The surface water of 10 major river systems across China has been under intermediate pollution with striking eutrophication problems in major lakes (reservoirs). More data from the Ministry of Environmental Protection of China showed that underground water in 57% of monitoring sites across Chinese cities was polluted or extremely polluted. Rural water pollution, the rising number of incidents of industrial pollution, outdated sewerage systems, and the overuse of pesticides and chemical fertilizers also endanger the health of rural inhabitants in China. Nearly 0.2 billion rural residents could not use drinking water in accordance with the national standard, and there were reports of ‘cancer villages' and food-borne diseases (cancer village refers to a village where a certain proportion of its inhabitants suffer from the same kind of cancer or where there is a hike in cancer incidence in that area). This study aims to raise awareness of the prevention and control of water pollution and to propose a set of national research and policy initiatives for the future safety of the water environment in China.

Introduction

Environmental security is becoming a crucial concern worldwide in the 21st century (Wang, 2013). In this study, we focus on water pollution – an important environmental problem in China – as a top priority to review its current status, problems and control strategies. China is facing a serious water crisis; there is a country-wide water shortage in its resources for drinking-quality water. In accordance with the provisions of the United Nations, annual per capita water resources of less than 1,700 m3 are classed as the shortage of water resources. Because of its huge population, China has less than a quarter of the world's average per capita water capacity. So China is a resource-based water shortage country (Lu, 2013). Also, China's per capita water supply is significantly lower than the global average, but its demand for water is astronomical. Both industry and agriculture use massive amounts of water and create massive water pollution. The polluted water cannot meet drinking-water standards, so it is also a quality-based water shortage country (Jiang, 2009).

Over the last three decades, China has been transformed from an impoverished farming-reliant country to the ‘Factory of the World’, but at a high price. The widespread dumping of toxic chemicals and industrial wastewater has poisoned rivers and groundwater – and also the people who rely on them (GEA, 2011). Water pollution not only caused a huge amount of economic losses, but also directly endangered the safety of drinking water for the people. Survey results show that 44.36% of the rural drinking water does not meet basic health and safety standards, and hundreds of millions of people are without access to clean drinking water, with some drinking water severely contaminated with hazardous chemicals (Jiang, 2010).

In the range of industrial pollutants, persistent organic pollutants and heavy metals contamination are most serious. The phenomenon of untreated industrial wastewater and municipal wastewater used for farmland irrigation also occurs all the time (Earnhart, 2013). Agrochemical pollution has become commonplace in China. To obtain an agricultural high yield, the average application rate of farmland fertilizer is 1.93 times higher than the international safe upper limit of fertilizer application; the rate of pesticide residues in arable land reaches 60–70% (Braden, 2013; Wu et al., 2013).

Chinese yearly domestic sewage is nearly 2.2 billion tons, which is the equivalent of 34 Ming Tombs Reservoirs or 76 Kunming Lakes (Cao et al., 2010). The wastewater discharge in Beijing city in 2005 was 1.01 billion tons, in which the domestic sewage reached 0.882 billion tons and accounted for nearly 90% of total sewage (Ding, 2007). City sewage and agricultural wastewater have become the main source of water pollution. At the same time, the domestic sewage pollution on city groundwater and inland lakes has become increasingly prominent (Gu et al., 2010). It has constituted a serious threat to people's life and health, and more attention should be paid to domestic sewage pollution. Once the sewage pollutes the drinking water, the polluted drinking water in the body will cause a great threat to human health, and can even cause cancer. Residual benzene on unclean clothes not only stimulates the skin and causes itching, but also can induce diseases through the skin into the body in the long term. Fluorescent whitening agents are also carcinogenic substances and they can distort human cells and can also cause dermatitis and pruritus. The consequences of environmental pollution caused by phosphorus-containing sewage emissions are very serious. It is extremely urgent to find practical solutions for 2.2 billion tons of sewage.

Currently, urban sewage, household garbage, industrial waste, and seepages of fertilizers and pesticides have also resulted in serious pollution to groundwater in some parts of China, disrupting both economic production and people's lives (Huang et al., 2013).

Therefore, water problems in China can be attributed to two aspects: natural issues and management issues. Natural issues result both from uneven spatial and temporal distribution of precipitation and from water contamination, which are called shortage of water resources and pollution-induced water shortage, respectively. The shortage of water resources means that rainfall from south to north and from east to west successively reduces until drought and desertification render the region not suitable for survival; the pollution-induced water shortage is a factitious ‘shortage’ caused by human activities. Management issues are ascribed to the indiscriminate discharge of sewage and industrial wastewater, where the local government colludes with unscrupulous factory owners and does not develop reasonable policies to stop such irresponsible behavior, so that the discharged wastewater and sewage can pollute rivers and lakes. Management issues are part of the causes of ‘shortage’.

