As water shortages worsen, the People’s Republic of China is recycling millions of tons of wastewater for use in factories, cleaning streets, and washing cars.
Jinan, People's Republic of China – This vast dynamic country has 20% of the world’s population but only 7% of the earth’s freshwater.
Managing this challenging situation is made more difficult by rapid urbanization and water pollution. More than 400 of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) 683 cities report water shortages. The average daily shortfall is 16 million tons, equivalent to the annual consumption of about 160,000 people.
The booming cities of the PRC are discharging more wastewater than the country’s factories. As of 2012, 68 billion tons of wastewater was discharged, with cities producing 62% and industry producing 38%. Nearly half of the country’s wastewater comes from the heavily urbanized provinces of Guangdong, Jiangsu, Shandong, Zhejiang, Henan, and Fujian.
Partnering with the private sector
Recycling is one solution to the combined problems of a lack of freshwater and an excess of wastewater. The government of the PRC is working with the Asian Development Bank (ADB), private companies, and communities to find innovative and cost-effective ways to turn wastewater into clean, usable water.
One example of this partnership can be found in the Beijing Enterprises Water Group Limited and BEWG Environmental Group Company Limited Wastewater Treatment and Reuse Project.
As part of the project, the Xiajin Wastewater Treatment Plant—located in Shandong province midway between Shanghai and Beijing on the country’s east coast—is processing 600 million tons of wastewater each year.
“This is the first large scale wastewater treatment project attempted in the People’s Republic of China and it is setting an example for how to address this serious problem in the years ahead,” said Hisaka Kimura, East Asia Unit Head of ADB’s Private Sector Operations Department.
Once upgraded, facilities like the one in Xiajin should be able to discharge water that is considered acceptable for use in a range of industrial and urban settings.
Conserving fresh water
"With adequate technologies, wastewater can be treated to meet specific needs and purposes, such as for industrial use in machine cooling or boiler operation, or for watering city gardens. In this way, high quality freshwater can be freed up for uses such as drinking and cooking,” said Kimura.
"We hope to cultivate a new frontier for the nexus of water and energy."
Turning wastewater into fresh water is energy-intensive with electricity accounting for half the cost of wastewater treatment. To meet this challenge, the government is working with ADB and other international partners to support energy audits and management systems, as well as sharing information on energy-saving solutions and government policies that promote efficient energy use.
"Energy constitutes a major cost for municipal water service,” said Kimura. "With this project as a model, we hope to cultivate a new frontier for the nexus of water and energy.”
At the SK gasoline station in Jinan, the capital city of Shandong province, the wastewater being processed at the BEWG facility is put to practical use. Xue Yingbo, 56, who works at the station, said more than 60 cars a day are washed with treated wastewater. This conserves fresh water for human consumption and saves money for the local business which can buy the treated water for less than tap water.
Another user of the facility’s treated water is the Shengxin Greening Company, which is using it to clean city streets and water plants. By using the treated wastewater, the company saves more than the equivalent of $9,000 a year.
For Wang Zilong, a 57-year-old cotton farmer living in Xiajin, it is not about making or saving money. Clean water is about quality of life. He often goes fishing in Jiulongkou wetland, which is filled with treated wastewater.
"The water here is clean and there are lots of fish," he said.
Kan Lei is a Senior External Relations Officer in ADB's People's Republic of China Resident Mission. Learn more about ADB's work in the People's Republic of China.Stay up to date Subscribe to our newsletter and get the latest issues, news, events, jobs and data in your e-mail inbox.