Wastewater: Good To The Last Drop

By Woody Chan 22 March, 2017

Happy World Water Day! With this year's wastewater theme we look at how China is managing the 'waste'

China’s wastewater discharge is ~2x the capacity of the Three Gorges Dam; only 10% of treated water is re-used
13FYP intends to improve urban wastewater collection, treatment & re-use; investment of RMB564bn needed
Industrial discharge also to see more action; challenges such as leakage & low reclaimed water quality remain

World Water Day is upon us once again and the theme for 2017 is “Wastewater”. With population growth and rapid urbanisation, the volume of wastewater discharge has increased globally and is now between 260-450 billion tonnes. This is comparable to the annual flow of the Pearl River (340 billion tonnes).

“There is no such thing as wastewater; only water wasted”

King Willem Alexander of the Netherlands, 2012 World Water Day celebrations

But this is not necessarily a bad thing. “There is no such thing as wastewater; only water wasted”, as King Willem Alexander of the Netherlands remarked at the World Water Day celebrations of 2012. We should therefore think of wastewater as a resource; not as a burden.

Wastewater can actually be a potentially affordable and sustainable source of water, energy and nutrients with proper treatment and re-use. Treated wastewater, for instance, can be used to irrigate farmland and improve food security.

Over 80% of wastewater generated globally is still untreated or re-used

At the moment, over 80% of the wastewater generated globally flows back into the ecosystem without being treated or reused. On average, high-income countries treat about 70% of their wastewater; while only 8% is treated in low-income countries.

By 2030, the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 6.3 requires us to “halve the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increase recycling and safe reuse globally.”

Having declared a war on pollution in 2014, what is the status of China’s wastewater? What is being done to make it good to the last drop?

Urban wastewater in China – from discharge to treatment

First, a quick background of China’s wastewater situation, past and present. China’s total wastewater discharge has steadily risen between 2000 and 2015. In 2015, the total discharge volume reached 73.5 billion tonnes – almost double the reservoir capacity (39.3 billion tonnes) of the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest dam.

China’s wastewater discharge volume is almost double the storage capacity of the Three Gorges Dam

Interestingly, domestic discharge has gradually overtaken industrial wastewater discharge in China. In 2004, domestic discharge accounted for 54% of total wastewater volume. By 2014, this share had risen to 71%.

On the one hand, this may be due to China’s fast pace of urbanisation. On the other, under-reporting of industrial wastewater could be an explanation.
wastewater discharge 2000-2015
China Water Risk 8 Wastewater Facts
Wastewater is a sustainable resource only after treatment, and treatment is certainly on the rise in China. Between 2010 and 2015, urban wastewater treatment facility capacity rose by 46% to 182 million tonnes. Between 2010 and 2014, more than 1,600 facilities were put into operation.1

These trends indicate that China has progressively stepped up its wastewater treatment efforts. For more on this see our review “8 Facts on China’s Wastewater.

As of 2014, only 10% of treated wastewater was re-used

That said, there is still work to be done. For instance, a gap between processing capacity and actual treatment still persists, which could be a sign of insufficient wastewater collection. Moreover, only 10% of treated wastewater was re-used as of 2014. How is China planning to push forward?
Wastewater treatment 2010-2015

13FYP – collect more, treat more, re-use more

China is pushing for a new norm in which more collection and treatment of wastewater is encouraged. More significantly, re-using wastewater as reclaimed water is also highly promoted. These aims are encapsulated in the ‘13th Five Year Plan (FYP) on National Urban Wastewater Treatment and Re-Use Infrastructure Construction’ released in December 2016 (see table below).
13 fyp wastewater table
For 2020, China is aiming for a wastewater treatment rate of at least 70% for most urban areas, which will include towns for the first time. This target will be supported by a planned 23% increase in urban wastewater treatment capacity. In addition, wastewater collection is also likely to improve with 125,900km of pipe network to be added by 2020 – this is more than enough to encircle the whole of Russia!
8 Things About Recycling Water
For reclaimed water use, there are new and stringent targets for specific regions which were not in place in the 12FYP. The Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region and water-scarce cities are required to meet re-use rates of ≥30% and ≥20% by 2020 respectively. In comparison, the target for other cities and counties is lower at 15%.

Furthermore, the 13FYP is driving a significant increase in reclaimed water use capacity. By 2020, total facility capacity is required to reach 41.6 million tonnes/day – a 56% increase from the 2015 baseline.

Reclaimed water use capacity to increase 56% from 2015 to 2020

To put this into perspective, if the 2020 capacity target is achieved and 50% utilised, China will be reusing nearly triple the volume of water resources available to Beijing in 2015.Check out our review “8 Things About Water Recycling” for more. 

13FYP total investment for urban wastewater is ~RMB564bn

The 13FYP targets are certainly ambitious and will require a lot of money. The investment amount needed for urban wastewater treatment and reclaimed water use infrastructure is estimated to total RMB564 billion (USD82 billion). This amount is 31% higher than the 12FYP estimate and is more than the projected 13FYP investment for China’s hydropower development (RMB500 billion).