China's current status of water pollution

Water bodies in China have become seriously polluted since the 1990s and there have been no marked improvements in recent years. With the release of the ‘2013 Report on the State of the Environment in China’ by the Ministry of Environmental Protection of the People's Republic of China on 5 June 2014 (World Environment Day), the national water-quality conditions remained stable overall during 2000–2013, but the situation is still grim (State Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), 2013). First, of 1,200 rivers in China (including 10 river systems and their tributaries with hydrological monitoring systems), there are 850 rivers that are subject to different degrees of pollution. Secondly, China has 4,880 lakes, covering a total area of 83,400 km2 and accounting for 0.8% of the country; according to an evaluation of eutrophication in 131 major lakes in China, about 50 lakes are in an eutrophic state (Yuan, 2000; Sun et al., 2012), and the eutrophication for 75% of these lakes is getting worse. In addition, more data from the Ministry of Environmental Protection show that the groundwater pollution in half of China's cities is serious; according to the 4,929 groundwater monitoring sites in China's 198 cities, the proportion of good-quality water is 42.7%, while the proportion of the bad-quality or even worse-quality water is 57.3% (SEPA, 2013).

Figure 1 shows the spatial distribution of 10 major river systems, and Figures 2 and 3 show a baseline (1991–1994) and the present circumstances (2006–2013) for the trend of water contaminants in China, respectively. Compared with the baseline year, the water quality for the present circumstances has a great degree of improvement. The average water quality of Grade IV–V has decreased from 55% of the baseline to 20% of the present circumstance. The main reason can be attributed to extensive Chinese economic development at the beginning of the 1990s, especially after the reform and opening up of markets.

Fig. 1.

The spatial distribution map of seven main river systems in China.

Fig. 1.

The spatial distribution map of seven main river systems in China.

Fig. 2.

Water quality grade of seven main river systems from 1991 to 1994 in China: (a) 1991, (b) 1992, (c) 1993, (d) 1994.

Fig. 2.

Water quality grade of seven main river systems from 1991 to 1994 in China: (a) 1991, (b) 1992, (c) 1993, (d) 1994.

In general, the status of water quality in major river systems has been improved gradually, but the water quality of 10 river systems (the Yangtze River, Yellow River, Pearl River, Songhua River, Huaihe River, Haihe River, Liaohe River, Northwest rivers, Southwest rivers and Zhejiang_Fujian rivers) across China is still under intermediate pollution. Table 1 shows the main kind of pollutants from 1991 to 2013.

Table 1.

The major pollutants of 10 river systems from 1991 to 1994 and from 2006 to 2013 in China.

YearThe major pollutants
1991 Suspended matter, oxygen-consuming organics, ammonia nitrogen, volatile phenol, petroleum 
1992 Oxygen-consuming organics, ammonia nitrogen, volatile phenol, petroleum, total mercury 
1993 Ammonia nitrogen, the permanganate index, BOD5, volatile phenol, heavy metal 
1994 Ammonia nitrogen, the permanganate index, BOD5, volatile phenol, heavy metal, arsenic, cyanide 
2006 The permanganate index, ammonia nitrogen, petroleum 
2007 Ammonia nitrogen, petroleum, BOD5 
2008 Ammonia nitrogen, petroleum, BOD5 
2009 The permanganate index, BOD5, ammonia nitrogen 
2010 The permanganate index, BOD5, ammonia nitrogen 
2011 COD, BOD5, TP 
2012 COD, BOD5, the permanganate index 
2013 COD, BOD5, the permanganate index 
YearThe major pollutants
1991 Suspended matter, oxygen-consuming organics, ammonia nitrogen, volatile phenol, petroleum 
1992 Oxygen-consuming organics, ammonia nitrogen, volatile phenol, petroleum, total mercury 
1993 Ammonia nitrogen, the permanganate index, BOD5, volatile phenol, heavy metal 
1994 Ammonia nitrogen, the permanganate index, BOD5, volatile phenol, heavy metal, arsenic, cyanide 
2006 The permanganate index, ammonia nitrogen, petroleum 
2007 Ammonia nitrogen, petroleum, BOD5 
2008 Ammonia nitrogen, petroleum, BOD5 
2009 The permanganate index, BOD5, ammonia nitrogen 
2010 The permanganate index, BOD5, ammonia nitrogen 
2011 COD, BOD5, TP 
2012 COD, BOD5, the permanganate index 
2013 COD, BOD5, the permanganate index 

BOD5: 5-day biochemical oxygen demand, TP: total phosphorus, COD: chemical oxygen demand.

