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The Metric

Apr 16, 2014

What’s behind the numbers in China’s Wastewater Treatment Plan

Chaohu Lake in Hefei, Anhui province, is one of the eight rivers and lakes in China that the country plans to treat under a $7.4 billion plan (Image credit: REUTERS/Jianan Yu)

Although China’s air quality garners consistent media attention, water – its availability and quality – is a concern that is becoming more urgent. As the world’s most populous country, China’s per capita of water availability is one-third of the global average. In terms of quality, more than half of the country’s largest lakes and reservoirs were deemed unsuitable for human consumption in 2011; a quarter of surface waters are so polluted that they can’t even be used for industrial use.  

In the 2014 Environmental Performance Index, China ranked 67th for wastewater treatment. This indicator tracks how well countries treat wastewater from households and industrial sources before releasing it back into the environment. China ranks behind other emerging economies such as Mexico (49th), South Africa (56th) and Russia (62th). Chinese authorities are certainly aware of the need to improve. In April 2012 the General Office of the State Council issued a Five-Year Plan to address nationwide municipal wastewater treatment and reuse. This document indicates shortfalls in the following areas concerning wastewater treatment:

  • Lagging wastewater pipeline networks constructionFailure to meet new environmental requirements in certain treatment facilities
  • Impact-free disposal of sludge largely not yet possible
  • Low wastewater reuse rate
  • Insufficient funding in the construction and operation of infrastructure
  • Lack of operational governance

The same document also sets out clear goals to address each of the above-mentioned challenges. Under this high-level mandate, an additional 261 million cubic meters of daily treatment capacity nationwide has been planned between 2010 and 2015. This is equivalent to 50 times of the total capacity of New York City. According to the Wastewater Treatment Industry Report China 2013, 217 new treatment plants alone were constructed in 2012, to bring the total number of municipal treatment plants the country owns to 3,830.

However, while the country is on-track to meet this aggressive treatment capacity goal, it has so far lagged behind in reaching the equally important goal of constructing the supporting pipeline network to carry wastewater to these new plants. This means, while the capacity goal may have been attained, the amount of on-the-ground wastewater treatment occurring is questionable. According to the 2011 Chinese Statistical Yearbook for Municipal Effluent, at least 221 newly built treatment plants have utilization rates lower than 50 percent, and many were not used at all. These low utilization rates largely resulted in China’s lagging performance on the EPI’s wastewater treatment indicator, which measures both treatment rate and the network connectivity, or the percentage of the population connected to wastewater treatment facilities. The 2014 EPI indicates that China has a network connection rate of 46.8 percent, meaning more than half of the Chinese population still lacks access to wastewater treatment. While China’s progress in increasing wastewater treatment capacity is certainly laudable, such effort has not been met with equal attention to much-needed infrastructure and access.

Consideration and planning for wastewater treatment and water quality in rural areas are also missing from these plans. The targets set forth by the aforementioned 12th Five-Year Plan are three-tiered. With a goal of 85 percent treatment in major cities, this target drops to a mere 30 percent in “officially designated towns.” For the vast rural area where almost half of the nation’s 1.3 billion population still dwell, there is no mention of any target. Neglecting rural areas is particularly problematic, considering more than 90 percent of villages currently do not have wastewater drainage facilities. Discharging untreated wastewater into waterways poses serious and widespread health and environmental concerns, such as much publicized episodes of algae blooms in major waterways including DianChi in Yunnan and Lake Taihu in Jiangsu.

Behind China’s ambitious and certainly commendable plan to address wastewater treatment problems, many challenges remain. The narrow pursuit of treatment goals overlooks much-needed infrastructure and connectivity, particularly in the rural area, to ensure that all people and polluting enterprises have access to treat wastewater – a major driver of ecosystem water quality.