2020 State of Ecology & Environment Report Review

By China Water Risk 18 June, 2021

2020 is the last year of China's 13FYP & Water Ten Plan targets. How did water do? Find out in our review of the report

In 2020, key targets set in 13FYP have been met & exceeded + 39k sewage treatment facilities have been built & violation cases down, likely due to increased compliance
Groundwater & shallow groundwater still far from Water Ten targets as water that are fit for human touch have slightly worsened; meanwhile, surface water continues to improve
Significant improvement across the main river basins; 6/7 meet both Water Ten targets & completely eliminated Grade V+ water; only Hai river needs a bit more work

2020 is the last year of China’s 13th Five-Year Plan (13FYP) and Water Ten Plan. On 26 May 2021, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) released the 2020 State of Ecology and Environment Report (SOEE), which summarises the progress China is making on its war on pollution.

So far “the key targets of the ecological environment set in 13FYP have been met and exceeded” and “the quality of the national ecological environment has been significantly improved” as stated in the report. This included improvements in both freshwater and ocean quality. However, there is still a lot of cleaning up to do in groundwater and surface groundwater.

Key highlights of the 2020 SOEE report are discussed below. Meanwhile, we have summarised the key trend of ocean quality in more detailed here.

  • Groundwater & shallow groundwater still have long way to go: In 2020, both groundwater and shallow groundwater have slightly deteriorated in Grade I-III and IV. Despite slight improvement in both Grade V category, they are still far away from the Water Ten target of less than 15%;
  • National surface water quality improved steadily: Grade I-III national surface water quality reached 83.4%, exceeding the Water Ten target of 70% by 2020;
    • Yangtze River actions: In 2020, the number Grade V+ water sections of Yangtze River Basin and that of rivers discharging into the Bohai Sea was all eliminated. It has met both the Water Ten as well as the higher “Yangtze Action Plan” targets (see more below). 279 problematic enterprises of the “Three Phosphorus (Phosphorite mines, Phosphorus Chemical, Phosphogypsum tailing pond) in Yangtze River Economic Belt (YREB) have been rectified;
    • Yellow River action: Completed the survey of sewage outlets in pilot areas of the Yellow River Basin in 2020 – 12,656 sewage outlets were found;
    • Hai River still needs ramping up protection and cleaning: 4 of the 5 Northern rivers have met both the Water Ten targets by 2020 except for the Hai. This is also the reason why there is still less than 1% of Grade V+ water in all major river basins;
  • High rectification rate achieved: 98.2% of black and odorous water bodies in cities at/above prefecture level were rectified in 2020;
  • 39,000 new sewage treatment facilities have been built in 2020; and
  • Violation fines & cases continue to dropped: Both total environmental violation fines and cases have decreased by 31% and 23% respectively in 2020. This trend is likely due to increasing compliance of the private sector rather than slowdown in enforcement as overall surface water resources continue to improve.

We deep dive into the performance of various water bodies below and see if they have met the Water Ten Plan’s Target …

To better understand the terminology of water quality used by the report, please refer to the following list:

Grade I: suitable for source water and national natural reserve
Grade II: suitable for domestic use (first rate), rare aquatic lives (and some other uses)
Grade III: suitable for domestic use (second rate) (and some other uses)
Grade IV: suitable for industrial use and entertainment use (without contact with human)
Grade V: suitable for agricultural use
Grade V+: not suitable for any use

Groundwater & shallow groundwater still very from targets…

Groundwater is still struggling to meet the Water Ten Plan target to decrease its Grade V category to around 15% by 2020. Overall groundwater quality still has a long way to go with 86.4% of groundwater stations falling in Grade IV and Grade V categories, leaving only 13.6% as Grade I-III, or fit for human touch. Shallow groundwater quality is even worse off with 43.6% falling in the Grade V category. However, it fares better with 22.7% in Grade I-III categories water.

For both groundwater & shallow groundwater, Grade V shows slight improvement…

…yet both Grade I-III & Grade IV have slightly worsened

Although there is a slight improvement in Grade V categories for overall groundwater quality from 18.8% to 17.6%, it is still far from the Water Ten Plan of 15% by 2020. Indeed, both Grade I-III and Grade IV categories for overall groundwater quality saw some deterioration trend in 2020. As shown in the chart below left – Grade I-III has slightly dropped from 14.4% to 13.6%, while Grade IV has worsened from 66.9% to 68.8%.

As for shallow groundwater (shown in the chart below right), the status remains largely the same since 2018 across all three categories albeit there is a slight improvement in Grade V category from 46.9% to 43.6%. However, the Grade I-III and Grade IV have slightly worsened.