Although annual variations of river pollutants in China are relatively small, the main pollutants of 10 major river systems have obvious regional characteristics. Among the big river systems, the overall water quality of the Pearl River and Yangtze River was good. The rivers in Zhejiang Province and Fujian Province were under slight pollution, while rivers in northwest China enjoyed excellent water quality. The water quality of the rivers in southwest China was good, and the Songhua River was under slight pollution. The Yellow River, Huaihe River and Liaohe River were under intermediate pollution, while the Haihe River was under heavy pollution.

Notes for Figures 1,23 and Table 1: the State Environmental Protection Administration divided surface water into five water functions from high to low according to the surface water environmental function and protection target. Grade I Level is mainly applied to the source water and State-level Nature Reserve. Grade II Level is mainly applied to the first-level protection zone of surface water source for the centralized drinking water, rare aquatic habitats, fish and shrimp production fields and larvae feeding grounds. Grade III Level is mainly applied to the second-level protection zone of surface water source for the centralized drinking water, fish and shrimp wintering grounds, migration channel and aquaculture areas and swimming areas. Grade IV Level is mainly applied to the general industrial water district and the recreational water district (non-direct contact with human body). Grade V Level is mainly applied to the agricultural water district and the general landscape requirement waters. Based on the above corresponding five water functions of surface water, the environmental quality standard for surface water (GB 3838–2002) was promulgated by the People's Republic of China; there were five basic standard values for surface water environmental quality, and different functional categories were implemented by the corresponding standard values. The standard is the mandatory standard, and it was published by Chinese Environment Science Press and has been implemented since 1 June 2002.

Fig. 3.

Water quality grade of 10 main river systems from 2006 to 2013 in China: (a) 2006, (b) 2007, (c) 2008, (d) 2009, (e) 2010, (f) 2011, (g) 2012, (h) 2013.

Fig. 3.

Water quality grade of 10 main river systems from 2006 to 2013 in China: (a) 2006, (b) 2007, (c) 2008, (d) 2009, (e) 2010, (f) 2011, (g) 2012, (h) 2013.

According to the national monitoring program, among 28 key lakes (reservoirs) in China, surface water functions of different levels were summed up by the statistics from 2006 to 2013. It can be found from Figure 4(a)4(h) that the proportion of Grade I to III water quality standard among 28 key lakes (reservoirs) in China was increased from about 28 to 60%, and the ratio of worse than Grade V was decreased from about 48 to 12%. The charts also indicated that the water quality in 2011, 2012 and 2013 was particularly improved. However, there was still a potentially striking eutrophication problem in the lakes (reservoirs). Furthermore, among the 26 lakes (reservoirs) under eutrophication monitoring from 2007 to 2011, different states of nutrition were summarized indicating that heavy eutrophication had a decreased trend, while the state of low nutrition had an increased trend. Water quality from about 60 lakes (reservoirs) in 2012 and 2013 had obviously become better. Table 2 shows the percentage of nutrition states and the major pollutants in lakes (reservoirs).

Table 2.

Water quality index and status of major lakes (reservoirs) from 2006 to 2013 in China.

