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Industry Outlook

China’s Wastewater Treatment Industry

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.


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.


After 30 years of rapid urbanization, China’s city dwellers outnumber its farmers. Today around 52% of China’s people live in its cities. By 2025, the Chinese government plans for this figure to rise to 70%. This shift has so far not only created a raft of complex and unenviable problems for social and economic planners, but it presents a number of pressing environmental questions. How would 250 million newly urbanized citizens travel to work, heat their homes, have enough water for daily life or dispose of their waste? Such design and planning questions will have profound consequences for China’s development – and particularly, its efforts to rein in its greenhouse-gas emissions, air and water pollution. European cities might therefore offer valuable models of how to develop more sustainably and avoid locked-in, high-carbon development pathways.

In recent years, China has increased its focus and efforts towards combating the high levels of environmental pollution in the country, the result of its accelerated economic growth. In 2012, China declared war on pollution, and put aside RMB 3.7 trillion for the battle, with over half of the funds reserved for water pollution. The 13th Five Year Plan targets this issue, and in 2015, the government published the Water Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan, aiming to halt heavily polluting sectors from contaminating water sources.

However, China’s most recent environmental report remains negative, suggesting that 61.5 percent of groundwater and 28.8 percent of key rivers were classed as ‘not suitable for human contact’. The contamination is largely caused by industrial and agricultural industries, and the resulting pollution has permeated the earth down to the water table. The report found that usable and safe water is scarce, and over half of China’s cities suffer from water shortages, especially in the arid northern regions. While China has 20 percent of the world’s population, it only possesses 7 percent of the world’s water resources. What’s more, these water resources are not reliable and are distributed unevenly among provinces and administrative regions.

China’s water challenges are vast. The average annual water shortage of China is 50 billion m3. Even with the South-to-North-Water-Transfer project, water-recipient areas like Beijing and other cities in the Hai river basin will still have less water than international recognized water scarcity levels.

For China to reverse the state of its severe water pollution, high-grade wastewater treatment technologies are in great demand. A key issue in terms of energy management is that the majority of wastewater treatment processes in China are based on extended aeration. Almost two-thirds of existing treatment plants still use traditional extended aeration and these consume 50 percent more power than anaerobic sludge digestion. China has developed multiple technologies to treat wastewater, and now has the world’s second-highest sewerage processing capacity, with 3,910 wastewater treatment plants as of 2016. 80 percent of these plants use the following three technologies and remove contaminants from sewerage:

Less widely used are biofilm processes, membrane bioreactors (MBR), natural biologic treatment systems (e.g. constructed wetlands) and anaerobic biologic treatment systems. A particular treatment technology is chosen depending on wastewater composition, affordability and other factors. Another issue is sludge disposal. Most municipal WWTPs don’t have excess sludge stabilization systems. The excess sludge is only treated through dewatering and/or thickening and is mainly disposed in landfills. Only a small portion of WWTPs actually reuse sludge in agriculture and other industries. If wastewater discharge standards are tightened and wastewater treatment and discharge fees are raised, then more advanced wastewater treatment technologies (e.g. membrane reverse osmosis application to industrial wastewater reused on site) and possibly for the very costly zero liquid discharge (ZLD) systems for industrial wastewater sector will become economically viable.

China also utilizes ‘constructed wetlands’ as an alternative ecological method of treating wastewater, and addressing runoff issues and flood water retention. Constructed wetlands are man-made biological environments combining hydrology, vegetation and flow paths which provide effective means of treating biochemical oxygen demand, soluble solids, nitrogen, phosphorus, heavy metals, organic pollutants and pathogens. They can be constructed and customized by either biotic or abiotic mechanisms to target certain types of occurring pollutants depending on locational needs. Constructed wetland systems are the cheapest method of wastewater treatment, requiring about 30 to 50 percent of the cost of conventional treatment methods.

