China: Pollution, water and democracy
Share this on

China: Pollution, water and democracy

Democracy in China can be a tricky thing. Generally speaking a local phenomenon with national repercussions, Chinese “people power” tends to manifest itself through local elections, court actions and public protests, which sometimes turn into full-scale riots.

Take water, a hot-button issue in China and with good reason. Water-distribution in the PRC is geographically very unequal, with the south comparably water-rich to the arid north. Then there is water pollution caused largely by booming industry coupled with unenforced regulations.

By any measure, the situation is bleak. In the past 40 years, 13% of China’s lakes have disappeared, half its coastal wetlands have been lost to reclamation and 50% of cities left without drinking water that meets acceptable hygiene standards, according to WWF. The UN has singled China out as one of 13 countries with extreme water shortages.

–China Dialogue

Like with democracy, China has come up with innovative solutions for water conservation, use and distribution on the local level, but nationally it is planning incredibly expensive engineering projects such as a $62 billion plan to transport water from the south to the north.

Read about this dichotomy in China Dialogue.

Last summer, when residents of Qidong were informed that a Japanese paper firm would be opening a plant upstream in Nantong city, without any public consultation on the part of the government, there were mass protests, culminating in rioting, violent clashes with police and thousands storming the municipal government compound.

Recently, 14 protesters have plead guilty to inciting a riot, but as a result of the protests the plan was scrapped.

From the Guardian:

Chinese people have become outspoken about environmentally risky projects in their backyards, with pollution a leading cause of unrest. Last year, the Chinese public also staged large-scale protests against a proposed copper plant in the south-western province of Sichuan and a planned expansion of a petrochemical factory in the eastern province of Zhejiang. Like the Qidong project, the other two were eventually scrapped.

Last month a winter swimming association (of all things) took the Tianji Coal Chemical Industry Group  to court for polluting drinking water in Handan in north of China.


Water samples showed aniline levels in the river reached 72 milligrams per liter after the accident. Aniline is a clear or slightly yellow liquid and can cause liver and kidney damage in humans.

Even in liberal and rainy Taiwan, there are concerns over a coming water crisis due to climate change and deteriorating reservoirs. Read more in Focus Taiwan.


A polluted river in Shaangxi province, pic: Adam Cohn (Flickr CC)