Year20062007200820092010201120122013
The major pollutants TN, TP TN, TP TN, TP TN, TP TN, TP TP, COD TP, COD TP, COD 
State of nutrition Number (%) 
Heavy eutrophication 2 (8%) 2 (7.7%) 1 (3.8%) 1 (3.8%) 1 (3.8%) – – 7 (11.5%) 
Intermediate eutrophication 4 (16%) 3 (11.5%) 5 (19.2%) 2 (7.7%) 2 (7.7%) 2 (7.7%) 4 (6.7%) 1 (1.64%) 
Slight eutrophication 9 (36%) 9 (34.6%) 6 (23%) 8 (30.8%) 11 (42.3%) 12 (46.1%) 11 (18.3%) 16 (26.2%) 
Moderate nutrition 10 (40%) 12 (46.2%) 14 (53.8%) 15 (57.7%) 12 (46.2%) 12 (46.2%) 37 (61.7%) 20 (32.8%) 
Poor nutrition – – – – – – 8 (13.3%) 17 (27.9%) 
Total 25 (100%) 26 (100%) 26 (100%) 26 (100%) 26 (100%) 26 (100%) 60 (100%) 61 (100%) 
Year20062007200820092010201120122013
The major pollutants TN, TP TN, TP TN, TP TN, TP TN, TP TP, COD TP, COD TP, COD 
State of nutrition Number (%) 
Heavy eutrophication 2 (8%) 2 (7.7%) 1 (3.8%) 1 (3.8%) 1 (3.8%) – – 7 (11.5%) 
Intermediate eutrophication 4 (16%) 3 (11.5%) 5 (19.2%) 2 (7.7%) 2 (7.7%) 2 (7.7%) 4 (6.7%) 1 (1.64%) 
Slight eutrophication 9 (36%) 9 (34.6%) 6 (23%) 8 (30.8%) 11 (42.3%) 12 (46.1%) 11 (18.3%) 16 (26.2%) 
Moderate nutrition 10 (40%) 12 (46.2%) 14 (53.8%) 15 (57.7%) 12 (46.2%) 12 (46.2%) 37 (61.7%) 20 (32.8%) 
Poor nutrition – – – – – – 8 (13.3%) 17 (27.9%) 
Total 25 (100%) 26 (100%) 26 (100%) 26 (100%) 26 (100%) 26 (100%) 60 (100%) 61 (100%) 

TN: total nitrogen, TP: total phosphorus, COD: chemical oxygen demand.

Fig. 4.

Water quality grade of 28 key lakes (reservoirs) under national monitoring program from 2006 to 2013 in China: (a) 2006, (b) 2007, (c) 2008, (d) 2009, (e) 2010, (f) 2011, (g) 2012, (h) 2013.

Fig. 4.

Water quality grade of 28 key lakes (reservoirs) under national monitoring program from 2006 to 2013 in China: (a) 2006, (b) 2007, (c) 2008, (d) 2009, (e) 2010, (f) 2011, (g) 2012, (h) 2013.

Water environmental problems in rural areas are serious in China (Wang & Xue, 2009). The monitoring results of the rural water environmental quality from the national 798 pilot villages show that the rural drinking water sources and surface water have been polluted to varying degrees; in particular, the water quality of 40% of rural drinking water in northern China has exceeded the standard (to different degrees). The water quality compliance rate of the drinking water sources in pilot villages is only 77.2%, the water quality compliance rate of the drinking groundwater sources is only 70.3%, and the compliance rate of surface water is only 64.7%; nearly 200 million rural residents cannot drink the drinking water in accordance with the national standard (SEPA, 2013).

Water environmental problems in industrial production are even more serious in China. Thousands of chemical and petrochemical projects are located on the banks and shores of rivers, lakes and reservoirs; next to densely populated cities or areas; on major tributaries of key rivers; and on the upper reaches of protected drinking water source regions. Poor environmental regulations, weak enforcement and local corruption mean that factories can discharge their wastewater directly into rivers and lakes. What's more, many hazardous chemicals that are restricted or banned completely in Europe and elsewhere are not regulated in China. These chemicals have already been recognized as having serious threats to the environment and health, but in China they can still be used in large quantities and without supervision, for example, nonylphenol (C15H24O) with endocrine disrupting effects, musk xylene (C12H15N3O6) with a very persistent and very bio-accumulative characteristic, and bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate esterase (DEHP) with harm to reproductive health, etc. (GEA, 2011).

Water pollution problems in China

At present, water pollution is one of the 10 main environmental problems that threaten human survival (Anon., 2010). As far as water pollution is concerned, water pollution problems in China can be categorized into two aspects, that is, discharge of pollutants and the resultant problems.

Discharge of pollutants

In recent years there have been numerous examples of sewage and industrial spills that have damaged waterways and harmed residents in some cases (Figures 5 and 6).

Fig. 5.

Sewage from a restaurant street in Fengjie County of Chongqing directly discharged into the Three Gorges Reservoir (16 June 2013).

Fig. 5.

Sewage from a restaurant street in Fengjie County of Chongqing directly discharged into the Three Gorges Reservoir (16 June 2013).

Fig. 6.

Dead fish floating on the water surface in Shaying River (a tributary of the Huaihe River), Yingshang County, Anhui province (3 June 2013) due to the discharge of industrial wastewater.

Fig. 6.

Dead fish floating on the water surface in Shaying River (a tributary of the Huaihe River), Yingshang County, Anhui province (3 June 2013) due to the discharge of industrial wastewater.