Moreover, China’s rural regions suffer the most from water shortages and water pollution. Rural distribution of wastewater treatment is extremely poor. Only 3 percent of villages and townships possess wastewater treatment facilities, and more than 90 percent lack proper drainage and sewerage facilities. 300 million rural residents do not have access to safe drinking water. Thus, rural areas are in the most need of effective and economical treatment facilities. Due to the lack of infrastructure, dispersed population and geographical issues, smaller decentralized facilities would be the most effective application. Domestic discharge has gradually overtaken industrial wastewater discharge in China. For example, in 2004, domestic discharge accounted for 54% of total wastewater volume. By 2015, this share had risen to 72%.

To drastically change this picture, the State Council of China has published an ambitious plan to reverse the deterioration of water quality and improve management of water resources throughout China. The Action Plan for Water Pollution Prevention sets progressive goals over the next five, fifteen, and thirty-five years, and provides a wide-ranging policy agenda that includes stricter regulation of industry effluent discharges, combined with, among other things, market-based incentives, investment in new water treatment facilities, and promotion of more efficient and cleaner technologies. While it remains to be seen how much of this aggressive agenda will be realized within the timeframes envisioned by the Chinese government, the Plan promises a radical transformation of water quality regulation in the country with potentially significant consequences for various segments of the industrial sector.

The Plan establishes specific water quality targets for 2020 and 2030, with an ultimate goal of achieving comprehensive improvement by 2050. The Plan states that by 2020, 70% of the water in China’s seven major watersheds and 93% of the drinking water sources in prefecture-level cities are to meet an acceptable standard. By 2030, the Plan raises these targets to 75% and 95%, respectively. The Plan also calls for the reduction of the prevalence of “black and odorous water bodies” in prefecture-level cities to less than 10% by 2020, and the elimination of this problem by 2030. Under the Plan, water resource capacity will become an integral factor in land-use planning and zoning, with major new projects to be located in preferred development areas and the decommissioning of certain types of polluting facilities (e.g., metals, paper, and chemical production) that are presently located in settled areas. Along with its regulatory policies, the Plan describes economic incentives to reduce water use. These consist of acceleration of an ongoing water price reform, imposition of new taxes, and establishment of positive financial incentives for facilities that adopt technologies and practices that conserve water or reduce their pollutant discharges.

This new plan is the result of coordination & inputs from more than 12 ministries and government departments, including Ministry of Environment Protection, National Development & Reform Commission, Ministry of Science & Technology, Ministry of Industry & Information Technology, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Land & Resources, Ministry of Housing & Urban-Rural Development, Ministry of Transport, Ministry of Water Resources, Ministry of Agriculture, National Health & Family Planning Commission and State Oceanic Administration.

The plan sets out 10 general measures which can be broken down to 38 sub-measures with deadlines and responsible government departments identified for each action. In general, the plan covers the following four broad actions:

In total, there are 238 specific actions involved. This is probably the most comprehensive water policy to date. Some key targets and actions are listed below:

Overall objectives & targets

By 2020, China’s water environment quality will gradually improve,

The “Pollutant Discharge Control” program area has four major components:



Key focus water bodies & areas

The new plan puts tough controls on polluting industries with emission limits and provides stricter supervision from authorities and the public. It has also listed targeted small factories in 10 industries shall comply with relevant national policy, standards & industrial regulation by the end of 2016; otherwise they will be shut down:

The following 10 major polluting industries are targeted for technological upgrades, emission reductions and to achieve clean production:

Some of the above industries as well as other industries have also been targeted for other action in the plan. Moreover, the plan also covers pollution control, water efficiency improvement in agriculture, municipal water use, coastal water management and overall ecological environment protection. Controlling total water use to stay within the Three Red Lines is key. To stay within the 2020 cap of 670 billion mof water use, the Water Ten Plan uses a mix of water efficiency targets and market mechanisms such as water tariff reform, revised water fees, credit financing and environment performance and eco compensation. The government expects the new plan to boost GDP by around RMB5.7 trillion and to result in RMB1.9 trillion of new investment in the environmental protection related industries (in which RMB1.4 trillion will go to purchasing products & services) and create 3.9 million new non-agriculture jobs.