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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


January-February 2017

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The Global Drain: Why China's Water Pollution Problems Should Matter to the Rest of the World

Chinese and international media have recently reported that more than 80% of the shallow groundwater in large parts of northern China is affected by pollution, rendering it unusable for drinking without treatment.1 This is by no means the first such report; in 2013, China's largest ever national groundwater quality survey estimated that more than half of the nation's total groundwater resource, including shallow and deep aquifers, was polluted to some degree.2 The sources of pollution include industrial waste and agricultural chemical runoff, which enter shallow aquifers predominantly by seepage from the surface, although there is also evidence of illegal waste injection directly underground using “pollution disposal wells.”3 In both of these widely publicized groundwater quality surveys the data used to determine the overall prevalence of pollution came from thousands of government monitoring wells installed around the country: a large sample size that ensures the data are statistically significant over a wide range of geographic areas. These data and other recent reports indicate that no region of China is unaffected by serious groundwater pollution. The situation is also dire with respect to surface water quality, with a large proportion of monitored rivers and lakes recently failing to meet water quality standards.4

The chronic pollution of ground and surface water in China is part of the country's broader pollution crisis that has unfolded in the early 21st century, a crisis that also affects air, soil, and food. The full scale and extent of this crisis are still unfolding, particularly with respect to soil and water pollution, for which there are less data available than for air pollution. However, there is already ample evidence that it has taken a severe toll on public health and quality of life and caused significant economic damage.5 In the last couple of years, particularly since the Central Government began its “war on pollution,” the severity of water pollution and its impacts are becoming clearer.6

A polluted stream in Hebei province, which suffers some of the worst river and shallow groundwater pollution in China.

A polluted stream in Hebei province, which suffers some of the worst river and shallow groundwater pollution in China.

Many people around the world may find the news of China's dire water pollution situation troubling, but see no clear significance outside China, nor any connection with their own lives. They perhaps believe that widespread water pollution, along with China's well-publicized air pollution, is simply the cost of sustained double-digit annual economic growth over the first decade of the 21st century. “There's a price to pay for getting rich quickly” is a common reaction to news about China's pollution crisis, which we have frequently heard expressed both within and outside China. However, the question of whether China's pollution crisis is simply a domestic issue or one with international dimensions that might warrant a global discussion about the environmental health impacts of the transnational economy is worth careful consideration.

Steel mills, smoke, and powder dust pollution in an industrial district of China.

Steel mills, smoke, and powder dust pollution in an industrial district of China.

In this essay we explore the international dimensions of China's water pollution crisis, examining the following questions:

  • 1. What role has international trade and the evolution of the globalized economy played in China's pollution crisis (particularly with respect to water pollution)?

  • 2. Who have been the major actors in this evolution, and who has been most affected (e.g., have there been “winners and losers”)?

  • 3. What are the future implications and prospects for improvement in China's water pollution situation?

Displaced Environmental Harm

Judith Shapiro has looked at these issues in her analysis of the causes of China's pollution crisis,7 highlighting the concept of “displacement of environmental harm” (in both space and time). The premise of this concept is that people who suffer the most harm from a given activity—such as energy production, manufacture of products, or disposal of wastes—may not get to enjoy the benefits, while those who do enjoy them remain geographically or otherwise separated from negative environmental and/or health consequences. The same concept is the foundation of environmental justice advocacy and scholarship, which has its strongest roots in the United States.8 Environmental justice research has shown that environmentally harmful activities disproportionately (even systematically) take place in areas of the United States where the population is predominantly African American and of low socioeconomic status—a result of what some scholars categorize as “environmental racism.”9 Flint, the city of Michigan's recent water supply disaster, is but the most recent high-profile example.10

Viewing China's pollution crisis through the lens of harm displacement/environmental justice, it can be argued that over the past couple of decades many people have enjoyed benefits—in the form of affordable consumer products made in China—while others have been left to suffer negative consequences, in the form of serious water, soil and air pollution. While many argue that people in China enjoyed an economic benefit from this trade, and therefore presumably willingly consented to it,11 a more careful examination shows this idea to be problematic, for two major reasons.

