China: Keeping the Water and Environment Clean in the Qiantang River Basin

February 29, 2016

  • Small towns in China have inadequate environmental services due to lack of infrastructure.
  • Investments in water, wastewater and solid waste facilities benefit residents in the Qiantang River Basin.
  • A project demonstrates how to deliver environmental services in small towns.

Qiantang River is the largest river in China’s Zhejiang Province, providing drinking water for most of the 15 million people living in the river basin. It is called the “Mother River” of Zhejiang.

In the last few decades, with rapid economic growth, huge volumes of untreated wastewater and solid waste were dumped into the river, polluting the water and environment. This in turn poses a serious threat to the living conditions and the safety of drinking water of a large number of urban and rural residents.

While larger cities have made good progress in improving environmental services in recent years, small towns are lagging behind. Water supply is estimated to be safe in only 29% of Zhejiang’s small towns. Wastewater treatment coverage rate in small towns is only 26%. Sanitary solid waste disposal facilities are almost non-existent.

In 2011, with World Bank support, the Zhejiang Qiantang River Basin Small Town Environment Project was launched to improve the environment in the Qiantang River Basin. The project invested in building water supply, wastewater collection and treatment, and solid waste facilities in 22 small towns and two urban districts. 

Providing safe drinking water

Zhuji City, located in the middle of the Qiantang River Basin, is known as the world’s largest producer of socks. In 2014 alone, 25.8 billion pairs of socks and tights were produced in the city.

Population growth has increased demand for water and put a strain on the existing water supply. Residents in some areas of Zhuji had no access to tap water. Where there was, it would be inadequate or intermittent due to low water pressure.

Financed by the project, the Qingshan Water Treatment Plant was built and went into operation in 2014. It supplies water to more than 200,000 residents in four towns under Zhuji City. 

Yang Lihong is a resident of Shangyu Village of Caota Town. Tap water has made her life much easier.  “We used to drink well water. It had germs. Tap water is clean. It is also more convenient to wash clothes with tap water,” said Yang.

For the 1,800 residents in Lingshui Village in the same town, it also means lower health risks.  “We used to drink water from the well and the river. It’s not safe. People got cancer and diarrhea. With the new water plant, we get safe drinking water, and villagers are happy,” said Qi Guochu, the village headman.

Businesses also benefit from the improved water supply. Socks manufacturer Datang Dongfangyuan Co., has 500 employees. Getting water to the higher floors of this factory used to be a problem. “Now we get water even on the sixth floor, with no need for a pressure pump. The water flow is also more stable,” said Wang Xubing, the company’s administrative manager.

" The project has effectively improved the environment and quality of life for the people, and given strong support to Zhejiang’s economic and social development. "

Zhao Ke

Deputy Director of Zhejiang’s Housing and Urban-rural Construction Department

Cleaning up an old town

Youbu is an old town with a long history. It was a bustling trading port several hundred years ago when goods were shipped along the Qiantang River.

The Youbu Creek flows through the old town. Five stone bridges over the Youbu Creek date back to the Qing Dynasty. The local people live on both sides of the creek, and their homes are built in a Chinese traditional style with white walls and grey-tile roofs.

The creek became polluted in recent years. Because the town did not have wastewater treatment facilities, untreated residential wastewater was discharged directly into it.  The water turned black and emitted a foul odor. The banks were littered with household garbage and other debris.

With support from the project, Youbu Town’s first wastewater treatment plant went into operation in 2013. It can treat up to 5,000 tons of wastewater a day.

Luo Jingen is an old resident of Youbu. His family has lived here for generations. “Youbu Creek used to be clean. I grew up drinking its water. In recent years it was polluted by factories upstream. Now it is clean again and there’s no more stench,” said Luo.

Work was also carried out to clean up the creek bed and the environment, reinforce the old bridges, and beautify the creek banks. The uneven, garbage-ridden streets were paved with slab stones.  Electric wires, water pipes and rainwater drainage were buried underground. 

Chen Ling, a 23 year-old college graduate, is a newcomer. With her father’s support, Chen bought an old soy sauce brewery in Youbu a couple of years ago. She is trying to rejuvenate the century-old brand with her modern business management knowledge. 

Chen is happy with all the improvements. “The street outside the front of our shop used to be very bad. And it was hard for customers to find us. Now there’s stone pavement, and the street is clean and clear. More customers come to visit us,” she said.

Xia Wuchun, owner of a teahouse on the old street, feels the same. Her old teahouse is a favorite place for the people who have kept up the custom of drinking morning tea. “The street is cleaner, and the environment along the creek is nicer. More people come, and business is getting better,” said Xia.

The old town of Youbu is poised to attract more tourists and regain its vitality.

Modernizing solid waste management

Jiande, located at the upstream of the Qiantang River, is a relatively new city. It boasts the Xin'anjiang Hydropower Station, China's first large-scale hydropower plant built in the late 1950s. Many of the first residents in Jiande City were relocated farmers and families of the workers who constructed the hydropower plant.

Xi’anjiang River is a major source of drinking water for Hangzhou, the provincial capital city. Protecting the water source from contamination from liquid and solid waste is a top priority.

Jiande City had one sanitary landfill serving its core urban area. However, the solid waste generated in towns and townships further away from the core city could only be burned or disposed in open dumps.

A modern sanitary landfill, with a tertiary leachate treatment plant, went into operation in Meicheng Town in 2013, under the Qiantang River Basin Small Towns Environment Project.

 “The Meicheng Landfill occupies a total area of 19.33 hectares. It provides nearly 200,000 people in seven towns of Jiande City with solid waste disposal,” said Zhu Liping, Deputy Manager. “The treatment technologies are nationally advanced, including a five-layer anti-seepage system in the landfill. Leachate is directed to a storage tank and then treated in the treatment plant until it meets the requited national standards for discharge,” she said.

At the same time, three existing open dumps were closed, covered with soil and replanted with trees and grass.  This was welcomed by people living in nearby neighborhoods, including 80-year-old Wu Zhanglin. “I live behind the open dump. Before it was closed, there were many flies and mosquitos. The stench was very strong at night. Now it is ok,” Wu said.

Closure of the open dumps also sets an example of solid waste management for small towns.  

Informing policymaking

To date, two water treatment plants, three wastewater treatment plants, and one sanitary landfill have been completed. The expansion of one wastewater treatment plant is ongoing. The Qiantang River Basin Small Towns Environment Project is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2016.

In addition to infrastructure, the project helped establish a sustainable environmental service delivery model in the towns involved, and informed government’s policymaking. For example, the project provided evidence for wastewater pricing and demonstrated how to implement wastewater service charges, according to Shi Weizhong, head of the provincial project management office.

 “The project has effectively improved the environment and quality of life for the people, and given strong support to Zhejiang’s economic and social development,” said Zhao Ke, a deputy director of Zhejiang’s housing and urban-rural construction department. “On the basis of this project, we will continue our efforts to ensure cleaner water, a better environment, and a higher quality of life for all,” he said.