Trash talk

A radical new policy to clean-up Chinese rivers

Trash talk

Would you drink from this?

Last week WiC interviewed an industry expert on China’s growing water crisis (see WiC139). It made for gloomy reading. And almost at the same time a report released by the Ministry of Land and Resources made for even more of a sinking feeling – this time literally.

Over-exploitation of ground water means that the ground beneath more than 50 cities is subsiding, authorities have admitted.

Spooked by a problem it has known about for several years, the State Council has ratified a five-year plan to address the issue of sinking ground levels, identifying the Yangtze River Delta, North China Plains and Fenwei Basin in Northern China as problem areas, Century Weekly reports.

Another key problem to address: pollution in rivers that cross provincial lines.

Here, the key questions includewho is responsible for cleaning up rivers that flow through more than one province and who foots the bill when the shutdown of river-polluting local industry reduces provincial GDP.

A pilot project underway between Anhui and Zhejiang over the Xin’an River points to some possible solutions.

The two provinces have been squabbling about the river for more than a decade, South Weekend reports. The dispute was made worse by the fact that it set a poorer province (Anhui) against a relatively richer one (Zhejiang).

The Xin’an is 360 kilometres long, and rises in the Xiuning Mountain near Anhui’s Huangshan city. Two thirds of the river runs through inland Anhui, before crossing into northwestern Zhejiang, a coastal province, where it has long been an important source of drinking water.

The problem is the river’s growing quotient of surface rubbish, human and animal sewage, and chemical discharge from agriculture.

In last year’s flood season, 184,000 cubic metres of garbage was picked off the surface of Qiandao Lake (which is fed by the river).

Downstream consumers are pushing for firmer action. But Anhui bureaucrats have been reluctant to slow their development plans, a stance that has elicited some sympathy.

“We felt that the upstream and downstream should have a fair right to subsistence and development and both should coordinate their considerations,” said He Shaoling, Deputy Chief Engineer of the China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower, and a prime mover in the debate.

Discussions have dragged on. In 2007, the National Development and Reform Commission, the Ministry of Finance and national environment officials all decided that the Xin’an’s problems would become a pilot for China’s first inter-provincial compensation mechanism, Southern Weekly reports.

The Xin’an was chosen because it was “relatively simple,” involving only two provinces, the newspaper said. Nevertheless, for the next five years (indeed until last month), progress was agonisingly slow. The two provinces used different standards to assess water quality, and they couldn’t agree on compensation.

Citing a “widening gap in development between upstream and downstream,” Anhui’s Huangshan city government then argued that it had the right to pursue its own growth agenda, polluting or not.

Finally, in February, the central government stepped in and announced it was allocating Rmb300 million to Anhui to improve the river.

There’s also a twist. In three years’ time, if the quality of the water flowing out of Anhui has improved, Zhejiang province will pay Anhui Rmb100 million. But if the water has deteriorated, Anhui must pay Zhejiang Rmb100 million.

South Weekend described the deal as a “gamble”.

As pilot projects go it’s innovative. But it has required repeated central government intervention, lots of cash, and five years of provincial wrangling to get off the ground.

And whether it provides a workable model for dealing with cross-provincial water disputes across the rest of the country will only become apparent in three years’ time.

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