China's dirty water problem

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Anchor Marco Werman speaks with Dr. Peter Gleick about China's massive water pollution problems. The Chinese government reported this week that levels of common water pollutants were twice as high as they had previously thought.

MARCO WERMAN: You may have heard that China has some of the worse water pollution problems in the world. Well this week the Chinese government reported that things are even worse than they thought. China has just finished its first comprehensive review of pollution sources. The study found that by at least one key measure, water pollution is twice as bad as they had reported just two years ago. Peter Glick is president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California and he has written extensively on China's water challenges. Dr. Glick, give us a quick snapshot, if you would, of China's water pollution problems today.

DR. PETER GLICK: I'd be happy to. The best snapshot is China's water quality is horrible, really bad. They have massive industrial contamination; they have massive contamination of human wastes because their waste water systems are not up to any sort of decent standards. We've known for many, many years that China's water quality is bad and it's beginning to constrain the things that they can do with their water.

WERMAN: It's weird though because it sounds like they had been keeping track of it. They were just off by a factor of two.

GLICK: Well what happened was, they were much more outgoing about their industrial contamination, but they were much more reluctant to talk about contamination from their agricultural sector. And this new study basically says their water quality is much worse than they had previously reported because now they are reporting their agricultural pollution as well. Of course, agriculture in China is such an enormous part of their economy and, unfortunately of their water quality problems.

WERMAN: Is this water, then, that people are drinking?

GLICK: Oh yes. China has many water problems of course. They have a very serious quantity problem as well. They're water short in the northern part of China, sort of like the United States is water short in the western part of the United States. But part of their water quantity problems is the fact that they've so badly contaminated so much of their water that even when they have it, they often can't use it, it's too contaminated for human use, it's even often too contaminated for additional irrigation use.

WERMAN: So are they even able to clean the water that they have?

GLICK: Yes, in theory. We in the United States, of course, had terrible water quality in the 1950's and 1960's. The Cuyahoga River caught fire, Lake Erie was a cesspool, but we can clean up water, we know how to clean up water. We have to stop putting dirty things in water, that's one piece of the puzzle, and then we can build infrastructure, waste water treatment plans, all sorts of water facilities that can clean up water that's already polluted. The Chinese are beginning to make an investment in that. They're trying to spend far more money than they've spent in the past to build that kind of infrastructure that largely we have in the developed countries now. But they have a long way to go.

WERMAN: Now we know huge numbers of Chinese are affected by bad water. Politically, could this be problematic in China?

GLICK: Absolutely. One of the interesting things we're seeing in China is that public protests over environmental issues are growing, in a country where public protests are not particularly encouraged. We're seeing villages, we're seeing towns, we're seeing non-governmental organizations beginning to mobilize around all sorts of environmental issues, in particular water issues; water availability and water quality. Challenging factories that are dumping uncontrolled wastes into local rivers. We're beginning to see a political movement based on environmental protection and human health.

WERMAN: The reliability of the Chinese government's pollution data is already a sore spot. It was a sticking point in climate negotiations and it almost completely derailed the Copenhagen climate talks in December when the Chinese Premier took offense at President's Obama's suggestion that their carbon emissions figures might not be trusted. So these new figures on water pollution seem to suggest that Mr. Obama was right.

GLICK: Well, without a doubt, the Chinese government has not been forthcoming with data on environmental problems. I do think there's a sign that it's changing. This new data set, it represents a very intensive effort on the part of the Chinese government to collect these data. And the fact that they've released it, I'd like to think that it's good news.

WERMAN: Good new that it's a sign of transparency?

GLICK: It's a step in the right direction towards environmental transparency. I would also note, as bad as China is, they're not alone. There are many countries in the world who either don't collect water quality data or environmental data in general, or don't release it. If we're going to solve our problems, the first step is to figure out what those problems are.

WERMAN: Peter Glick, president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California. Dr. Glick, thank you for explaining this to us.

GLICK: Happy to be with you.