First, those who have enjoyed the greatest economic benefits in China as a result of its manufacturing boom have not necessarily been those who have suffered the major health and other environmental consequences of the associated pollution12—consequences that include increased rates of cancers and other diseases linked to pollution exposure, as well as highly compromised quality of life.13 The gap between rich and poor in China and different levels of education (including on environmental health issues) are both related factors. There are also complex dynamics at play in determining Chinese people's attitudes toward activities that may on one hand bring economic benefits, but on the other create environmental health risks.14 Second, decisions about economic and environmental policies in China are subject to tight government control, and local citizens may have very little say in (and often protest against) decisions such as where to site a factory that produces hazardous waste. Local planning decisions, often driven by the interests of local government officials, have been an ongoing source of social tension and conflict in China over the past couple of decades, and environmental health consequences of these decisions are one of the primary causes of conflicts.15

A Haka/Kejia woman doing laundry by hand in the river water in Zhanggong, Ganzhou. It is common for local people in Ganzhou to do their laundry in lakes and rivers, regardless of how clean the water.

A Haka/Kejia woman doing laundry by hand in the river water in Zhanggong, Ganzhou. It is common for local people in Ganzhou to do their laundry in lakes and rivers, regardless of how clean the water.

At the national scale, the upsurge in anger on Chinese social media over pollution issues over the past 5 years or so demonstrates that regardless of the internal dynamics, countless Chinese people feel either that they are unfairly suffering adverse health or quality-of-life impacts from pollution and have received questionable benefit in return. At the least, the public outcry shows that at the individual level, regardless of whether people feel that an adequate “trade-off” has occurred between economic growth and their health or quality of life, people feel angry that they were not informed or educated about these impacts and had no say in decisions made over many years that ultimately led to the current pollution crisis.16 News about China's pervasive pollution might in this light serve as a catalyst for those living in more affluent (and less polluted) countries to reflect on who has paid the price for globalized production supply chains and their own lifestyle choices. Perhaps there is a case to argue that the health effects of China's environmental crisis are in fact a transnational environmental justice issue, or even one of global environmental racism.

International Trade Policies and China's Pollution

China's meteoric rise in gross domestic product (GDP) growth in the late 1990s and early 2000s was a result of the Opening and Reform (Gaigekaifang) policies introduced by Deng Xiaoping beginning in 1978. Through the establishment of Special Economic Zones and other policies favorable to foreign investment, these reforms laid the basis for a flood of international joint venture projects, which imported technology and expertise from overseas, to build up a manufacturing sector that would ultimately produce everything from steel, cement, and chemicals to electronics, toys, paper, and textiles, in unprecedented volumes.17 William Kelly and Chip Jacobs's forensic investigation of the causes of China's smog epidemic notes that in a lot of instances, factory technology brought in as part of overseas joint ventures was outdated and more polluting compared with that in contemporary use abroad.18

The success of the Opening and Reform policies in stimulating economic growth required extensive bilateral cooperation, which was fostered and encouraged by foreign governments, particularly the United States, which was in a position to fundamentally shape the nature of the trade relationships underpinning China's new economic model. This was achieved through the U.S. government's annual review of China's “Most Favored Nation” status and a series of trade agreements, as well as the lending activities of institutions financed and backed by Washington, D.C., including the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. However, what coincided with the beginning of China's most supercharged decade of economic growth was China's entrance into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001. This opened the country up to unprecedented foreign investment and resulted in scores of multinational electronics manufacturers, textile and clothing brands, chemical industries, and others shifting production to China, where low wages and lax environmental regulation allowed them to slash production costs. As Elizabeth Economy argued:

Integration with the global economy, while providing some environmental benefits, has also contributed to China's new status as a destination of choice for the world's most environmentally damaging industries—petrochemical plants, semiconductor factories, and strip mining among others—and provided an insatiable global market for China's resource-intensive goods such as paper and furniture.19

Matthew Cole and his colleagues analyzed city-level economic, industrial output, and pollution emissions data, to explore the relationship between foreign investment in China and pollution intensity in the early 2000s.20 In doing so, they looked for evidence of a “pollution halo” or “pollution haven” effect, whereby foreign industries operate with greater or lesser pollution intensity than local industries, respectively. They found that over the period 2001–2004 there were particular types of emissions—notably petroleum matter in water—that were positively correlated with foreign direct investment, supporting the notion that a lack of strict environmental oversight in China had encouraged foreign investment in pollution-intensive industries there.21