The Danjiangkou Reservoir, which crosses Hubei and Henan provinces, is not only Asia's largest artificial freshwater lake and protected water source (at the national A level), but also the national water resource area of the middle route project of S–N water transfer. In the autumn of 2014, with the completion of the middle route project of S–N water transfer, the Danjiangkou Reservoir will begin to provide the four provinces of Henan, Hebei, Beijing, and Tianjin, and more than 20 cities, with living and production water. However, the Danjiangkou Reservoir is suffering from a wide-range threat of pollution: (1) the direct drainage of excreta and wastewater from riverside restaurants into the reservoir, its water surface overflowing with rubbish and oil; and (2) unscrupulous businesses directly discharging sewage into rivers.

The Hangzhou Bay, which is adjacent to Shanghai and Zhejiang, is not only a well-known sea area, but also an important base for fishery resources in the East China Sea. But now, with the industrial development along the Hangzhou Bay, more than 200 chemical enterprises have gathered in Hangzhou Bay. With a large number of chemical industrial parks, Hangzhou Bay has become the largest-scale and the most-concentrated chemical industry base in China, and Hangzhou Bay has been very heavily polluted by the direct discharge of sewage and industrial waste into the sea. The Ministry of Environmental Protection's ‘2011 Report on the State of the Environment in China’ shows that the water quality of Hangzhou Bay is rapidly getting worse, while in the 2012 report it was classified as a very poor water quality area. The ‘China coastal sea area environment quality bulletin’ also showed that more than 90% of the seawater of Hangzhou Bay was worse than Grade IV for national surface water quality standard.

Through the investigation of the assessment and monitoring of the rural drinking water quality in Weifang District by Ocean University of China in 2011, the following conclusions were drawn: the paper and textile industries in Weifang District produce large amounts of sewage, and as the accelerated exploitation of groundwater forms the groundwater depression cone area, wastewater will more easily penetrate into the underground (Si, 2011). Weifang District's annual emissions of harmful substances in sewage are close to 22.5 tons; the vast majority will seep into the underground; the groundwater below the polluted river has been severely polluted; and the groundwater is not up to the standard of industrial water in some areas. Test results showed that each index of the groundwater in the urban area was subject to varying degrees of pollution; the surface water was also subject to different degrees of pollution, most of the river pollution was serious; the typical water quality monitoring results in Weifang District indicated that the pollution of rural water sources also exceeded the standard.

Studies have shown that non-point source (NPS) pollution is also a serious problem for water resources pollution (Wu et al., 2012a, b). NPS pollution includes agriculture, street run-off, sediment, deposition of atmospheric pollutants, mine sites, and transportation corridors such as road and railways, etc. For water pollution, two types of NPS are of particular concern – agricultural/rural NPS and urban NPS (Ongley et al., 2010). The main sources of nutrients are agricultural and urban run-off carrying both nitrogen and phosphorus and, to a lesser degree, groundwater contaminated by nitrates. Main sources of toxic compounds could be abandoned mines and also traffic. NPS pollution is not only a technological problem, it is more a problem of the way people use the land, grow the crops and extract resources (Wang, 2011).

The resultant problems

Water eutrophication

Eutrophication will cause the explosive breeding of algae and other plankton and also cause the death of fish and other creatures. The root cause of eutrophication pollution is high emission of wastewater containing phosphorus and nitrogen: nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations in sewage are high, so this becomes the main cause of water eutrophication.

Recently, as a result of rising temperatures and eutrophication, the blue-green algae in Anhui Chaohu Lake entered an active stage, resulting in two outbreaks of blue-green algae bloom in which lake waters were dyed green (Figure 7). It is reported that blue-green algae will breed in Anhui Chaohu Lake as long as the temperature is higher than 30 °C.

Fig. 7.

Patches of blue-green algae floating on the water under an identification card of ‘the first-grade drinking water sources protection zones in Anhui Chaohu Lake’. (a) The first outbreak of algal blooms (cyanobacteria), 19 July 2013; (b) the second outbreak of algal blooms (cyanobacteria), 28 July 2013. The full color version of this figure is available online at http://www.iwaponline.com/wp/toc.htm.

Fig. 7.

Patches of blue-green algae floating on the water under an identification card of ‘the first-grade drinking water sources protection zones in Anhui Chaohu Lake’. (a) The first outbreak of algal blooms (cyanobacteria), 19 July 2013; (b) the second outbreak of algal blooms (cyanobacteria), 28 July 2013. The full color version of this figure is available online at http://www.iwaponline.com/wp/toc.htm.

