Water Pollution in China

Standard Page - 2011-06-28
China is facing a water crisis. Its 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.

China is facing a water crisis. Its 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.

Over the last three decades, China has transformed from 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 the people who rely on them.

A woman of Yanglingang fishing village fetches water from the Yangtze River

But “Made in China” comes at a price: the demand for cheap goods that multinational companies are all too willing to turn a blind eye at their suppliers’ environmental practices – practices that would never be allowed in their home countries.

It is tragic that the global demand for cheap clothing is poisoning China’s rivers and lakes. But with the commitment of companies to take responsibility for their goods – and consumer pressure – this can change.

Detox the Fashion Industry

Volunteers in Beijing join a global day of action for Detox.

In 2011 we launched the Detox campaign to expose the direct links between global clothing brands, their suppliers and toxic water pollution in China. Fieldwork and investigations in manufacturing regions, along with the testing of branded garments for traces of hazardous chemicals, resulted in the release of groundbreaking reports that exposed the toxic truth behind our clothes.

Our report "Toxic Threads: The Big Fashion Stitch-Up", published in November 2012, presents the results of an investigation that found residues of a variety of hazardous chemicals in clothing made by 20 global fashion brands, including Zara, Calvin Klein, Levi's and Victoria's Secret.

The chemicals found included high levels of toxic phthalates and cancer causing amines from azo dyes. Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs), which can break down to form a toxic and hormone-disrupting substance when released into the environment, were found in trace levels in clothing items from every single brand tested. 

Today the Detox campaign is powered by more than half a million people, demanding toxic-free fashion and clean water. Take action today by signing the Detox Fashion Manifesto and add your voice to a global movement demanding fashion without pollution. Together we're challenging some of the world's most popular clothing brands to work with their suppliers and eliminate all releases of hazardous chemicals into our water.

Cancer Villages and Industrial Pollution

China’s development into the “Factory of the World” may have lifted millions out of poverty, but it has also brought disease and poverty to many more.

A new kind of village is appearing in rural, post-industrialization China – the cancer village. These villages are usually located near factory complexes, and rely on rivers for their drinking, washing and cooking water.

An angry woman blames the polluted stream and well water for the illness and death blighting her village, Zhangyuzhuang, in Henan province. The cluster of paper and chemical factories about 15km upstream is discharging polluted waste water into the stream used by the villagers.

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 rare cancers of the esophagus, rectum, stomach and liver. The death rate is high, as many patients cannot afford the money for treatment. And though industrial pollution cannot be absolutely confirmed as the cause, there is a close link between the locations of cancer villages, factories and polluted rivers.

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 oversight.

Rivers in Crisis

A pulp and paper factory in the Pearl River Delta region.

The Yangtze River is one of China’s most legendary rivers, but today it’s known for its pollution. Meanwhile Yellow River, China’s iconic “mother river,” is severely over-exploited. Parts of the river have run dry, while the water is polluted and underground aquifers are severely stressed out.

Industrial pollution is the main threat to the Pearl River, which runs through Guangdong province, the site of China’s earliest factories. Industrial waste makes up over half of all water emptied into the Pearl River, and clean drinking water is a critical issue for this densely populated region.

Thousands of petrochemical factories are located along the Yangtze and Yellow rivers. A number of these freely dump their wastewater into the Yangtze, threatening lives and health in many villages.