Kelly and Jacobs's account documents how the Clintons—both Bill as U.S. president and Hillary as a board member for Walmart—championed and implemented these trade policies, including China's admittance to the WTO, throughout the 1990s. At the same time, the administration, through the influence of Wall Street backers, sidelined concerns from then Vice President Al Gore and others about the potential environmental and worker health and safety catastrophe that would likely ensue in China. These trade policies caused waves of job losses in American manufacturing, but the benefit (for those not sharing in the corporate profits that resulted) was that American stores—beginning with Walmart and followed by many others—were flooded with cheap goods, partly offsetting the stagnation of wage growth in the U.S. economy in this period.22

A typical urban waterway in Tianjin, China, where water quality is typically rated in the lowest grade.

A typical urban waterway in Tianjin, China, where water quality is typically rated in the lowest grade.

One only need look at the data for energy intensity and carbon emissions growth in the early 2000s to see just how massive China's manufacturing boom in the years following admittance to the WTO was. Between 2000 and 2007, China's volume of exports grew by 390%,23 while at the same time, CO2 emissions rose from a steady or slightly declining level in 2000–2001—just under 3,000 million metric tonnes—to more than 6,000 million metric tonnes in 2007–2008, catapulting it ahead of the United States as the world's leading emitter of CO2. The single fastest yearly increase—an additional 1,000 million metric tonnes compared to the previous year—occurred in 2003–2004.24 Cole and his colleagues' analysis found that rising per-capita GDP and income levels during this period clearly correlated positively with emissions of both water and air pollutants in China's cities. The process of transforming the world's economy into one that centered on energy-intensive and polluting manufacture of consumer goods in China, in large part for export to the rest of the world, was so profound that by 2014, China—one single country—had become responsible for 50% of the world's total coal consumption. Along with the huge spike in CO2 emissions, levels of many other harmful atmospheric pollutants (such as sulfur and nitrogen oxides, and airborne particulate matter) also rose: a rise that is demonstrably related to increased manufacture of goods for export.25

While coal burning is only directly responsible for water pollution in areas where it is mined (which indeed represent extensive areas of northern China), it is the wastes generated by intensive manufacturing industries that use the energy from coal—such as textile and electronics factories and petrochemical plants—that have contaminated many of the river basins and shallow aquifers in China's vast manufacturing districts. This wastewater is typically rich in ammonia, heavy metals, and other toxic organic and inorganic by-products. In many cases wastewater was first discharged into rivers or unlined canals (often illegally), before ultimately seeping into adjacent and underlying aquifers, contaminating groundwater.26

The global economic model engineered by international trade agreements therefore meant that the everyday consumption habits of affluent people around the world became inextricably linked to China's manufacturing sector, and therefore to its pollution crisis. Anyone not convinced by this need only look into how and where an iPhone—or just about any other consumer product or piece of clothing they own—was manufactured, then examine investigative reports about environmental noncompliance by countless Chinese manufacturers who supply these products (and their parts) to the world.27 This is despite recent moves by some industries to “offshore” into alternate jurisdictions (e.g., the shift in manufacture of textiles to south Asia), and recognition that China has itself begun the process of encouraging some of its most polluting enterprises to shift overseas.28

A garbage-filled harbor on the island of Cheung Chau is home to many fishermen who ply the local waters.

A garbage-filled harbor on the island of Cheung Chau is home to many fishermen who ply the local waters.

Al Gore's uneasiness about the potential health and environmental violations that would accompany the “Walmart model” of economic globalization proved well founded when it became clear that China's waterways and air were suffering catastrophic levels of pollution. While there have been much research literature and many news stories focused on pollution in China in recent years, the issue that perhaps resonates most deeply is the emergence of hundreds of “cancer villages” throughout the country.29 In these villages, rates of morbidity and/or mortality from cancer are many times higher than national averages. Particular types of cancer that are otherwise relatively rare, such as those of the stomach, esophagus, and liver, which are clearly linked to water pollution, proliferate in these villages.30 The emergence of cancer villages catalyzed the collective realization in China that pollution is not simply something that impacts the environment from an aesthetic point of view, but is a matter of life and death.31 The five leading causes of cancer death in China are now cancers of the lung, stomach, liver, esophagus, and colorectum32—the first of which can be linked to air pollution (and smoking), and the next three to water pollution.

