Beijing gets flak for pollution of waterways

South China Morning Post

By Shi Jiangtao in Beijing 2007-09-17

Beijing should take the blame for the embarrassing failure of its much-touted campaign to tackle widespread water pollution problems, mainland officials and experts say.


It should also demonstrate its commitment to saving the degraded environment, they said.

Although it had paid a high price for its blind pursuit of fast growth, the government had yet to translate into real action its pledges to place more emphasis on conservation and punishment of defiant officials and polluters, a forum on mainland water pollution was told yesterday.

Citing bureaucratic bickering and legal loopholes, environmental and legal experts also cast doubt on Beijing’s ability to live up to its promises, renewed in the wake of a spate of pollution disasters, including those of the Songhua River and Tai Lake.

Pollution problems have threatened public health and social stability and have become a bottleneck for a sound socio-economic development, said Zhou Shengxian , director of the State Environmental Protection Administration.

Water supplies for urban areas had been under constant threat because of pollution of over 70 per cent of the country’s rivers and lakes, Mr Zhou told more than 400 forum participants.

The event was organised by the All-China Environment Federation, a group under Sepa consisting of many retired environmental officials.

Mr Zhou said that although the government had spent billions of yuan building 900 sewage treatment plants, many were unable to operate because of poor support facilities and huge running costs.

He repeated his vow of the past few months to take bold measures against industrial polluters for defying Beijing’s ban on dumping untreated toxic waste into the waters.

But he admitted there was little sign that heavy polluting and energy-intensive industries had been reined in, with the construction, petrochemical and steel industries still expanding at double-digit pace.

If there is no fundamental change in our growth pattern, we will never be able to control the emission of water pollutants and it won’t be possible to see a turnaround to make our rivers, lakes and seas clean again, he warned.

Qu Geping, vice-chairman of the federation, attacked Beijing’s reluctance in financing hundreds of waste treatment facilities, especially those in rural and underdeveloped areas.

It is an international practice that the central government should foot the bulk of the bill even in industrialised countries, but in our country 90 per cent of the financial burden was left with the relatively poorer local governments, Mr Qu said.

Qian Yi , an environmental engineering expert from Tsinghua University, said the authorities, who always bragged about sustainable development and environmental protection, remained obsessed with GDP growth.

She said the government had only been good at kicking off one short-lived campaign after another and these were usually aimed at achieving quick, temporary results.

Zhu Xingxiang , director of Sepa’s environmental impact assessment department, said over-exploitation of rivers and lakes and poor planning for industrial and hydroelectric power development also made the pollution worse. He called for departments to put aside their interests and improve co-operation.

Lack of overall planning and departmental co-ordination were another two factors behind the water woes, according to Liu Liqun , of the State Council’s development research centre.

The government has not been able to produce an overarching territorial plan so far since 1949, which has resulted in chaotic urban development, so many white elephants and environmental degradation, Professor Liu said.