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MEP Regular Press Conference (March)

On the morning of Mar. 20, MEP held the monthly regular press conference in order to introduce the overall developments in prevention and control of water pollution in China and the progress in key areas such as the water protection initiative of the Yangtze River economic belt, the treatment of black and odorous waters, and the prevention and control of water pollution in the agricultural sector and the countryside. Zhang Bo, the Ministry’s Director General of Water Environment Management attended the press conference, released relevant information, and responded to the questions raised by the news presses. Liu Youbin, Counsel with the Department of Communications and Education, moderated the press conference.

National Business Daily: The safety hazards threatening the drinking water sources that are distributed in the chemical industrial clusters along the major river banks cannot afford to be overlooked. The industrial pollution and chemical enterprises are mentioned a lot when it comes to the protection of the source waters. Then what measures will be taken to protect the source waters in the future? Are there any problems or difficulties in such protection, and what are they?

Zhang: The protection of the drinking water sources has always been the top priority of the environmental protection effort, and generally speaking, the local areas have all attached great importance to it. The available monitoring data indicated fairly high attainment rates among the drinking water sources. Over 90 percent of the drinking water sources in cities at or above the prefectural level met national water quality standards. Still, there are some hazards that are not negligible. The problems you just mentioned are partly attributed to historic reasons. For example, in some cases the enterprises take root in certain places where growing populations afterwards require water supply, which necessitates the designation of water sources nearby. The historic problems arising from the economic and social development indeed contradict with the protection of the source waters nowadays. Furthermore, some of the local areas do not pay adequate attention to such protection, as a result, there are still some incompliant companies and sewage outlets inside the source water protected areas. The crux of the protection of drinking water sources hinges on the standardization and the compliance inspection. First of all, we should delineate the source water protected areas and strictly implement the protection systems, and by no means allow new polluters especially heavy polluters to sit inside the protected areas, otherwise we will swing our “sword” without any hesitation. Second, we should take a stepwise approach to straighten out and remove the existing hazards and request the local Party committees and governments to take economic, social, and environmental factors into consideration and properly handle the historic problems. Local governments should set a bottom line for source water protection. If a source water protected area is problematic, they should either urge the enterprises inside the protected area to relocate or get the problems fixed, or find alternative water sources. They should not hesitate on this matter and we will do our part to make sure of that. Thank you!

The Beijing News: My questions are about the river chief system. Minister of Water Resources also talked about this during this year’s annual Two Sessions. There are some fast developments in this front, and as far as I know, MEP and MWR jointly printed and distributed certain implementation plans. So my questions are, what are the roles of the two departments in introducing the river chief system? How do they play their parts in the cooperative water pollution control? And how are they held accountable for failing to do so?

Zhang: The river chief system is an invaluable work mechanism established on China’s national circumstances as a systematic solution to water resource, water ecology, and water environment problems. The core idea is to enable the Party committees and governments at all levels to assume the main responsibility for protecting the environment, and to be more specific, to assign a leading Party/government official to take charge of the pollution control of a certain river segment. However, the river chief system does not mean it is a single person’s responsibility for the river management. It is a coordination mechanism for the Party committees and governments, especially the leading officials to wielder the political system and mobilize all departments and the society to jointly treat water pollution.

The Ministry works with water resources and other departments concerned to implement the river chief system, and such implementation has become one of the target areas of the central government environmental inspection. So far, good progress has been made in most of the local places.

The implementation of this system should be integrated with the law-based pollution control, by taking into account the environment protection law, the water law, and the water pollution control law which is being amended, and establishing sound standards and specifications.

Also, such implementation should be integrated with the science-based pollution control. The 13th Five-Year Plan for Ecological Environment Conservation has been announced, in addition to a plan for control of water pollution in key river basins about to be released soon. Attainment plans should be mapped out for nonattainment waters, in accordance with the above two plans as well as the action plan for water pollution control. We build our houses brick by brick and we treat water pollution in river basins by conducting projects one after another. Only do we treat the pollution in scientific approaches, can we move forward with the control of such pollution in river basins.

Moreover, such implementation should be integrated with deepening reforms. The Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms adopted a plan for piloting the establishment of watershed-specific environmental inspection and enforcement institutions, in accordance with the requirements of the integrated reform plan for promoting ecological progress. The deepening reforms will provide support for the river chief system. Thank you.

