Water quality in a province of eastern China was found to improve when it was monitored by volunteers from an NGO that passed the results to authorities, according to a new study.
The NGO sent reports on the waterways in Jiangsu – where there is no regular, centralised water quality monitoring – to three levels of government.
It led to an average 19 per cent reduction in the concentration of pollutants in those waterways, researchers from Nanjing University and the University of California, Santa Barbara found.
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“By monitoring water quality and sharing the information with multiple levels of government, non-governmental groups may signal to local governments that resource status is observable and oversight is likely,” the researchers said in a peer-reviewed paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last week.
“Monitoring can improve resource management when it provides information that makes local resource managers accountable to higher authorities.”
In China, where about 70 per cent of rivers and lakes are unsafe for human use, water pollution causes more than 100,000 deaths and economic losses of US$1.5 trillion each year, the paper said.
Water pollution has been a “persistent problem” in China, partly because of local governments failing to implement water quality standards set by national and provincial authorities, which do not receive regular updates on local water quality, according to the researchers.
“Central and provincial inspections of remediation efforts are infrequent and haphazard, especially for small waterways,” they said. “Most improvements to water quality in China are located upstream of monitoring stations that allow central authorities to observe water quality continuously, rather than downstream.”
They also pointed to a 2018 central government campaign to inspect water in eight provinces. The Beijing inspectors found that 34 of the 458 bodies of water reported by local governments as remediated were actually still “black and smelly”.
The researchers noted that central authorities encouraged NGOs to monitor local government remediation policies to support the work of officials at the national and provincial levels.
For the study, waterways that had been identified for remediation were assigned for monitoring by volunteers through a partner NGO over 15 months. Pollution was found to drop in places where quarterly reports were passed to local and provincial governments, the paper said.
The researchers also said 40 per cent of the 82 surveyed government officials responsible for waterways “reported experiencing pressure to respond to citizen complaints [that came via] higher levels of government”.
Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in Beijing, said the findings were in line with his experience at the institute, a non-profit research group that runs national environment databases.
“Disclosing data is a prerequisite [for water management]. Making information known to the public also builds accountability in government,” he said.
Ma also said developed areas along China’s coastline performed better on reporting data and following up to resolve pollution problems.
“We still see gaps between local authorities when it comes to making information public and responding to complaints,” Ma said. “Some areas are more responsive than others. And some do better in disclosing detailed information on different water quality indicators.”
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