According to professionals, due to the high content of nitrogen and phosphorus in the waters of Chaohu itself, cyanobacteria often propagates with high temperature and forms a layer of blue-green floating foam with a fishy smell known as the ‘bloom’ on the water surface; a large-scale outbreak of blue-green algae is known as the ‘green tide’. The green tide leads to the deterioration of water quality and depletes oxygen in water and causes the death of fish at a certain time.

Cyanobacterial cells containing toxin float in water, when it forms complex-precipitation with some suspended matter, or precipitation and enrichment at the bottom of the pool with the excrement after predation by aquaculture objects, thus it will bring great negative influence on the pollution-free aquatic products' production.

Cancer village

Water crisis caused by water pollution has been shown to be a serious social problem since the late 1980s (Wu, 2009). Today, a new kind of village is appearing in rural, post-industrialization China – the cancer village (Lu & Zhong, 2009). These villages are usually located near factory complexes, and rely on rivers for their drinking, washing and cooking water. The rates of cancer in these villages are horrific and shocking. Many of the cancer victims are in their youth, and many of them have cancers of the esophagus, rectum, stomach and liver. The death rate is high, as many patients cannot afford the money for treatment. The major cities have also exhibited an increased incidence of similar cancers.

After 8 years of research, the expert team from the Chinese Disease Control and Prevention Center confirmed the direct relationship between incidences of cancer and industrial water pollution (Yang & Zhuang, 2013); there is a close link between the locations of cancer villages, factories and polluted rivers.

The countryside is no longer a heavenly place – a great number of cancer villages have been reported in recent years. For example, cancer villages within the Huaihe River watershed (Jiangsu, Henan and Anhui province, etc.) have popped up frequently over the past few years. Before that, Huaihe River and its tributaries were polluted by factories in the blind pursuit of gross domestic product (GDP). The appearance of cancer villages has prompted widespread concern about the country's groundwater supplies. For this reason, the villagers have taken to boring deep wells through to the water table, but the death rate is still increasing.

The causes of cancer are diverse: external carcinogenic factors are primarily composed of physical factors, chemical factors, environmental factors, biological factors, etc.; internal carcinogenic factors include genetic factors, immune factors, and so on. The number of cancer villages caused by environmental pollution in China is increasing year by year. The related data show that there are 197 cancer villages recorded by such name that have been confirmed in China. The formation of cancer villages has not yet been formally described, but from the existing reports it is not difficult to find that most of the cancer villages are inseparable from modern industrial pollution. Among them, the causes are most closely related to a chemical factory, printing and dyeing factory, paper mill, pharmaceutical factory, leather factory, alcohol plant, power plant, lime kiln, and other industrial production pollution.

Food-borne diseases

In China thousands of food-poisoning incidents have been reported every year to the health department of the State Council; most were caused by pathogenic microorganism pollution (Stone, 2008).

The harm of environmental pollution to human health is largely reflected through the growth of foodborne diseases. Food-borne diseases caused by environmental pollution in China have an outbreak risk. Food security is closely related to the natural environment, and the environmental pollution brings about uncertainty to food safety (Fry et al., 2007).

In general, the five high-risk factors that cause food-borne diseases are improper storage (27%), polluted equipment and environment (25%), poor personal hygiene (24%), food that is not thoroughly cooked (11%), and sources of insecurity (4%). Excessive use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, especially highly toxic pesticides, illegal use of clenbuterol and other feed additives not only cause residues in agricultural products exceeding safety standards and direct food pollution, but also cause the increase of the archetypal zoonotic disease. Finally, the residues gradually concentrate and gather in human tissues, having been introduced through the food chain, eventually triggering toxic reactions and harming human health.

According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, global food-borne diseases caused by food-safety incidents will reach 1 billion cases in the future, and among them the number of deaths due to food-borne diseases will reach 1.8 million.

Vicious circle and chain reaction

One-third of the total water resources in China is groundwater. According to statistics, 90% of the groundwater in China has suffered varying degrees of pollution, in which 60% is classed as serious pollution. Groundwater overexploitation and pollution influence each other and generate a vicious spiral.

In the light of the present status of the water resources shortage in China, a lot of sewage has been used to irrigate cropland. In some places, the industrial wastewater was used to irrigate rice, or vegetables were grown on heavy-metal-polluted land; the farmers do not eat the rice and vegetables, they sell all the crop to the city after ‘harvest’ to make money, thus the polluted crops will continue to spread pollution to more people. Polluting enterprises pollute the farmers' land, and the farmers may raise crops on the polluted land, which then harms people living in the city. Thus this forms a mutual-harm society.