People’s Daily: About the river chief system, it has come to my understanding that in Zhejiang people were not enthusiastic about the appointment of a river chief, so certain counties and cities became creative and began to contract river chiefs, which made it possible for an average citizen to be a river chief, in addition to a villager chief or town mayor. What is your opinion about this? Has it occurred to you that this may happen?

Zhang: The local areas have been creative in implementing the river chief system, and their experience matters. We have launched inspection tours to obtain good local experience and practices that can be replicated on a national scale. The river chief system does not mean treating river pollution singlehandedly by the river chief, because a Party secretary as a river chief can mobilize different resources than some deputy party or government chief. It will be the rule of man if a river can only be well managed by a Party secretary as the river chief. The river chief system is a coordination mechanism, so it is imperative to shape a framework under the leadership of Party committees and governments, with the collaboration of all departments and participation by the whole society. Thank you.

China Youth Daily: You just mentioned the possibility of establishing watershed-specific environmental inspection and enforcement institutions. Can you give us more details? What will the future management framework be like? Also, we have certain setback in control of pollution to Erhai Lake. Can you take this as an example and analyze China’s progress in lake pollution control?

Zhang: The control of large-scale water pollution should be based on watershed, while the control of watershed pollution should be based on smaller regions within the watershed. When we monitor a section of a river, there might be a large catchment area in the upstream of the monitored section, so the control of water pollution has to be based on watershed instead of administrative region. Otherwise, the monitoring and assessment standards may vary from one administrative region to another.

In my opinion, unified plans means watershed-wide water environment protection plans should be developed and issued by superior governments or institutions.

Developing unified assessment standards does not mean setting out one discharge limit for all watersheds. Rather, it means distinguishing between the sensitive and insensitive areas based on the environment carrying capacity of watersheds and establishing pollution discharge regulatory mechanisms commensurate to the water quality goals.

Unified monitoring means “who assesses the water quality monitors it”, this way reliable data can be made available, because the monitoring of water quality says something about the performances of local Party committees and governments, while the assessment of such performances can be undermined by inaccuracy of data.

Unified environmental impact assessment is not about centralizing the assessment powers but about unifying the assessment rules and mechanisms.

About the unified compliance inspection, the environmental inspection of watersheds should observe the ecological laws. It means more than monitoring the pollution discharge. We have to combine pollution control with ecological conservation in our efforts to protect the environment of a watershed.

There are certain challenges in protection of Erhai Lake despite that the national and local party committees and governments have attached great importance to it. Erhai Lake as famous tourist destination, the accommodations and consumption activities of inbound populations expand local livestock and poultry breeding and farming scales which need energy and discharge pollution. Therefore, local areas should firmly bear in mind the concept of environment carrying capacity and check how many people and industries they can support.

I’m discreetly optimistic about the control of water pollution in lakes across China. I believe we can control the pollution but the effort is very demanding. To control the pollution of a watershed, we need to reduce discharge and raise the environmental capacity based on the current quality of water environment. However, the ongoing legislations are not specific about the water ecological conservation and the standards and regulatory instruments are not feasible, which renders the conservation to be only theoretical.

We need to highlight both the pollution reduction and growing environmental capacity in order to treat water pollution in watersheds. We need to correct certain behaviors such as destroying the shoals and wetlands, paving the river and lake banks, building excessive water reservoirs, and developing aquaculture that lead to inadequate water replenishment and more water pollution.

China News Service: My question is about the surface water quality. What is the percentage of the monitored sections that meet Grade IV national standard? Can you describe the regional imbalances in water environment protection?

Zhang: The action plan for water pollution control sets out water protection objectives specific to good waters and bad waters. The waters that meet Grade I, II, or III standard are considered as good and that fail Grade V are considered as bad waters. Grade IV indicates changing water quality. The annual water quality goals set for 2016 by the action plan had been achieved, with 67.8 percent of monitored sections attaining Grade I to Grade III standard, which was higher than the previous year, and the share of waters that failed Grade V standard lowering down.

The progresses in water environment protection varied from region to region, with setbacks in certain regions. We gave guidance to such regions and summoned the local government leaders for talks last year. Now the Ministry provides a monthly analysis of water environment dynamics and issues alert to local regions that see rebounding water pollution. If the situations are not changed and the water quality continues to degrade, the Ministry will make them public, summon the local leaders for talks, and restrict new projects. I call for the local areas to do the same and analyze the water environment trends every month to find out the problems timely. Also, we can mobilize the public to take part in this effort.

