Over 80 percent of China’s wells is heavily polluted, according to new statistics reported by Chinese Media and the NY Times this week, raising new concerns about the world’s most populated country. However, most Chinese cities get their water from deep wells and reservoirs, which weren’t part of the study. Villages and small towns, which dot the countryside, use shallower wells and are the basis of the new report.
These shallow wells and rivers have become contaminated from industry and agriculture practices. And while the U.S. is benefiting from China’s lax pollution controls, the toxic byproducts from making iPhones, batteries for electric vehicles, and solar panels is creating an environmental nightmare. Polluted water is falling from China’s skies and infiltrating the watershed where many Chinese get their water.
Dabo Guan, a professor at the University of East Anglia in Britain who has been studying water pollution and scarcity in China, said: “From my point of view, this shows how water is the biggest environmental issue in China.” She notes that while those who live in cities see air pollution every day, they don’t realize the water is just as polluted.
Some of the contaminants come from industries that are largely unregulated by the communist country. China is also one of the biggest suppliers of solar panels to the United States, which requires the use of heavy metals to make. Presidential candidate and Republican front-runner Donald Trump has even made it a campaign talking point, saying that by bringing jobs back from China, industrialized jobs would get the proper environmental oversight lacking in China.
As early as 2008, 60 minutes reported on the devastation e-waste, or electronic waste, is causing in China, from the toxic chemicals used to make each panel and the carcinogenic waste products being discarded into landfills, groundwater, and nearby streams and rivers. It also shows how lucrative the toxic e-waste has become for “junked computers, TVs, and other electronic products can be mined for valuable components, including gold.”
China has a robust black market for illegally imported e-waste. What started as discarded electronic junk in Denver, 60 minutes discovered that much of it ends up in toxic dumps in China, which leech into the ground from rainwater. And solar panels, which are made cheaply in China and being bought up by the U.S. in an effort to meet Obama’s climate goals, are polluting streams and watersheds.
One solar panel manufacturer was forced to close its doors after “four days of protests by angry residents who accused it of severely polluting a nearby river.” The factory belonged to Jinko Solar, a large company that was traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Local authorities ordered the factory to suspend production. And that’s just one solar panel maker. China’s environmental protection bureau found the plant was spewing it’s e-waste into a nearby river, causing a mass die-off of fish.
Another source of water pollution is from discarded electric vehicle batteries and recycling old ones. The problem is graphite, Bloomberg News reports, “a vital component in batteries used in Tesla’s Model S, Toyota’s plug-in Prius and other electric cars, as well as in electronic gadgets including iPhones.” Graphite is mostly “mined and processed in China” where the material has “fouled air and water, damaged crops and raised health concerns.”
“There’s little question that the Chinese are between a rock and a hard place environmentally,” said Josh Landess, an advanced transportation analyst with Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “There’s an obvious irony that the disruption it’s causing is within the clean vehicle and transportation industry.”
It gets worse. Estimates of underground water pollution depend on the depth and location of the wells tested. “An annual report from the Ministry of Water Resources said that in 2014, nearly half of 2,071 monitored wells had ‘quite poor’ water quality, and an additional 36 percent had ‘extremely poor’ quality,” writes the Times. They include pollutants from agriculture and heavy metals.
Not all is lost. Digging thousands of feet deeper gets around the contamination, though this workaround may not be viable if the aquifers get pumped dry.