The map below shows that investment is needed where wastewater discharge is highest, namely Guangdong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang.
wastewater discharge & 13fyp investment map (2)
Water PPPs To Lead In ChinaSo where is the money going to come from? One method of raising the funds, as promoted in the 13FYP, is through the Public-Private-Partnership (PPP) model.

As we have explored previously, the PPP model is a cooperation between the government and private capital over infrastructure and public services. As of 2016, up to RMB240 billion has been invested into wastewater-related PPP projects. The Ministry of Finance has even stated that all new wastewater projects should now follow the PPP model.

What about industrial wastewater?

China is not just showing strong intent to turn its urban wastewater into a resource. It is also looking to do the same for industrial wastewater, which currently accounts for around 23% of China’s reclaimed water use.

Reclaimed water use in industry also promoted e.g. power sector

The 13FYP recommends that reclaimed water use should be prioritised in projects which use a lot of water that does not need to be of high quality, particularly in industrial, irrigation and dyeing sectors. For some sectors however, this is nothing new.
Unconventional Water For Power Generation
For the power sector, it was already declared back in 2015 in the ‘Water Pollution Prevention & Control Action Plan’ (“Water Ten”) that no new water use permits will be issued for thermal power plants that do not fully utilise the potential of reclaimed water.

There have been indications of success. A study found that reclaimed water from wastewater treatment plants accounted for 58% of water withdrawal quotas issued for new coal power plants in the Yellow River Basin during 2009-2014. For more on reclaimed water use in the power sector check out our review “Unconventional Water For Power Generation“.

Challenges lie ahead – but the tide on wastewater is turning

Beyond the 13FYP’s grand ambitions there are practical challenges to be overcome. In northern cities, leakage from the pipe network is causing inefficient wastewater collection and transport. In southern cities, groundwater is leaking into the pipe network and affecting the quality of the treated water.

Challenges include leakage, low reclaimed water quality & low rural treatment rates

Furthermore, comprehensive guidelines for wastewater re-use projects are still lacking in China while reclaimed water quality requirements remain incoherent.  Reclaimed water is therefore often low in quality and can cause operational problems. Moreover, rural wastewater is still relatively neglected, with treatment rates at 22%.
Wastewater Treatment - Cutting Emissions

Despite these challenges, we remain optimistic. With the 13FYP, the tide is turning with wastewater treatment and re-use in China as the government is showing strong intent to act and tackle upcoming challenges.

This is a far-cry from previous attitudes to wastewater and is in line with the push for a “Beautiful China“. Even “side-effects” of wastewater treatment such as carbon emissions are being addressed. Wastewater as a sustainable resource is certainly on the agenda and there is room for optimism.

We need to give wastewater a new lease of life, “再生水”

Just like the Chinese noun for reclaimed water – “再生水”, literally “reborn water”, we need to give wastewater a new lease of life. Wastewater can be a precious resource and is good to the last drop. Happy World Water Day!

1Data for 2015 not yet available at the time of publishing
2Data from the National Bureau of Statistics of China

Further Reading

  • 8 Facts on China’s Wastewater – Don’t know anything about wastewater in China? Is it on the rise? Is industrial wastewater under-reported? Is it worse for rural areas? Check out our 8 facts from tech, key pollutants to standards
  • 8 Things To Know About Recycling Water – Recycling water could alleviate some of China’s water challenges. Yet, only 10% of its treated wastewater is recycled. Not sure what reclaimed water is? Check out China Water Risk’s 8 things you should know
  • Water PPPs To Lead In China – All new water & wastewater projects in China need to follow the Public-Private-Partnership (PPP) model. Will this mean big change and how have other water-related projects been funded in China? China Water Risk’s Yuanchao Xu takes a look
  • Unconventional Water For Power Generation – The power sector is China’s largest industrial water user & is also exposed to water stress. Unconventional water sources such as mine water & municipal wastewater can help with this. China Water Risk’s Thieriot explores these sources


  • Cost-Effective Carbon Reduction In Wastewater Treatment – The wastewater industry consumes a lot of energy. Xylem’s Lu Shuping shows how its rapid expansion makes it ripe for attractive energy savings opportunities, especially in China
  • T Park: Waste-to-Energy In Hong Kong – Hong Kong’s increasing waste load by 2030 will put tremendous pressure on its management capability.  Veolia’s Nina Cambadelis introduces T PARK, a state-of-the-art sludge treatment facility that turns waste into energy while achieving ‘zero wastewater discharge’
  • Treating Landfill Black Water – Landfill leachate, a highly polluting effluent, is now under new China EPA standards. Regular treatment has limitations but EWS:AOx™ by OriginClear is versatile alternative as its Jean-Louis Kindler, Nicholas Eckelberry and Stephen Jan show
Woody Chan
Author: Woody Chan
Woody Chan leads corporate social responsibility and sustainability initiatives at foodpanda, strengthening its commitment to grow sustainably with its ecosystem of riders, merchants, and consumers. As an advocate for environmental sustainability, Woody has also participated in various speaking engagements, from TEDx talks and university seminars to industry forums and panels.
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