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Reuters/William Hong
A paper mill dumps waste into the Yangtze River in Anhui province.

China’s annual state of the environment report is miserable

By Heather Timmons

China’s government swears it is finally getting tough on pollution, cracking down on everything from factory emissions to cars in the capital city. One sign that things are changing: analysts say the clean-up is already impinging on China’s economic growth.

The country’s newly-released “state of the environment” report (pdf, in Chinese), however, paints a much grimmer picture of an overwhelmingly polluted country:

  • Of 4,788 groundwater sites tests, 59.6% of them had “poor” or “very poor” water quality.
  • Of 74 cities where air quality was tested, only three met the government’s urban air quality standards.
  • In the southern part of China and along the Yangtze River, acid rain falls on 11% of the land.
  • About 19% of China’s “offshore” water, meaning the seawater along its coast, is so polluted that it is unsafe for human beings to go in or eat fish from.

Despite numerous pledges by environment minister Zhou Shengxian to take tough steps to tackle pollution since he took the job in 2008, China’s air, water and soil have gotten progressively worse. Water pollution has worsened along the Yangtze River and its tributaries so severely in just three years, for example, that huge swathes of the waterways are considered toxic that were suitable for fishing and drinking in 2010.

China delineates water pollution (pdf., pg 3) on a six level grading system, which runs from Grade I, which means the water is “nature protection zone” quality to V-, which is unfit for use for agriculture, drinking, swimming or fish-breeding. Anything beyond level III is so polluted that water should not “touch the human body.”

Here’s the 2010 view:

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And here’s the same waters in 2013—there are almost no Grade I areas left, and the most severe pollution levels have spread from the east to the center of the country.

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Last year, Zhou described his own ministry as “embarrassing.” This year, while releasing the report, he said he was “not optimistic” about China’s water quality. Both appear to be serious understatements.