China’s booming economy and massive population are posing some difficult environmental challenges for a nation of some 1.2 billion people. Water pollution and waste management are among the most pressing issues.
China is not a water-rich land. The country’s per-person water supply is actually quite low. The water that does exist is unevenly distributed across China’s massive landscape. So, too, are treatment facilities adequate to mitigate high levels of agricultural and industrial contamination.
China produces over 3.5 million tons of sewage waste per day. To treat just half that amount, they would need to invest in 10,000 treatment facilities. Some modern wastewater treatment plants and sanitation systems do exist, but many more are required.
Perhaps half of all Chinese—a staggering 600 million people—drink water that is contaminated by human or animal waste. These people are subjected to waterborne disease and a myriad of human health concerns related to the use of polluted water.
China’s major river systems exhibit the scope of the problem. Perhaps 70 percent of their water is so polluted that it has been deemed unsafe for human contact. In addition to untreated sewage released into these waterways, high-growth industries such as textiles, paper manufacturing, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals account for a large share of this pollution.
At dumps, toxic runoff often percolates through the earth to contaminate groundwater aquifers. Untreated mining and industrial waste leaves some waters contaminated with such high metal content that they literally run red with rust-colored water. Lead levels have been recorded in Chinese rivers that are some 44 times greater than accepted norms.
Clean water is essential to the nation’s agrarian economy, which consumes about 75 percent of China’s total water resource. Heavy metals that persist in water can be taken up by food crops grown with that water and may cause cancer, kidney stones, or other health problems.
China’s cash crop—rice—has seen reduced yields in some locales and many consumers are wary of eating food that they believe was grown with tainted water.
According to the United Nation‘s Food and Agricultural Organization, China also is the world’s largest consumer of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. When an excessive amount of nitrogen and other chemicals used in fertilizers is introduced into a waterway, an imbalance of organic materials can occur which leads to increased algae blooms. Increased algae blooms negatively affect the water supply and have already led to the temporary closure of drinking water plants in some areas of China.
Solutions exist for China’s problems, yet implementing them on the required scale will necessarily be a massive undertaking.