The ecological effects of China’s urbanization: water pollution in Shanghai

 The problem of water pollution can be found throughout China, mainly due to agricultural and domestic waste products resulting from urbanization.  Indeed, since the late 1970s, China has been experiencing a period of economic reform and expansion accompanied by widespread urbanization.

The quality of China’s lake and river water are classified according to the country’s environmental quality standards for surface water. The ranking is organized in order of increasing pollution levels (based on the concentrations of 30 substances): from Grade I to Grade V, indicating good, fairly good, slightly polluted, poor, and hazardous.

Grade II and Grade III water are suitable for drinking, swimming, and household use; Grade IV water is acceptable for industrial use; Grade V water is only acceptable for agricultural irrigation.  There is also a category for the worst water, which is unsuitable for any use.

The map below shows the volume of the water supply (in millions of cubic meters) that does not meet the supply standards for each province. We can see that Shanghai province has more than 4000 million cubic meters, which does not conform to the Chinese environmental quality standards. According to the map, the city of Shanghai is located in one of the three worst areas in terms of water quality standards.

The map was produced by the World Bank using the Ministry of Water Resources survey data from 2000 to 2003. The multi-year coverage allows statisticians to take into account annual variations due to rainfall and other factors.

The graph shows that the percentage of water with quality levels above Category III has steadily increased, but this was the case only on remote islands and at the estuary of the Yangtze River. Within the central urban districts and most of the suburban areas, where extensive treatment and ecological rehabilitation were carried out, the percentage of water in Categories IV and V tended to decrease. However, the percentage of water classified as “the worst water” tended to increase, indicating a very sharp decline in water quality1. 

Moreover, a study carried out by the Shanghai Environmental Protection Bureau in 2001 revealed that water quality in the city centre has been improving since the 1990s. However, water quality in suburban and rural areas has deteriorated, due to the transfer of factories from the city centre to suburban and rural areas2.

Since the year 2000, a series of laws concerning environmental protection have been approved by the Chinese government. However, water pollution is still excessively high. A 1999 State Environment Protection Administration survey  revealed that 86% of the Chinese believed that poor law enforcement was the main cause of environmental degradation3. This can be explained by the “fragmented authoritarism”(( Sinkule and Ortolano, Implementing Environmental Policy in China, pp.12-19)) of the Chinese political system, which is indeed very fragmented. In actual fact, the local governments do not usually abide by the decision of the central government, considering that economic development is the main priority. Furthermore,  the environmental protection bureaus (EPBs or, in Chinese, “difang huanbaoju”) are subordinated to the local governement, which does not provide them with enough financing. As a consequence, they do not have sufficient staff to carry out their work satisfactorily.  In addition to this, the tendency in Chinese culture to save face and thus to maintain harmonious relationship with other people means that the EPBs is reluctant to impose harsh sanctions on polluting firms if the local government no longer supports them4. A Pollution Discharge Fee system was also set up, but the fees are too low. The idea is that industrial units which violate standards on emissions and effluents must pay fees for emissions. However, the municipal government of Shanghai did not want to slow down economic growth by confoming to the policies of other government agencies such as the Finance Bureau.

China’s water pollution is a major concern amongst all the environmental problems. This phenomenon concerns every area in China, and especially Shanghai. Water quality is satisfactory in the city centre, but poor in the suburban areas, as a result of the transfer of factories to these zones. Despite the environmental laws, the local government’s actions are limited by the fact that the economic growth is generated by industries.  Water pollution spreads from rivers and lakes to the coast, and from surface water to groundwater. A significant fact is that 300 million Chinese lack adequate access to clean drinking water. Most of China’s surface water is unfit for human consumption, and some is not even clean enough for industrial use. With this in mind, one wonders when China will change its destructive ways, knowing that, already, more than twenty years of intense pollution will be hard to erase.


  1. Hao Zhang Xiangrong Wanga, Hon H. Hob, Yi Yong, (2008) Eco-health evaluation for the Shanghai metropolitan area during the recent industrial transformation (1990–2003) in: Journal of Environmental Management  88: pp.1047–1055 []
  2. Ibid []
  3. Wu, Changhua and Robbins, Alicia (2000) An overview of Accountability Issues in China’s Environmental Governance,Sinosphere, Vol.3, Issue 2 p.38 []
  4. Lee, Seungho (2006), Water and Development in China: The Political Economy of Shanghai Water Policy []

Claire Behar

Research assistant on the project URBACHINA Diploma in Urban Engineering at the University of Technologie of Compiègne (U.T.C.,France) expected in 2013

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