Local Collaboration

The common denominator for the many different industries engaged in the practice of offshore production based in China with little environmental oversight is that the Chinese-based enterprises conducting polluting manufacturing activities have always needed to operate hand-in-hand with, or at least with consent from, Chinese government officials. These officials were keen to profit from the new trade arrangements following Deng's reforms, and had the power to ensure that environmental and worker health and safety regulations need not be strictly enforced at production facilities supplying goods and parts for multinationals and/or international markets. Elizabeth Economy has argued that the decision by Beijing to delegate control of local economic development projects—often achieved through international joint ventures—to the provinces was fundamental in laying the foundation for the environmental degradation accompanying China's economic boom:

Without a strong, independent environmental protection apparatus, the devolution of authority to provincial and local officials has given them free rein to concentrate their energies on economic growth, pushing aside environmental considerations with few consequences from the centre [the Chinese Central Government].33

That American political and multinational corporate architects of the globalized economic system largely washed their hands of responsibility for the problem, citing local official corruption as a convenient cover for their role in China's environmental crisis, can be seen as a missed opportunity in the quest for global sustainable development, and a tragedy for many ordinary Chinese. Kelly and Jacobs describe vividly how cautionary voices in the United States warned that without environmental and labor rights protections, the trade deals being designed by the administration during the 1990s would lead to untold damage to China's environment and worker health. This concurred with research at the time by environmental economists, warning that a globalized economy with unequal income distribution risked stimulating local and global increases in pollution emissions.34 Yet these voices were sidelined, and the impassioned rhetoric from Gore about the need for the United States to champion sustainability in the developing world was never matched with concrete provisions or regulatory oversight.35

A petrochemical plant in China.

A petrochemical plant in China.


What Lies Beneath: A Memory Not Easily Erased

It can therefore be argued that many people living outside China bear at least some responsibility for its pollution crisis, whether by arguing against environmental safeguards as a condition of free trade agreements, or simply through their buying habits. At the same time, people may also think that the pollution will eventually disappear, as China reaches a new stage of development. There is still a widespread belief that a country can “get rich (and polluted) first, and clean-up later.”36 While this idea has validity in some contexts,37 for example, with reference to certain air pollutants, which dissipate relatively quickly and can be reduced rapidly with pollution control technology, it is less true with respect to water pollution—particularly groundwater.

Pollution of groundwater is one of the most serious environmental health issues in China, as approximately two-thirds of cities utilize it for some (or all) of their drinking supply. Groundwater is particularly important in the relatively arid northern parts of China, where surface water is less abundant. Pollution of groundwater is typically a “top-down” process, in that most pollutants begin at the land surface, for example, in unlined wastewater canals, storage ponds, or shallow underground tanks. These migrate downward through the soil, recharging underlying aquifers either directly as liquid pollution (e.g., petroleum fuels, industrial solvents, or contaminated wastewater) and/or through leaching of solid pollutants by infiltrating rainwater. Seepage from polluted streams and the reverse process, whereby polluted groundwater seeps back into rivers and lakes, are also important mechanisms.38

Unlike surface water systems, where flow of water (and any dissolved pollutants) can be readily observed, predicted, and intercepted, groundwater contamination behaves according to complicated physical and chemical processes, and its behavior can be difficult to track. In general, the deeper pollution propagates and the more complicated the geological conditions, the harder it is to clean up, through remediation techniques like pump-and-treat or reactive barriers. For these reasons, groundwater is notoriously difficult and slow to clean up, and the energy and monetary costs to achieve modest gains in groundwater quality are high. This is based on decades of experience trying to remediate Superfund sites in the United States, where groundwater pollution was first given serious attention in the 1970s.39

The recent data on China's groundwater quality from the Ministry of Land and Resources and Ministry of Water Resources indicate that the majority of groundwater in shallow aquifers falls into the two lowest water quality classes in China's national water quality standard. These data indicate that it is not easy to flush away the physical and chemical remnants of mass-scale pollution. In one sense, the aquifers below the ground, which every year collect the runoff that never makes it to the ocean, can be seen as a large environmental “memory bank” of the world's economic system. That is, shallow aquifers that receive seepage from above become a huge underground record of what has taken place at the surface over the preceding years—driven by the dynamics of domestic and international economic policies. Because groundwater is generally slow-moving, often taking decades, centuries, or longer to migrate from its source to its ultimate destination,40 water and chemical pollution from the surface accumulates and remains preserved, albeit in a mixed and diluted form, long after many people believe it to be “out of sight, out of mind.”

