Parts of China water quality

China is making progress in battling the damaging smog that can shroud its big cities, but in many areas – from parts of the giant Yangtze river to the coalfields of Inner Mongolia – its water pollution is getting worse.

Despite commitments to crack down on polluters, the quality of water in rivers, lakes and reservoirs in several regions has deteriorated significantly, according to inspection teams reporting back to the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP).

In documents published this week, inspectors found that a fifth of the water in the Yangtze’s feeder rivers in one province was unusable, and thousands of tonnes of raw sewage were being deposited into one river in northeastern Ningxia each day.

Worried about unrest, China launched its war on pollution in 2014, vowing to reverse the damage done to its skies, rivers and soil by more than three decades of breakneck industrial growth.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” vice-minister Zhao Yingmin said at a press briefing on Friday.

“First, I’d say the point of inspections is to discover problems, and indeed we discovered in some places water quality has gotten significantly worse,” he said, noting, though, that the overall situation was improving.

Over the first nine months of this year, 70.3 percent of samples taken from 1,922 surface water sites around China could be used as drinking water, up 4 percentage points from a year ago, Zhao said.

TIGHT SUPPLY

China has long been worried about a water supply bottleneck that could jeopardize future economic development. Per capita supplies are less than a third of the global average.

A survey published by the MEP last year showed that nearly two thirds of underground water and a third of surface water was unsuitable for human contact, with much of it contaminated by fertilizer run-offs, heavy metals and untreated sewage.

China’s priority, though, has been air pollution, especially in industrialized regions like Beijing and Hebei, and it said this week that concentrations of harmful small particles, known as PM2.5, fell 12.5 percent in January-October.

“With air, you stop pollution at the source, and the blue skies come back instantly,” said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, which monitors Chinese water pollution.

“For water, you can stop pollution at the source, but you still have the polluted sediment and the soil that is going to leech into the water, and it’s going to take much longer.”