How China Created Clean Water for the Beijing Olympics

In the months and weeks leading up to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, there
was considerable concern about the pollution in and around the Olympic venues
and its potential impact on the Games. Media coverage tended to focus on the
worst case scenarios of ‘what might happen’ but little coverage was aimed at what actions the Chinese initiated to mitigate health risks to athletes and spectators.
This article will shed some light on those actions and the results that followed.


Beijing Before the Games

The Chinese categorize water quality by giving a grade of one to five. Grade one
is water that is safe for drinking, grade three is safe for everyday use, grade five
is polluted water; unfit for even agricultural purposes. Prior to the games, a
survey showed that nearly 60% of China’s water is grade three or lower and
less than one-quarter of the nation’s sewage is treated. Compound this with
hyper-accelerated urbanization and the nation’s water supply was in a critical
condition.

A bird’s eye view of the “Water Cube”
Beijing China

Beijing was no exception, when it was announced in 2001 that the Games
would be coming to the city, the Tonghui River, part of the Grand Canal built
in the early 7th century AD, had been reduced to a garbage dump and an open
sewer. A student survey conducted by China’s Green Student Forum cataloged
many residents’ complaints and concerns. They found that a majority of Beijing
residents were dissatisfied with the quality of their city’s water in 2001; Gallup
polling in the same year returned a similar statistic.

Remarkable Efforts

With the announcement that Beijing would host the 2008 Olympic Games, China
set out on an aggressive path to clean the air and water. China’s leaders and
people wanted to put their best foot forward to the world but many in the global community were skeptical; China’s plans were grand and seemed unachievable.
The Chinese set a goal that by the time of the Games, over 90% of Beijing’s
sewage would be treated and the Games would not be plagued by algae blooms
in the lakes or bad water tainting the fans’ mouths. In addition, the Chinese set
goals of having in place 2.68 million tons per day sewage treatment capacity and
50% water-reuse by the time of the Olympics.

In fact what happened was nothing short of stellar. Between 2001 and 2008,
the Chinese built 17 new sewage treatment facilities in the Beijing metropolitan
area; as of early 2007, these facilities were processing over 2.9 million tons of
sewage per day – exceeding the Olympic goal a full year ahead of schedule. By
the time of the Olympics, sewage treatment in Beijing was over 93% and the
50% re-use mark was being easily met. But the Chinese were just getting started.
In addition to the basic goals of treating the sewage and cleaning up the city’s appearance, the Chinese officials made inroads into cleaning up the rivers, lakes,
streams and ponds in and around the city; partly by blocking over 1,000
direct-sewer pipes that flowed into 15 waterways in the city. In total, well
over 2 billion dollars (US) was invested in the city’s water cleanup efforts.

Excellent Outcome

As a result of the Chinese efforts, visitors to the city and the hundreds of
millions who watched the Games on television did not see a developing nation;
instead they saw a nation of growth and prosperity. In every venue from the
rowing courses to the beach volleyball courts near the lake in Chaoyang Park,
observers watched the competition and were not distracted by environmental
issues.

While the world’s opinion is certainly important to China as it emerges in the
21st century, perhaps the best arbiter of China’s success in mitigating the
water quality issues in Beijing is the opinion of the city’s residents. In recent
Gallup polling, a substantial majority of Beijing residents said they were satisfied
with their water quality – a complete reversal of the 2001 statistic. Additionally,
well over half of the respondents said that over the last several years the
problem of water pollution has improved in the city.

Looking to the Future

China still has a long road ahead; Beijing is well on its way, but the country as a
whole still has major water and sewage issues. What the Chinese effort shows,
however, is that with the right investment and clarity of focus, dramatic results
can be achieved in a relatively short amount of time. China’s successes in
preparing for the Olympics show that the problems faced by developing nations
are not insurmountable obstacles; rather they are simply challenges waiting to
be taken up by those with the will to succeed.