In fact, the full scale and damage from China's groundwater pollution problem may still only be beginning to manifest, in terms of both water quality and human health. The pollutants in China's aquifers will in many instances ultimately resurface as groundwater discharge into wetlands, rivers, and the coastline or, perhaps more worryingly, make their way downward into deeper aquifers, which are generally seen as safer sources of drinking water in China.41 While it is true to some degree that the deeper a well is drilled, the less likely it is to be impacted by surface pollution, there are some worrying trends that indicate this may not always provide an assurance of clean water supply.

Research we carried out between 2010 and 2014 has found that in some aquifer systems, high concentrations of nitrate—a common “indicator pollutant” that does not normally occur naturally in deep groundwater—occur in many deep wells (hundreds of meters deep) in northern China.42 In some cases, this nitrate is accompanied by the environmental isotope tritium, which is an indicator that the water is “young,” having been in recent contact with the surface atmosphere.43 These data indicate that the phenomenon of “bypass flow” is occurring in some places, allowing contaminants from the surface to be rapidly transported to deep aquifers. This process can be facilitated either by natural geologic features—such as faults—or, more likely, due to a human-made conduit, such as a poorly constructed or maintained well, which connects shallow and deep aquifers (e.g., Figure 1). It is estimated that in northern China alone, more than 4 million wells have been drilled since the groundwater boom of the 1960s and 1970s;44 however, only some tens of thousands are registered, let alone monitored and maintained. As wells get older, they are increasingly vulnerable to failure, posing a risk of causing bypass flow of pollutants into precious high-quality deep groundwater reserves. A program of identifying, monitoring, and maintaining deep wells is therefore urgently needed in China to stop the pollution crisis from spreading deeper.

Figure 1.

Mechanism by which faulty wells can allow shallow contaminants to bypass into deep aquifers, compromising water supply safety. China has millions of unregistered wells that may act in this way, and depends on deep aquifers for much of its drinking water.

In terms of human health, the ultimate impacts of China's pollution crisis may also be yet to fully manifest. Last year, the World Health Organization warned that cancer rates were rising “ferociously” in China, which now accounts for approximately 27% of the world's cancer deaths (but approximately 20% of its total population). In terms of cancers that can be linked to water pollution, the recent data are particularly disturbing—in 2012, approximately 50% of the newly diagnosed liver and esophagus cancer cases in the world, and 40% of stomach cancers, occurred in China.45 It is these particular cancers that are most closely linked to water pollution exposure, as was shown in a World Bank and State Environmental Protection Agency study in 2007, and in subsequent epidemiological studies of the Huai River basin.46 How such cancer rates evolve through time and for how long the health impacts of water pollution continue to manifest in the Chinese population may not be clear for many years.

An aging fisherman throws his net on the Li River in China.

An aging fisherman throws his net on the Li River in China.



Countless Chinese people have had their health and livelihoods destroyed by the pollution crisis of the early 21st century. This crisis can to some degree be attributed to the displacement of environmental harm across transnational boundaries, as Shapiro proposed, and as discussed in this article. It can therefore be argued that China's many cancer victims should stir the conscience of those at the top of multinational corporations and their political allies—such as recent U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton—who have derived great benefit from the “Walmart” economic model of this period, but who were unaffected by or actively downplayed its negative consequences in China. Similarly, seen in this light, China's pollution-related cancer victims might perhaps stir the hearts of ordinary people living in affluent nations, causing them to think more carefully about the true costs of purchasing choices and consumer lifestyles.

While China's central leadership trumpeted the astonishing economic growth figures during the early years of the 21st century, and used them to enhance their legitimacy and improve national pride, there are many other voices—like the victims in China's cancer villages—who have simply been ignored by their leaders. Throughout the 2000s, tens of thousands of local protest actions have taken place in response to environmental pollution issues. This number of incidents and the recent outcry on Chinese social media over pollution clearly indicate that the conception—common outside China—that Chinese people were happy to accept environmental damage accompanying the economic benefits of globalization is a myth. I am often surprised to hear Chinese and non-Chinese colleagues alike explain China's pollution crisis by saying that “The Chinese” simply decided to trade off the environment for the sake of economic growth, as if 1.3 billion people could somehow be cognizant of the potential adverse consequences of that growth and collectively decide (in an authoritarian regime, no less) that it was a choice worth making.

