Polluters of one of China’s most polluted waterways are increasingly facing prosecution through coordinated local and national efforts.

By Paul A. Davies and R. Andrew Westgate

Chinese authorities have been increasing their efforts to prosecute environmental offenders along the Yangtze River, the third-longest river in the world and the longest in Asia. The crackdown reflects China’s goal to make 70% of its surface water safe to consume by 2020.

Water Pollution: A Serious Problem for China

China’s government has good reason to take the problem of water pollution seriously. In 2012, a senior official from the water ministry acknowledged that 20% of China’s waterways were classified as toxic, while 40% were seriously polluted. The World Bank has further noted that water pollution could have “catastrophic consequences for future generations,” and that the problem is compounded by the fact that China does not have enough water for its population to safely consume. (For more information on China’s water supply, see Latham’s previous blog post).

Among China’s waterways, the Yangtze River is one of the most polluted.

Recent Government Actions

Since the beginning of 2015, approximately 47,000 alleged environmental offenders in the 11 provinces through which the Yangtze flows were prosecuted or taken to court. These offenses include the illegal fishing and mining of sand from the river bed, discharging waste water, and disposing of solid waste into the water.

Since 2016, the Chinese government has also run an environmental campaign to raise awareness of “hei chou he” (black and smelly rivers). Through the campaign, the environment ministry has asked members of the public to help it identify rivers with significant levels of pollution so that they can be catalogued with the view to being cleaned-up. Volunteers who find polluted rivers can share pictures and location details on a government-organized WeChat account. The city of Jinjiang, which sits along the Yangzte River, has previously temporarily suspended its tap water supply due to the river’s “pungent smell”.

Procuratorates, the state organs responsible for prosecution and investigation across China, have been encouraged to inform the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) of environmental offenses in their areas along the Yangtze River. The procuratorates have also received more resources in order to pursue various categories of environmental offenses, including criminal, civil, and administrative cases. Most recently, the vice procurator-general of the SPP has proposed that local procuratorates should try to secure the attendance of environmental protection professionals to assist prosecutors in the cases.

Companies doing business in China, particularly near the Yangtze River, should be aware of the increased scrutiny of potential environmental offenses. Latham will continue to monitor the government’s action against water pollution.

This post was prepared with the assistance of Olivia Featherstone in the London office of Latham & Watkins.