YICAI: My question is about the black and odorous waters, the combined amount of which escalated rather than declined. The treatment progress went really slow, especially in key regions. Also, we worked with the environmental inspection team and I found the rivers in the outskirts of cities, for example, Shantou, are all black and odorous. So how do we plan to treat such waters?

Zhang: The treatment of black and odorous waters is one of the key aspects provided by the action plan for control of water pollution, and specific deadlines are stipulated. We have tough goals to meet this year, since some of the key cities are set to solve this problem by the end of the year.

This effort is being carried out by the MHURD with the collaboration of MEP, and the latter is making effort in the following three fronts. First, MEP monitors the 1,940 sections under national monitoring programs, identifies the local areas that suffer from poor water quality and urges them to make attainment plans. In this process, the black and odorous waters are listed as a key target. Second, the black and odorous waters are caused by discharging untreated wastewater into the environment due to lack of adequate environmental infrastructures. It is not easy to get them clean, especially in old towns and urban built areas where house relocation may be involved. We launch central government environmental inspection to facilitate the treatment of such waters. Third, the environmental satellites are employed to locate the black and odorous waters in some areas. For example, we used the satellite technology and spotted 272 places of suspected black and odorous waters in 20 cities, 96 places were confirmed and put into the treatment list. In this way, we screen out and monitor the black and odorous waters together with relevant departments. The local areas have to accomplish their assignments by the end of this year; otherwise restrictive measures will be taken.

ShangHai Securities News: About the work plans for water environment management, pollution permits will have been granted to the printing and dyeing industry, and a national platform for information on pollution permits will have been established by the end of this year. Then where is this industry going with the preparations for such permits?

Zhang: As far as the pollution permit is concerned, there are ten major industries that need to obtain such permit because they may lead to water pollution, for example, the paper making, printing and dyeing industries. We’re working on covering other industries with the pollution permitting system as well, with the experience in the ten major industries. The pollution permitting system is a core system for the future management of stationary pollution sources. Our department is going to straighten out and improve certain standards in order to make the pollution permitting more complementary with the watershed-wide standards and industrial standards.

China Daily: I’d like to ask about the protection of the Yangtze River economic belt. Minister Chen mentioned certain threats to the river at this year’s Two Sessions. Can you specify the ongoing pollution to the river and this year’s work plans to address this concern?

Zhang: The TP has become the top pollutant to the mainstream of the Yangtze River, which suggests certain underlying issues. First, the COD and NH3-N are no longer the top pollutants in the Yangtze River basin, an indication that over years of treatment, the industrial and urban pollution represented by COD and NH3-N has been curbed. But we cannot overlook the industrial and urban pollution, that’s for sure.

There’re two main causes of the phosphor and nitrogen pollution. The first one is the pollution from non-point agricultural sources, which contributed around 70 percent. Statistics showed the application of the fertilizers amounted to 60.22 mil. t in 2015, up 45 percent from the year 2000. More efforts are needed to control pollution from non-point agricultural sources in spite of the many measures already taken by the agricultural sector.

The second cause is water ecological conditions. Land reclamation activities have been rampant in the Yangtze River basin, especially the middle and lower reaches where the wetlands are often turned into farmlands. For example, my recent inspection tour to Chaohu Lake found the lake has shrunk to over 700 km2 from more than 2,000 km2 before. The loss of shoals and wetlands to ecological damages has considerably undermined the environment carrying capacity of the river and reduced the local environment’s self-purification capacity which was previously supported by the shoals and wetlands.

We should pay close attention to address the two concerns. Thank you.

Science and Technology Daily: My question is about ecological compensations. Beijing, Zhejiang, and many other provinces already commenced the province-wide ecological compensations. Can you tell us the progress in implementing this mechanism and what do you plan to do next?

Zhang: There’re two kinds of ecological compensations. The first kind is the ecological compensations across administrative boundaries. For example, when the water intake is in the lower reaches of a river, we ask the government in the upper reaches to ensure the water quality of drinking water sources in the lower reaches. The government in the lower reaches oversees the water quality of the upper reaches and compensates appropriately. We coordinate the administrative regions concerned to sign compensation agreements.