In terms of near-term prospects for improvement in China's water quality crisis, the elevation of pollution to the top of the Chinese Central Government's policy agenda (signaled by Premier Li Keqiang's “declaration of war” on pollution) may give cause for cautious optimism. In the last 2 years the government has in succession released three far-reaching policies, known as the “10-point plans,” to tackle air, water, and soil pollution, respectively. This has been coupled with increased powers afforded to the Ministry for Environmental Protection, harsher penalties for environmental noncompliance, and funding for pollution control and remediation technologies. This was followed with provisions in the recent 13th 5-year plan, provisions that aim to curb the energy intensity (and in some cases absolute output) of particularly polluting sectors, such as steel making and coal mining. There are promising signs already with respect to the impact of these policies on air pollution—smog and particulate levels have declined modestly in 2016 in many cities. However, with respect to the analogous 10-point plan for water, after initial optimism, confusion has begun to emerge as local governments and Environment Protection Bureaus begin its implementation. A number of experts, including China's most famous environmentalist Ma Jun, have pointed out that the plan can't be implemented, nor can its targets be achieved, without a comprehensive and transparent platform for collection and reporting of water quality data at the local level.47

In terms of future global implications of China's water pollution crisis, there is strong evidence that the “pollution haven” model that was predicted by some scholars to accompany trade globalization indeed materialized in China, with profound environmental, health, and social effects. Whether wealthy countries—and China itself, which is now investing heavily in resources and infrastructure projects around the world—will continue to perpetuate this model will be one of the critical global environmental sustainability questions of the coming decades. There are opportunities to learn from China's pollution crisis, and set new standards for international trade relationships based on equitable sharing of economic and environmental benefits and costs.


1. The data were originally published in the Chinese Ministry of Water Resources Monthly Groundwater Bulletin and formed the basis for numerous media reports, e.g., C. Buckley and V. Piao, “China Says 80% of Tested Wells Had Water Too Polluted to Drink,” The New York Times, April 12, 2016:

2. These data were published in the bulletins of the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Ministry of Land and Resources in 2014, and widely reported in the media, e.g., Xinhua, “China's Underground Water Quality Worsens: Report,” Xinhua News, April 22, 2014:

3. G. Shengke, X. Jing, and H. Tao, “Pumping pollution into China's groundwater” China Dialogue, May 29, 2014:

4. For example, based on the China Environmental Status Bulletin of the Ministry of Environmental protection released in 2014, more than 30% of monitored locations in China's major river basins showed water quality at class 4 or below, according to the 6-grade water quality ranking system.

5. World Bank and State Environment Protection Administration, The Cost of Pollution in China: Economic Estimates of Physical Damages (Washington, DC: The World Bank, 2007).

6. For example, the Ministry of Water Resources bulletin is one of the first public documents of its kind, showing detailed groundwater pollution data in subregions of northern China: Ministry of Water Resources of the People's Republic of China, China Groundwater Status Monthly Report—Northern Plains (Beijing, China: January 2016). Available at (in Chinese)

7. J. Shapiro, “Environmental Justice and the Displacement of Environmental Harm,” in J. Shapiro, China's Environmental Challenges (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2012), 135–66.

8. David Konisky recently published an analysis of the current status of Environmental justice in environmental policies and governance institutions in the United States: D. Konisky, “Environmental Justice Delayed: Failed Promises, Hope for the Future,” Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development 58, no. 2 (2016): 4–15.

