs Along The Yangtze – With significant economic, water use and pollution disparities along the Yangtze River, China Water Risk & the Foreign Economic Cooperation Office of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, publish a joint brief to explore strategies to find the right development mix. Check out some of the key findings in this review
  • Pearl River Delta: 5 Water Must-Knows – China’s Pearl River Delta generates 9% of GDP but water challenges lurk behind the dazzling economic success. Don’t know what these are? China Water Risk’s Feng Hu shares 5 water must-knows for the region
  • Why Should PRD Business Lead In Water Stewardship? – With the Pearl River Delta set to lead China’s economic growth, China Water Risk’s Feng Hu & the Alliance for Water Stewardship’s Zhenzhen Xu explain why business should adopt water stewardship to ensure continued prosperity

Past State Of Environment Reviews

  • 2015 State of Environment Report Review – China says overall environment quality has worsened in 2015 with groundwater deteriorating for the fifth year straight. It’s mixed news for rivers but lakes & reservoirs see marked improvement. Get the latest pollution status updates from the newly released 2015 State Of Environment Report
  • 2014 State of Environment Report Review – China’s overall environmental quality in 2014 was “average”, but with polluters tampering with monitoring, can we even believe this data? We take a closer look at the mixed news
  • 2013 State of Environment Report Review – MEP’s 2013 State of Environment Report says the ‘overall environmental quality was average’ but a closer look reveals mixed news, whilst discrepancies found in sets of pollution data add uncertainty of the real state of the environment
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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