Authorities in China’s eastern Jiangsu Province cut off water supplies to 200,000 people for nearly two days this week after a local river was found with dangerous levels of ammonia nitrogen.
The cut-off in Jiangsu's Shuyang city – the latest in a series of pollution scandals that have disrupted water supplies to millions – came as a top environment official warned that the already-dire plight of Chinese rivers and lakes was still worsening.
“The traditional approach of growth through industrialisation has pushed China's resources and environment close to breaking point, and the daily lives of the people are seriously threatened,” said Pan Yue, deputy head of the State Environmental Protection Administration.
“Traditional administration methods cannot resolve the accumulated environmental problems,” Mr Pan said in a statement on Sepa’s website.
World Bank and government researchers recently estimated that 60,000 people in China are dying prematurely each year because of poor quality water, mainly in rural areas.
Water pollution has become a hot topic following huge outbreaks of algae in China’s Taihu, Chaohu and Dianchi lakes. Wen Jiabao, the premier, this month ordered local officials to “strengthen supervision and ban factories from discharging pollutants into the lakes”.
But Beijing leaders have often issued such instructions, and Mr Pan of Sepa left no doubt that past approaches were not working.
In a chilling description of the scale of the challenge, he said 26 per cent of water in China’s seven biggest river systems had been found to be unable to support animal life, or was dangerous even to bathe in.
He said seven of the nine main lakes monitored by the state had been found to be “wholly” polluted.
“For more than 10 years the state has spent huge sums to deal with pollution in the drainage areas of the ‘three rivers and three lakes’, but the pace of action has fallen far behind the pace of destruction,” Mr Pan said. “Now areas that had improved are suffering renewed pollution.”
In other areas, water quality had steadily worsened. On one tributary of the northern Hai river, for example, pollution had killed all animal life in the “blackish-green, acrid-smelling” water and “seriously harmed” the lives of the people of 13 townships and 119 villages.
To try to force action against the most egregious polluters, Mr Pan said Sepa would not issue any approvals for new industrial projects in six cities, two counties and five industrial zones, with the ban to remain in place until they improved water quality enforcement.
The move is likely to have little direct effect, since Sepa officials say their influence with local officials is limited. Past Sepa controls on development appear to have been widely ignored.
However, Mr Pan said he hoped the new “restricted approvals” approach, which could be extended to other areas, would be a “starting point” for new approaches combining administrative action with market forces and public participation.
Sepa clearly hopes public opinion will help make up for its lack of clout. Mr Pan said it would issue regular updates on targeted companies and areas in order to “allow all of society to supervise river basin water pollution prevention”.