9. The seminal work on the topic is R.D. Bullard, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000).

10. Bullard cites the Flint situation as the latest example of environmental racism in the United States in a recent interview:

11. For example, see N. Gilbert, “Green Protests on the Rise in China,” Nature 488 (2012): 261–62.

12. A. Lora-Wainwright, “How the Rich Escape the Burden of Pollution in China and the US,” China Dialogue, April 4, 2014:

13. A link has been established between long-term exposure to water pollution and cancers of the digestive system in China, as documented in: World Bank and State Environment Protection Administration, The Cost of Pollution in China: Economic Estimates of Physical Damages (Washington, DC: The World Bank, 2007); A. Ebenstein, “The Consequences of Industrialization: Evidence From Water Pollution and Digestive Cancers in China,” The Review of Economics and Statistics 94, no. 1 (2012): 186–201; and G. Yang and D. Zhuang, eds., Atlas of the Huai River Basin Water Environment: Digestive Cancer Mortality (Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2014).

14. See for example, Y. Deng and G. Yang, “Pollution and Protest in China: Environmental Mobilization in Context,” China Quarterly 214 (2013): 321–36.

15. For example, B. van Rooij, “The People vs. Pollution: Understanding Citizen Action Against Pollution in China,” Journal of Contemporary China 19, no. 63 (2010): 55–77.

16. Anna Lora-Wainwright has explored the individualisation of concern over environmental pollution and the emergence of “lay epidemiology” as a response: A. Lora-Wainwright, “The Inadequate Life: Rural Industrial Pollution and Lay Epidemiology in China,” China Quarterly 214 (2013): 302–20.

17. E. Economy. “The Economic Explosion and Its Environmental Cost,” in E. Economy, The River Runs Black, 2nd ed. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010), 59–94; M. A. Cole, R. J. R., Elliott, and S. Wu, “Industrial Activity and the Environment in China: An Industry-Level Analysis,” China Economic Review 19 (2008): 393–408.

18. W. J. Kelly and C. Jacobs, The People's Republic of Chemicals (Los Angeles, CA: Rare Bird Books, 2014).

19. E. Economy, “The Economic Explosion and Its Environmental Cost,” in E. Economy, The River Runs Black, 2nd ed. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press), 59–94.

20. M. A. Cole, R. J. R. Elliott, and J. Zhang, “Growth, Foreign Direct Investment and the Environment: Evidence From Chinese Cities,” Journal of Regional Science 51, no. 1 (2011): 121–38.

21. Seminal studies on the relationship between trade and pollution by Brian Copeland and M. Scott Taylor posited that international trade between richer and poorer nations had an inherent tendency to increase pollution in the latter, and even increase total world pollution under certain circumstances: B. R. Copeland and M. S. Taylor, “North–South Trade and the Global Environment,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 109 (1994): 755–87; B. R. Copeland and M. S. Taylor, International Trade and the Environment: A Framework for Analysis (NBER Working Paper 8540) (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2001).

22. W. J. Kelly and C. Jacobs “Making Hay in Arkansas,” in W. J. Kelly and C. Jacobs, The People's Republic of Chemicals (Los Angeles CA: Rare Bird Books, 2014)

23. J. Lin et al., “China's International Trade and Air Pollution in the United States,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 111, no. 5 (2014): 1736–41.

24. EDGARv4.3, European Commission, Joint Research Centre (JRC)/PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency: Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR), release version 4.3. Available at (accessed 6 May 2016).

25. Lin et al., note 23.

26. Ma Jun documented the unfolding pollution catastrophe in China's rivers in the 1990s in his book: M. Jun, China's Water Crisis (Norwalk, CT: East Bridge: Voices of Asia, 2004). Ma also formed the Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), which began compiling and providing water pollution data on publicly accessible online maps: The IPE has since published numerous investigations into the water pollution generated by the global electronics and textile industry's supply chains in China's river and lake basins:

27. The IPE produced a series of investigative reports into water pollution from the global electronics supply chain, which it presented to Apple and other tech companies in 2012–2013. The response has been somewhat encouraging, although as demand for these products continues to rise, environmental compliance and supply-chain auditing are often relegated as secondary considerations; e.g., J. Chan, N. Pun, and M. L. Selden, “Dying for an iPhone: The Lives of Chinese Workers,” China Dialogue, April 15, 2016,

28. For example, S. Silbert, “Province Near Beijing Aims to Move Polluting Factories Overseas,” Los Angeles Times, November 19, 2014:

29. This is extensively documented in L. Liu, “Made in China: Cancer Villages,” Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development 52, no. 2 (2010): 8–21, and M.S. Gong and F. Zhang, “Temporal-Spatial Distribution Changes of Cancer Villages in China,” China Population & Environment Research 23 (2013): 156–64. Gong and Zhang's analysis led to them call the first decade of the 21st century “China's decade of cancer.”

