Water pollution victims will find it much easier to win compensation through class actions if a draft law amendment is adopted by the nation's top legislature.
The second draft amendment to the Water Pollution Prevention and Control Law, which is now being deliberated by the National People's Congress (NPC) Standing Committee, contains an additional stipulation that water pollution victims can seek civil compensation directly from polluters.
If there are a large number of victims, the draft states, they can file class actions, a lawsuit brought by one or more plaintiffs on behalf of a large group bound by a common wrong.
This would be the first time that Chinese laws make such explicit stipulations, according to Tang Weijian, a civil procedure law professor with the Beijing-based Renming University of China.
"It'll definitely encourage pollution victims to file more class actions to protect their rights and interests," he said.
The Civil Procedure Law stipulates that if the victims number more than 10, they can file class actions.
But the law fails to clarify in what kind of cases such actions are allowed.
Such ambiguity, Tang said, often prompts local courts to refuse to treat such cases as class actions because individual cases tend to yield more income for courts.
The draft law also encourages governments, social organizations and legal institutions to support victims in cases where compensation is sought.
It says environmental monitoring institutions should offer authentic figures if requested by affected parties.
Zhou Kunren, deputy director of the NPC Law Committee, said these rules aim to better protect victims, especially those who don't know how to protect themselves by legal means.
"They will also raise the violation cost for polluters," he told the legislative session on Sunday.
He said civil compensation could cost polluters much more than fines because of a large number of victims in pollution cases.
Compared to the first draft, the second draft also lifts the restriction on the maximum amount of fines for enterprises blamed for exceeding discharge standards.
The previous draft said the maximum fine for such violations should not exceed 1 million yuan ($136,000), but the latest version proposes to raise fines for such businesses to between two and five times current pollutant violation penalties.
Yue Zhongming, a member of the NPC Standing Committee's Legislative Affairs Commission, said that under the new provision, big enterprises could pay fines much larger than 1 million yuan.
"The amount of fines should be imposed according to the severity of violations, and too little money cannot tackle the long-standing problem of low violation cost," he said.
Water pollution is one of the biggest environmental concerns for both government and the public.
A survey last year revealed the country's surface water generally suffered from medium pollution.
One third of the 744 samples tested were graded "V", the worst rating.
Official figures also show that the State Environmental Protection Administration handled 161 emergency environmental pollution incidents last year, 59 percent of which involved water pollution.