World Water Day is upon us once again and the theme for 2017 is “Wastewater”. With population growth and rapid urbanisation, the volume of wastewater discharge has increased globally and is now between 260-450 billion tonnes. This is comparable to the annual flow of the Pearl River (340 billion tonnes).
“There is no such thing as wastewater; only water wasted”
King Willem Alexander of the Netherlands, 2012 World Water Day celebrations
But this is not necessarily a bad thing. “There is no such thing as wastewater; only water wasted”, as King Willem Alexander of the Netherlands remarked at the World Water Day celebrations of 2012. We should therefore think of wastewater as a resource; not as a burden.
Wastewater can actually be a potentially affordable and sustainable source of water, energy and nutrients with proper treatment and re-use. Treated wastewater, for instance, can be used to irrigate farmland and improve food security.
Over 80% of wastewater generated globally is still untreated or re-used
At the moment, over 80% of the wastewater generated globally flows back into the ecosystem without being treated or reused. On average, high-income countries treat about 70% of their wastewater; while only 8% is treated in low-income countries.
By 2030, the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 6.3 requires us to “halve the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increase recycling and safe reuse globally.”
Having declared a war on pollution in 2014, what is the status of China’s wastewater? What is being done to make it good to the last drop?
Urban wastewater in China – from discharge to treatment
First, a quick background of China’s wastewater situation, past and present. China’s total wastewater discharge has steadily risen between 2000 and 2015. In 2015, the total discharge volume reached 73.5 billion tonnes – almost double the reservoir capacity (39.3 billion tonnes) of the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest dam.
China’s wastewater discharge volume is almost double the storage capacity of the Three Gorges Dam
Interestingly, domestic discharge has gradually overtaken industrial wastewater discharge in China. In 2004, domestic discharge accounted for 54% of total wastewater volume. By 2014, this share had risen to 71%.
On the one hand, this may be due to China’s fast pace of urbanisation. On the other, under-reporting of industrial wastewater could be an explanation.
Wastewater is a sustainable resource only after treatment, and treatment is certainly on the rise in China. Between 2010 and 2015, urban wastewater treatment facility capacity rose by 46% to 182 million tonnes. Between 2010 and 2014, more than 1,600 facilities were put into operation.1
These trends indicate that China has progressively stepped up its wastewater treatment efforts. For more on this see our review “8 Facts on China’s Wastewater“.
As of 2014, only 10% of treated wastewater was re-used
That said, there is still work to be done. For instance, a gap between processing capacity and actual treatment still persists, which could be a sign of insufficient wastewater collection. Moreover, only 10% of treated wastewater was re-used as of 2014. How is China planning to push forward?
13FYP – collect more, treat more, re-use more
China is pushing for a new norm in which more collection and treatment of wastewater is encouraged. More significantly, re-using wastewater as reclaimed water is also highly promoted. These aims are encapsulated in the ‘13th Five Year Plan (FYP) on National Urban Wastewater Treatment and Re-Use Infrastructure Construction’ released in December 2016 (see table below).
For 2020, China is aiming for a wastewater treatment rate of at least 70% for most urban areas, which will include towns for the first time. This target will be supported by a planned 23% increase in urban wastewater treatment capacity. In addition, wastewater collection is also likely to improve with 125,900km of pipe network to be added by 2020 – this is more than enough to encircle the whole of Russia!
For reclaimed water use, there are new and stringent targets for specific regions which were not in place in the 12FYP. The Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region and water-scarce cities are required to meet re-use rates of ≥30% and ≥20% by 2020 respectively. In comparison, the target for other cities and counties is lower at 15%.
Furthermore, the 13FYP is driving a significant increase in reclaimed water use capacity. By 2020, total facility capacity is required to reach 41.6 million tonnes/day – a 56% increase from the 2015 baseline.
Reclaimed water use capacity to increase 56% from 2015 to 2020
To put this into perspective, if the 2020 capacity target is achieved and 50% utilised, China will be reusing nearly triple the volume of water resources available to Beijing in 2015.2 Check out our review “8 Things About Water Recycling” for more.
13FYP total investment for urban wastewater is ~RMB564bn
The 13FYP targets are certainly ambitious and will require a lot of money. The investment amount needed for urban wastewater treatment and reclaimed water use infrastructure is estimated to total RMB564 billion (USD82 billion). This amount is 31% higher than the 12FYP estimate and is more than the projected 13FYP investment for China’s hydropower development (RMB500 billion).
The map below shows that investment is needed where wastewater discharge is highest, namely Guangdong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang.
As we have explored previously, the PPP model is a cooperation between the government and private capital over infrastructure and public services. As of 2016, up to RMB240 billion has been invested into wastewater-related PPP projects. The Ministry of Finance has even stated that all new wastewater projects should now follow the PPP model.
What about industrial wastewater?
China is not just showing strong intent to turn its urban wastewater into a resource. It is also looking to do the same for industrial wastewater, which currently accounts for around 23% of China’s reclaimed water use.
Reclaimed water use in industry also promoted e.g. power sector
The 13FYP recommends that reclaimed water use should be prioritised in projects which use a lot of water that does not need to be of high quality, particularly in industrial, irrigation and dyeing sectors. For some sectors however, this is nothing new.
For the power sector, it was already declared back in 2015 in the ‘Water Pollution Prevention & Control Action Plan’ (“Water Ten”) that no new water use permits will be issued for thermal power plants that do not fully utilise the potential of reclaimed water.
There have been indications of success. A study found that reclaimed water from wastewater treatment plants accounted for 58% of water withdrawal quotas issued for new coal power plants in the Yellow River Basin during 2009-2014. For more on reclaimed water use in the power sector check out our review “Unconventional Water For Power Generation“.
Challenges lie ahead – but the tide on wastewater is turning
Beyond the 13FYP’s grand ambitions there are practical challenges to be overcome. In northern cities, leakage from the pipe network is causing inefficient wastewater collection and transport. In southern cities, groundwater is leaking into the pipe network and affecting the quality of the treated water.
Challenges include leakage, low reclaimed water quality & low rural treatment rates
Furthermore, comprehensive guidelines for wastewater re-use projects are still lacking in China while reclaimed water quality requirements remain incoherent. Reclaimed water is therefore often low in quality and can cause operational problems. Moreover, rural wastewater is still relatively neglected, with treatment rates at 22%.
Despite these challenges, we remain optimistic. With the 13FYP, the tide is turning with wastewater treatment and re-use in China as the government is showing strong intent to act and tackle upcoming challenges.
This is a far-cry from previous attitudes to wastewater and is in line with the push for a “Beautiful China“. Even “side-effects” of wastewater treatment such as carbon emissions are being addressed. Wastewater as a sustainable resource is certainly on the agenda and there is room for optimism.
We need to give wastewater a new lease of life, “再生水”
Just like the Chinese noun for reclaimed water – “再生水”, literally “reborn water”, we need to give wastewater a new lease of life. Wastewater can be a precious resource and is good to the last drop. Happy World Water Day!
1Data for 2015 not yet available at the time of publishing
2Data from the National Bureau of Statistics of China
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