30. The studies completed by Yang Gonghuan and her research team on cancer rates in the Huai River basin showed that rates of cancer mortality and morbidity increased from below national averages in the 1970s to more than seven times the average rates in the 2000s in some tributary areas of China's Huai River. See G. Yang and D. Zhuang, note 13. In this region, groundwater and surface water are intimately connected, and many villages utilized shallow wells for years while the region was being impacted by severe pollution.

31. To underscore this point, I recommend viewing the documentary film “The Warriors of Qiugang”:

32. W. Chen et al., “Cancer statistics in China, 2015,” CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians 66, no. 2 (2016): 115–32.

33. E. Economy, “The Economic Explosion and Its Environmental Cost,” in E. Economy, The River Runs Black, 2nd ed. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010), 59–94.

34. For example, the Copeland and Taylor paper from 1994 (note 21).

35. W. J. Kelly and C. Jacobs, “Making Hay in Arkansas,” in W.J. Kelly and C. Jacobs, The People's Republic of Chemicals (Los Angeles CA: Rare Bird Books, 2014).

36. For example, The Economist, “The East Is Grey,” The Economist, August 10, 2013:

37. The 2011 study by Matthew Cole and others (see note 21) found some evidence of an “environmental Kuznets curve” in China; however, during the period covered by their data, income levels were far below the predicted “turning point.”

38. For further information about interactions between surface and groundwater, see T. C. Winter, J. W. Harvey, O. L. Franke, and W. M. Alley, Ground Water and Surface Water: A Single Resources, U.S. Geological Survey, Circular 1139 (Denver, CO, 1998).

39. D. I. Siegal, “On the Effectiveness of Remediating Groundwater Contamination: Waiting for the Black Swan,” Groundwater 52, no. 4 (2014): 488–90.

40. C. M. Bethke and T. M. Johnson, “Groundwater Age and Groundwater Age Dating,” Annual Reviews in Earth and Planetary Sciences 36 (2008): 121–52.

41. For example, Ma Jun, when interviewed in the recent New York Times story (see note 1), was quick to point out that relatively few people now draw groundwater from shallow, polluted aquifers for potable use, instead drawing from deeper wells. The Ministry of Water Resources also stressed this point in a press release following news reports on the pollution data:

42. M. J. Currell et al., “Recharge History and Controls on Groundwater Quality in the Yuncheng Basin, North China,” Journal of Hydrology 385, no. 1 (2010): 216–29; D. M. Han et al., “Using Cholofluorocarbons (CFCs) and Tritium to Improve Conceptual Model of Groundwater Flow in the South Coast Aquifers of Laizhou Bay, China,” Hydrological Processes 26, no. 23 (2012): 3614–29; M. J. Currell et al., “Sustainability of Groundwater Usage in Northern China: Dependence on Palaeowaters and Effects on Water Quality, Quantity and Ecosystem Health,” Hydrological Processes 26, no. 26 (2012): 4050–66.

43. T. Gleeson et al., “The Global Volume and Distribution of Modern Groundwater,” Nature Geoscience 9 (2016): 161–67.

44. D. Shen, “Groundwater Management in China,” Water Policy 17 (2015): 61–82.

45. The data were published in the WHO's 2014 World Cancer Report, and reported in the South China Morning Post: L. Jing, “China the Hardest Hit by Global Surge in Cancer, Says WHO Report,” South China Morning Post, February 7, 2014:

46. World Bank and State Environment Protection Administration, The Cost of Pollution in China: Economic Estimates of Physical Damages (Washington, DC: The World Bank, 2007); A. Ebenstein, “The Consequences of Industrialization: Evidence From Water Pollution and Digestive Cancers in China,” The Review of Economics and Statistics 94, no. 1 (2012): 186–201; and G. Yang and D. Zhuang, note 13.

47. L. Qin, “Clear as Mud: How Poor Data Is Thwarting China's Water Clean-Up,” China Dialogue, May 18, 2016:

Matthew J. Currell is in the School of Engineering at RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.

Dongmei Han is at the Key Laboratory of Water Cycle & Related Land Surface Processes at the Institute for Geographical Sciences and Natural Resources Research at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, China.       

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