Good news is that other water bodies such as national surface water, Key Lakes & Reservoirs, and Main River Basins have improved…

National surface water quality continues to improve progressively & meet Water Ten target

While it remains a deep challenge for groundwater and shallow groundwater, national surface water quality drastically improved across all categories from 2019 to 2020. Indeed, it has been improving across all categories since 2014 as shown in the graph below:

  • Grade I-III national surface water quality has steadily improved from 63.1% to 83.4% in 2020 which exceeds the target of 70%;
  • Grade IV-V has improved from 28.0% to 16.0%; and
  • Grade V+ has continuously improved from 9% to 0.6%

National surface quality continues to improve…

……Grade I-III up to 83.4% & Grade V+ drops to 0.6% = Water Ten target attained

The good performance of national surface water is attributable to two key components 1) Key Lakes and Reservoirs and 2) Main River Basins…

Key Lakes & Reservoirs – overall quality continues to improve

The water quality of Key Lakes & Reservoirs has improved since 2011. The share of Key Lakes & Reservoirs with Grade I-III improved drastically from 69.1% in 2019 to 76.8% in 2020. The proportion of water bodies that are “unfit for human contact” (Grade IV-V+) also sees a major improvement from 30.9% to 23.2%.

Significant improvement of the Main River Basins – 6/7 major river basins meet both Water Ten targets

The overall surface water quality of the Main River Basins has seen significant improvement with Grade I-III water improved from 79.1% in 2019 to 87.4% in 2020; Grade IV-V also improved from 17.9% to 12.3%; and Grade V+ improved from 3.0% to 0.2%, as seen in the chart below left. The water quality has been steadily improved since 2011 in the chart below right.

All 7 major river basins have seen marked improvement in Grade V+ water, meeting Water Ten target of < 5%. Apart from the Hai, 6 out of 7 major rivers basins have met both the Water Ten targets of Grade I-III >70% & Grade V+ <5%. While the Hai still has 0.6% of Grade V+ water, other 6 major river basins have completely eliminated this category of water.

All 7 major river basins have seen marked improvement in Grade V+ water…

…only Hai still has 0.6% of Grade V+ water while other 6 have have completely eliminated this category

Breakdown of 7 major river basins

Yangtze & Pearl continue to outperform Northern rivers & meet both Water Ten targets

Similar to previous years, Southern rivers (Yangtze & Pearl) continue to outperform the Northern ones and show improvement across all categories. The Yangtze and Pearl have met their Water Ten targets since 2019 or earlier. However, this is the first year they have eliminated Grade V+ water.

Yangtze – Grade I-III water quality improved from 91.7% in 2019 to 96.7% in 2020 and Grade V+ water improved from 0.6% to zero. Not only Yangtze has met the Water Ten Plan targets, but it has also achieve the higher targets set in “Yangtze Action Plan” (which requires Grade I-III water to attain 85% and Grade V+ to be less than 2% by 2020). Going forward we expect China to continue improve the Yangtze’s water quality as China’s Yangtze River Protection Law is enforced on 1 March 2021 to strengthen protection and restoration of the ecological environment in the Yangtze. Hopefully the actions on Yangtze will set a good example for other rivers in the country. More on Yangtze’s development in our report Yangtze Water Risks, Hotspots & Growth.

Pearl – Grade I-III water quality improved from 86.1% in 2019 to 92.7% in 2020; Grade V+ water improved by 3% to zero. Pearl is the key river that supports high quality development of the Greater Bay Area (GBA). More on this here

Yellow, Songhua, Huai & Liao achieve both Water Ten targets

We are glad to see four Northern rivers (Yellow, Songhua, Huai & Liao) have achieved both the Water Ten targets of 70% in Grade I-III water and <5% in Grade V+ water in 2020. Indeed, these four rivers have eliminated Grade V+ water in the same year.

Yellow – Grade I-III water quality improved significantly from 73.0% in 2019 to 84.7% in 2020; Grade V+ water quality improved significantly from 8.8% to zero. Note that among all Northern rivers, Yellow is the best performer across all water quality categories.

We expect to see more marked improvement in the Yellow as China has called for accelerated legislation to advance ecological conservation and high-quality development in the Yellow River basin. The legislation is to include the plan to develop functional zones along the Yellow River basin and delimit ecological red lines. Click here to get up to speed on the various policies in the Yellow River introduced by Dr Dong from the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning.

Songhua – Grade I-III water quality drastically improved from 66.4% in 2019 to 82.4% in 2020; Grade V+ water quality improved from 2.8% to zero.

Huai – Grade I-III water quality drastically improved from 63.7% in 2019 to 78.9% in 2020; Grade V+ water quality improved from 0.6% to zero.

Liao – Grade I-III water quality drastically improved from 56.3% in 2019 to 70.9% in 2020; Grade V+ water quality improved from 8.7% to zero.

Hai – almost there on meeting both Water Ten targets

Grade I-III water quality continued to improve from 51.9% in 2019 to 64.0% in 2020 as did Grade V+ water quality from 7.5% to 0.6%. It still failed to meet the target of 70% in Grade I-III water. Note that the Hai is the worst performer in categories of Grade V+ although it has met the Water Ten target of <5%. However with the release of the Capital Two Zones plan in 2019 to protect Beijing’s upstream watershed, we can expect to see the river to meet both Water Ten targets soon.

Hai still failed to meet the target of 70% in Grade I-III water & worst performer in Grade V+…

…we expect the river to meet both Water Ten targets soon with the Capital Two Zones plan

Going forward, we expect to see more cleaning up in groundwater and stricter regulation to protect it. Although the major rivers have already met the Water Ten targets, we hope China will set higher targets such as those for the Yangtze River, as well as to see more improvement in the Grade I water category.


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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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