Control strategies for water pollution in China

The transformation of economic development mode

The backward mode of production and life in China is mainly reflected by high energy consumption, high level of emissions, low efficiency, heavy pollution, excess capacity, unreasonable layout, and the energy structure dominated by coal. For example, livestock and poultry breeding uses the traditional way of backyard and polyculture (the rapid spread of the avian influenza virus has a certain relationship with this); pasture overload and nomadic lifestyle result in the widespread phenomenon of degradation and desertification. Other factors are high energy consumption and low efficiency in household kitchens; high level of emissions in courtyards and toilets due to improper waste treatment; the rapid increase of motor vehicle use in the city; the substantial increase in pollution emissions; the blossoming of construction sites everywhere; and pollution control not being not enough.

We should establish more stringent environmental standards to inhibit the development of excess capacity and to change the backward mode of production and life; we should promote the transformation of the economic development mode by the backward conduction mechanism of the pollution emission reduction; we should promote industrial structure adjustment based on the environmental access threshold, taking the ‘high energy consumption, high water consumption, irrational use of resources’ industrial structure adjustment as the key; we should fully implement the national standards for the discharge of pollutants, accelerate the elimination of backward production capacity, and vigorously promote the adjustment of industrial structure to promote the smooth development of emission reduction in ‘the 12th Five Year Plan’.

During ‘the 12th Five Year Plan’ period, the government will push the key industrial structure adjustment of the equipment manufacturing industry, petrochemical industry, textile industry, and construction industry. Among them, the elimination of backward production capacity and the compression and persuasion of the excess capacity are important tasks to promote the adjustment of industrial structure (Wang et al., 2008; Hu & Cheng, 2013).

In short, we should run resource conservation and environmental protection through the production, circulation, consumption, and construction of various fields and links to improve the ability of sustainable development. The pursuit and realization of a highly integrated environment and economy, environment protection in development, and promotion of the development of measures for environment protection are the inherent requirements of economic development and environmental protection.

Supervision

First, we should intensify the crackdown on criminal environmental pollution. According to the spokesman for the Supreme People's Court, in order to increase the crackdown on criminal environmental pollution, the new provisions of the criminal law were implemented to intensify the fight against the crime of major environmental pollution accidents from 1 May 2011: for example, the range of contaminants has been expanded; and the original ‘other hazardous waste’ has been amended as ‘other harmful substances'. The threshold for conviction has been reduced, that is, ‘cause major environmental pollution incidents, and serious losses of public and private property or serious consequences of human casualties' has been amended as ‘cause serious pollution of the environment’ (Ma, 2010).

Secondly, we should further strengthen supervision. Some places do not strictly punish illegal enterprises, they even see the sewage-discharging enterprises as the star enterprises; the reason can be attributed to the vested interests and collusion between the community of ‘rich and poor’. In the face of materialistic and ambitious motivation causing pollution evil, we need to have responsible supervision and strong responsibility, to eliminate flaws and to fight crime, to strengthen management practices and regulation enforcement, and to declare war on groundwater pollution. We should also strengthen supervision, introduce draconian measures and heavy penalties for illegal enterprises, and punish colluding officials or the perpetrators as an example to warn others (Hui, 2008).

Research needs

First, participation and support from enterprises are key to reducing the pollution from a large volume of industrial and agricultural wastewater and domestic sewage. Although the market popularity of environmentally friendly products without the use of harmful washing powders has a long way to go, such products have been found to be an effective solution for 2.2 billion tons of sewage per year. Environmentalists point out that enterprise commitment to environmental protection is an important factor required to fundamentally solve the problem of environmental pollution.

Secondly, the research of water pollution (point source and NPS) is also highly significant for environmental sustainability. Now that China is in the mid- to late-industrialization and the fast-development phases of urbanization, the environmental problems that have gradually appeared in developed countries over the course of the latter centuries have been intensively highlighted in China (Chai et al., 2009; Ma et al., 2011). The overall trend of environmental deterioration has not fundamentally changed and the pressure is still increasing. Discharge of pollutants in some areas seriously exceeds the capacity of the environment, and sudden environmental incidents frequently occur. Therefore, all parties need to raise awareness of the current crisis regarding environmental protection to continuously find and solve problems (Yu, 2012). China will need comprehensive research programs to combat water resources pollution for a considerable length of time, and urgent attention will be needed from a public management perspective (Ongley et al., 2010; Shen et al., 2012).