The other kind is the ecological compensations within administrative boundaries, which technically are not ecological compensations. Taking Beijing for example, the city-wide water environment compensations include the monthly computed amount targeting cross-boundary sections and the annually computed amount targeting wastewater treatment. If a district improves the water quality at a local river section, the municipal government will reward the district; otherwise, the government will levy fines. Such a mechanism helps mobilize the enthusiasm of the Party committees and governments at all levels to treat water pollution.

This is a long-term mechanism that can achieve great results with little effort, that’s the reason why we should replicate it on a national scale.

China Securities Journal: One more question about the black and odorous waters, you just mentioned that by the end of this year the municipalities directly under the central government, the provincial capital cities, and the cities separately listed in State plans will have eliminated such waters. This is an ambitious goal. Do you have any special fund to support this?

Zhang: The treatment of black and odorous waters is a considerably demanding task with great workload. You may find the specific figures in the materials you got. The money is a problem too, and the funds will be raised from multiple sources.

Local governments at all levels should also spend more in this effort, but it is still not enough. The market should play a decisive role. Market-based mechanisms should be implemented concerning the wastewater treatment fees and water prices, and the government will also step up regulation to treat the black and odorous waters once and for all.

RMZXB: About the control of non-point agricultural pollution, we know that it is common for the rivers to be polluted with excessive phosphor, in some cases, the drinking water sources are polluted, too. Can you specify the initiatives for control of phosphor pollution? In our interviews some local government officials believe the phosphor discharge standards are too strict and should be more lenient, what do you think of this?

Zhang: The phosphor pollution comes from multiple sources. We will work with the agricultural department to control non-point sources in agricultural sector. As the competent environmental protection department, we will make greater efforts in control of point sources of such pollution, for example, the municipal wastewater treatment plants and industrial enterprises. And we will enforce the nitrogen and phosphor discharge standards more strictly in the said treatment plants and industries.

We may approach the non-point pollution in agricultural sector from two pathways. The first is to integrate it with the initiatives for the green development of the agricultural sector, the development of beautiful villages, and the increased incomes of the rural residents, because it is impossible to solve this pollution only by end-of-pipe treatment, given the experience in treating industrial and municipal pollution. The second is to turn the refuses in the agricultural sector and rural areas, including the stalk, garbage, and wastewater, into resources. The rural residents are both polluters and resource owners. We should work from this angle and allow them to benefit from the resource-using process.

Another important issue I talked about is the water ecological conservation. We have been way behind the conservation these years and should pay adequate attention to this.

Southern Weekend: My question is about the protection of drinking water sources. We found in previous interviews that several local governments may cancel drinking water source protected areas in order to attract investment projects. What are the regulations about the cancel of drinking water protected areas? Is there any way to prevent this?

Zhang: The circumstances at community levels are complicated. First, the laws stipulate that only provincial governments have the authority to approve the plans for delineating and redefining the drinking water source protected areas, which can’t be canceled without approval.

Second, some of the drinking water source protected areas need to be redefined, but they have to follow proper protocols.

Third, about the violations, there are strict legal provisions on the drinking water source protected areas. It is absolutely prohibited to redefine the drinking water source protected areas with a view to evading this restraint and setting up polluting enterprises. We welcome the public and media supervision on such violations.

Nanfang Metropolis Daily: Where are we with the area-wide coordination mechanism for water pollution control, and what measures will be taken in the next step?

Zhang: We have actively promoted the area-wide coordination mechanism for water pollution control and established such mechanism in, for example, Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, the Yangtze River delta, the Pearl River delta, and the Yangtze River economic belt, in a bid to provide a platform for addressing water pollution across administrative boundaries. It is a challenging task, and the crux is to clearly define the responsibilities and coordinate efficiently. We are trying in this direction and will keep you informed of the latest developments.

Legal Daily: Some people believe water pollution is as serious as air pollution, what do you think of this? MEP launched a survey on the chemical enterprises along major river banks in 2006. What is the current situation now? Where are we with the amendment to the water pollution control law?

Zhang: You shared my concern. In spite of all the talks about air pollution, we can’t afford to overlook the water pollution control. The experience in the developed countries suggested that it is more difficult to treat watershed pollution, so we should attach great importance to it. The CPC Central Committee and the State Council have done so and introduced the action plan for control of water pollution.

