Sewer systems leave many newly built wastewater treatment plants with idle capacity

Source:Global Times Published: 2017/5/8 18:58:39

Clogged pipes

China plans to spend 564.4 billion yuan ($81.79 billion) on the country's sewer systems and wastewater treatment facilities during the 13th Five-Year Plan period (2016-20). Rapid infrastructure investment during the 12th Five-Year Plan period (2011-15) greatly improved the country's sewage treatment capacity in cities, yet much of that capacity has gone unused because local sewer systems lack the capacity to deliver the wastewater. The situation is worse in rural areas where sewer system development has lagged behind that of cities. To rectify this issue, the central government has made up a plan to increase the amount of installed sewer pipeline by 42.5 percent from 2015 levels by the end of 2020.

A wastewater treatment plant in Nanjing, capital of East China's Jiangsu Province Photo: CFP

The Jiuquhe Wastewater Plant in Southwest China's Chongqing can handle up to 100,000 tons of wastewater a day, but it has only been processing 25,000 tons daily since it started operating in 2013 because the city's sewer systems can't deliver more.

Despite the buildup of sewage treatment facilities around the country over this decade, insufficient sewer systems are gumming up the works for China's wastewater treatment plants. 

"We now have a scenario in which wastewater treatment capacity is waiting on the sewer systems to be built up," said Zhang Jun, assistant to the general manager of the Beijing Drainage Group Co.

Rapid infrastructure investment during the 12th Five-Year Plan period (2011-15) greatly improved the sewage treatment capacity in Chinese cities, the Beijing-based Economic Information Daily reported on Thursday. By 2015, the country's cities and towns could process 92 percent of the wastewater they created - 217 million cubic meters in total. In country-level cities, the figure was 85 percent.

China accelerated construction of underground sewer pipe networks over the period, but in general, the networks remain insufficient to feed the country's wastewater treatment facilities.

In addition, provincial capitals and larger cities possess better treatment facilities than smaller cities and towns.

Stopped up

In Chongqing, the Shuitu Wastewater Plant was designed to handle 30,000 tons of wastewater a day, yet it is only processing half that amount. The Guoyuan Wastewater Plant only processes 5,000 tons to 7,000 tons of wastewater a day, less than half of its maximum daily capacity.

In bigger cities, officials have long favored public works projects that people can see - such as wastewater treatment plants - over projects people can't see - such as sewer pipes, according to the Economic Information Daily report.

As a result, the sewer systems haven't kept up with the vast expansion of wastewater treatment capacity around the country, the report said.

In cities, the main sewer lines generally run along the major roadways, so they don't have any major problems channeling wastewater, Zhang said.

The real problem is with the network of smaller pipes that reach across the city, according to Zhang.

They run into land acquisition and relocation difficulties amid a web of interests, Zhang noted.

The problem is especially acute in older residential communities. In 2015, the water department in Chengdu, capital of Southwest China's Sichuan Province, surveyed about 1,800 kilometers of sewer pipeline installed before 2000. The department uncovered more than 5,000 hazards, with leaks and cave-ins being the most common. That translates to three problems for every kilometer of sewer pipeline.

The older residential buildings have no property managers and no repair funds, said Lin Sanzhong, director of the Sichuan Urban and Rural Planning and Design Institute.

Repairing the pipes there would be a huge expense for the local government, not to mention the disruption that digging up the streets would cause to people's lives, according to Lin.

To further complicate matters, multiple government authorities are responsible for the planning, construction and maintenance of public sewer facilities, so coordination can be difficult, said Guo Hao, an official with Chengdu's water department. 

Guo suggested experimenting with new models of city management that would coordinate these efforts.

Backwater bottlenecks

In recent years, the central government has increased investment in wastewater handling capacity in rural areas, resulting in the construction of a large number of sewage treatment plants in towns and villages. However, because the state of sewer systems in rural areas is often worse than in cities, much of that new sewer treatment capacity ends up idle, the Economic Information Daily report said.

A recent investigation conducted by the central government's environmental protection authority showed that as much as 63 percent of rural wastewater treatment plants in Chongqing were running at less than capacity, primarily because of insufficient sewer systems.

In Yibin, Sichuan, there are 157 wastewater treatment plants in 168 rural townships, but most of these facilities cannot run at full capacity because of bottlenecks in the sewer systems.

Planned improvements

China plans to spend 564.4 billion yuan ($81.79 billion) on the country's sewer systems and wastewater treatment facilities during the 13th Five-Year Plan period (2016-20), according to the Economic Information Daily report.

During that period, the government expects to have 125,900 kilometers of installed sewer pipeline, up 42.5 percent from 2015. Meanwhile, newly added wastewater treatment capacity will rise 23.1 percent to 50.22 million cubic meters per day.

A national water pollution prevention plan released in 2015 has called for upgrading sewage treatment facilities in both urban and rural areas so that discharged wastewater meets government standards for recycled use.

A guideline for the planning of these facilities during the 13th Five-Year Plan period (2016-20) called for a unified wastewater discharge and supervision system to be formed by 2020.

The guideline emphasized the quality of sewage treatment and prioritized the treatment of both wastewater and sludge.

The government aims to increase newly added capacity to treat sludge with organic detoxification methods by 160.7 percent to 60,100 tons per day during the 13th Five-Year Plan period (2016-20), according to the Economic Information Daily report. It also plans to increase the amount of recycled wastewater by 56.7 percent to 15.05 million cubic meters per day.

This story is based on a report by the Economic Information Daily.

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