Public management

At present, the primary responsibilities and rights for environmental security in China are still attributed to the environmental protection department. But the limited law-enforcement force and law-enforcement means of the environmental protection department determine that it cannot undertake the responsibilities of environmental litigation and enforcement (Chen, 2012). Therefore, we need some other public welfare lawyers to participate in the environmental protection work, to create an opportunity to get justice for the victims of pollution, and to prevent the worsening situation of environmental pollution.

In September 2006, China's first public environmental database – ‘China water pollution map’ (www.ipe.org.cn) – was launched. The importance of this website is that it is China's first environmental public database; it uses the map to intuitively display the present situation of water pollution, collect water pollution clues, expose pollution enterprises, and declare war on water pollution by engaging with the Chinese people. The founder of the website is the Public and Environmental Research Center Director, Ma Jun (Xue, 2012). The launch of China's water pollution map has made people pay more attention to environmental pollution and environmental protection.

China has paid a heavy environmental price for its extensive mode of economic development. If China does not change its mode of economic development as soon as possible, does not adjust its industrial structure as soon as possible, does not change its backward style of production and life as soon as possible, it will be very difficult to reduce environmental pollution and improve water environment quality.

Management frameworks

First, ‘the system of river leader’ is an effective and practical institution put forward by the local government to restore ecological environment functions of rivers. It is a water pollution control system derived from the supervision system for river water quality improvement and the accountability system for environmental protection. It effectively implements the basic legal system of the local government responsible for the environmental quality, and opens up a new way for regional- and basin-scale water environment governance. The new path to environmental protection with Chinese characteristics needs practices, innovations and explorations. This special attention is necessary to explore and interpret the innovation system from different angles, and to provide a reference point for the prevention and control of water pollution in China.

Secondly, the scientific outlook on development should be focused on and put into effect. The local government should change the wrong (misguided) view of so-called achievements and develop the local economy scientifically. We cannot accept GDP with blood and toxin. If we do not curb the heartless sewage-discharging behavior, the health of the citizens will continue to suffer, and beautiful China will remain as just a dream (Cao et al., 2013). The acts of tolerating pollution and the direct discharge of sewage into the underground are both 100% environmental crimes, and they will be condemned by history (Song & Han, 2012).

Thirdly, the construction of ecological civilization and the achievement of a beautiful ‘Chinese dream’ both need the whole of society's unremitting efforts. The general public needs to begin by acting individually, by planting trees, growing flowers, saving water, refusing white pollution, in order to enhance conservation awareness, environmental protection awareness, ecological consciousness, and to advocate healthy, practical, low-carbon, green lifestyles and consumption patterns (Wang et al., 2012).

Last but not least, China is witnessing the beginning of a civil society; the Chinese people spontaneously defend their environmental and health rights under the inducement of no organization, no political or commercial interests. The Chinese government, non-governmental organizations and other stakeholders should seize the opportunity and promote a conserving environmental civilization through the public's increasing attention to the environment (Cai, 2007).

Conclusions

China is facing a water crisis. Both industry and agriculture use massive amounts of water and create massive water pollution. This study has examined the current status of China's surface water and groundwater pollution, its water pollution problems, and the control strategies for water pollution in China. Accordingly, the following major conclusions have been drawn:

  • (1) The water environment of China has been seriously spoiled due to large amounts of pollutant emissions. Over half of the rivers and about two-thirds of the lakes in the 10 river systems and 28 major lakes were assessed to be of poor quality. Water pollution is closely related to the total discharge of wastewater across China. Up to now, although the ammonia nitrogen and chemical oxygen demand of wastewater have been controlled gradually, the total amount of sewage is still far higher than the water environment capacity.

  • (2) Water pollution resulting from increased pollutant discharge and overuse of groundwater has been a serious threat to people's health. It is very important to improve people's awareness of environmental protection, especially regarding the discharge and treatment of wastewater. There is a profit motive that shows contempt for life; some polluting industries have unscrupulously destroyed farmland and polluted the environment, but very few control measures have been taken to protect people.

  • (3) Control strategies should be implemented to tackle the water environmental problems in China. Water policy combined with legal, economic, technological and administrative measures should be established to promote the improvement of surface water and groundwater quality and enhance people's living standards. Moreover, the protection of the water resources is not just a nation's responsibility, but also the individual's own responsibility; the foresight to promote sustainable development is crucial for water environment protection, and a legislating system should also be established to deal with water pollution problems.

Acknowledgements

This study was supported by the Initial Scientific Research Funds for PhD from Northwest A&F University (2012BSJJ004), the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities (QN2013047), the National Natural Science Foundation of China (51309194), the Doctoral Fund of Ministry of Education of China (20130204120034), and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (41371276).

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