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    Take the plunge
2006-03-20 08:04

Water management has been a major concern since the dawn of Chinese civilization on the banks of the mighty Yellow River. Our ancestors built a costly system of dams and canals to harness the many rivers and tributaries that crisscross the country for irrigation and transport purposes.

This ongoing battle has taken on a new dimension against the backdrop of rapid industrialization over the past 25 years. Despite being armed with the latest hydro engineering technology, we haven't done any better than our forefathers, because we now have to face a new set of problems of our own making: waste and pollution.

The recent industrial accident on the Songhuajiang River that disrupted water supplies to Harbin and neighbouring cities in Northeast China's Heilongjiang Province for several weeks was a shocking reminder that we might be paying too high a price for surging economic growth. This is the time to seriously rethink our priorities as we set our sights on the creation of an affluent society.

Now that environmental protection has been enshrined in the 11th Five-Year Programme, we must address our water problems with a keen sense of urgency. Waste control is a good place to start.

Despite the frequent occurrence of massive flooding, especially in southern parts of the country, China is generally short on water. Per capita water resources are less than 25 per cent of the world average.

But persistently low water prices, combined with an outdated distribution system, have contributed to the inefficient use of unimaginable amounts of precious water. In Beijing, for instance, water prices have stayed at 3.7 yuan (US$0.46) a ton for years. Although this price is the highest among Chinese cities, it is only 1.8 per cent of the disposable income of the average citizen. It is also considerably lower than the World Bank's recommendation of 5 per cent for developing countries.

Low prices have encouraged excessive water use not so much by urban residents, but by the many factories that have sprouted up across the country in recent years. More importantly, cheap water supplies have removed any incentives for industrial enterprises to invest in water conservation equipment and machinery.

Prices have been kept low, which is why so many State-owned water companies are operating at a loss. Without money to invest in new equipment, they are forced to rely on hopelessly outdated and inefficient systems.

To address this particular problem, one option is to introduce a two-tier tariff system by massively boosting the cost of water for industrial and commercial use, while simultaneously lowering supplies in residential areas. The other alternative is to encourage enterprises to conserve water through tax incentives.

Curbing the pollution of our water resources poses a far greater challenge, however. We believe that the crux of the problem lies in the enforcement of the nation's anti-pollution laws. Enforcement of these laws has simply not been taken seriously enough by many local governments, which are more interested in boosting economic growth in their respective cities and counties. A proposal to include environmental protection ratings to evaluate the performance of local officials should help.

More effort must be spent on educating the public on the importance of water conservation. Their vigilance on the issue is what counts.

(China Daily 03/20/2006 page1)


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