About the distribution of chemical enterprises along major river banks, first, there is some theory behind it, which is, the environmental carrying capacity of watersheds. Some of the local areas suffer from serious ecological damages due to unreasonable industrial layout. That’s because they have not accepted this theory. The environmental carrying capacity varies from watershed to watershed. The riverside areas and wetlands have very high ecological values and should be preserved by ecological conservation red lines. However, without such awareness, the wetlands will be undervalued and reclaimed as industrial zones and built areas to pursue economic benefits. Therefore, it is imperative to develop this concept.

Second, we should delineate and strictly observe the ecological conservation red lines. The local areas should, in accordance with relevant regulations, draw ecological conservation red lines in areas with high ecological values and very sensitive areas and crack down on ecological damages. Lake reclamation is one of the key targets of the ongoing central government environmental inspection. Moreover, some areas in the upper reaches of rivers, in order to meet high water demand, build too many reservoirs and hydropower projects to guarantee the flows for ecological purposes in the lower reaches, to the extent that the water levels of some major rivers and lakes are not high enough to meet ecological conservation purposes. For example, a survey suggested that 227 out of the 333 rivers captured by the satellite in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region dried up during the flood season last year, not because of lack of rainwater but of water diversion projects. Local areas should make sure a certain percentage of water resources to be allocated for ecological conservation purposes in both water abundance and shortage circumstances, so as to support the aquatic life in rivers, lakes, and wetlands and sustain the self-purification capacity of the environment. Otherwise, the ecological damages will undermine the environment carrying capacity and result in algal blooms.

We will take these factors into account while making plans and highlight the accountability for water ecological damages. The water pollution control law has gone through the first reading by the national people’s congress and will go through the second reading in June. We will consult all stakeholders between the readings. Thank you. My question is about the wastewater treatment in the countryside. The urban areas have fairly complete wastewater treatment infrastructures, while the rural areas face the common problem of discharge of wastewater that has caused fairly serious pollution. Are there any measures taken to fix this? How do we prevent and control water pollution for the south-to-north water diversion projects?

Zhang: You asked two questions. We should neither adopt a “one-for-all” solution to the wastewater treatment in rural areas nor replicate the practices in treating industrial and urban pollution. We should approach this problem based on local circumstances. For example, some villages have grown into the size of a town or become an urban village, or have a large population or massive tourists, then the wastewater can be collected and treated like in urban areas. For villages with a small population and inconvenient traffic, we should consider local conditions. The human feces and urine as organic matters should be separated from the wastewater, and the remaining part may be treated by constructed wetlands or aquatic plants.

The water resources are diverted through exclusive channels protected by buffer areas in the south-to-north water diversion project. So the problems you talked about may happen in the headwaters of the project, for example the Danjiangkou Reservoir, how do we prevent and control the non-point and municipal pollution there? There is a proven practice called waterfront organic agriculture. We may well learn some useful experience from the community levels.

Guangming Daily: The priorities and difficulties in wastewater treatment in urban areas differ from those of rural areas. What are they respectively, and how do we balance them?

Zhang: The crux of water pollution control in both urban and rural areas lies in the recycling of wastewater, since pure end-of-pipe treatment often gets half the results with double the efforts. The older ones with us may recall that the cities used to have cleaners who take feces to the countryside, and now we have wastewater pipes that carry wastewater to treatment plants. The sludge, in spite of abundant nutrients, may contain heavy metals and cannot be applied in farmlands, which cuts off the circulation chain linking the human wastes with agricultural uses. It is the same case with reclaimed water which has high SD and may well be used for gardening. However, the use of reclaimed water is not so easy considering that the wastewater treatment plants may process hundreds of thousands or even millions of tons of wastewater every day. The treatment plants should be more sparsely distributed with smaller treatment capacities in order to recycle the reclaimed water.

To this end, the overall water price should be raised properly. Some of the local areas may have concerns that the rise in water price may affect the life of lower income earners. This will not happen if we put in place proper measures. The water demands of lower income earners are within a small range for which the water price can stay unchanged. More important is the water-intensive industries, for which the water price should be raised appropriately to curb their expansion, stimulate the water recycling market and guarantee the amount of water for ecological purposes.

The control of water pollution in urban areas involves a wide range of aspects. If we head towards the right direction, there will be a bright future.

(This English version is for your reference only.In case any discrepancy exists between the Chinese and English context, the Chinese version shall prevail.)

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