Moving Upstream: Dealing with Shanghai’s Polluted Waters

Between 1984 and 2010, Shanghai built and opened Qingcaosha Reservoir. Bordering this sparkling, blue water body is the murky Yangtze River and further down, the inky Huangpu River. The reservoir was established to provide Shanghai with quality drinking water. It may come as a surprise then, that despite being surrounded by and harbouring water bodies, Shanghai faces a growing risk of water shortage.

1984 and 2016 captures of Qingcaosha Reservoir, and the heavily polluted Yangtze and Huangpu rivers. Source: NASA (x)

In China, the water grading system runs from Class I (best) to Class V (worst). Following this system, half of the 2500 lakes and rivers near Shanghai are Class V, and only 3% are deemed clean enough for household use. To combat this, Shanghai has been altering its water supply structure to rely more heavily on the Qingcaosha Reservoir (Zhao et al., 2016) over the unpleasant waters of Huangpu River. However, in the face of a growing population, this is clearly unsustainable. Hence, combating water pollution is a key concern for Shanghai.

As mentioned briefly in my previous post on sanitation systems in Shanghai, there are certain structural challenges in constructing bathrooms in every household. These challenges illuminate another problem with Shanghai’s overall water systems – the non-existence of a segregated sewer system (Ward & Wen, 1995). This allows rainwater and wastewater to be disposed of in the same drainage system, thereby foregoing treatments at a waste treatment plant. With support from World Bank, Shanghai has successfully embarked on a $153 million project to build water and wastewater infrastructure

Nevertheless, Shanghai recognises that simply restructuring their water systems is inadequate in dealing with the polluted Huangpu River, as these polluted waters go beyond Shanghai. This issue was brought to public scrutiny in an outpour of outrage and concern from Shanghai citizens in 2013, when 16000 dead pigs were fished out of her river. The voices of citizens called for stronger action in managing water pollution.

‘Life of Pi’ mock movie poster, a satirical take on Shanghai’s pig polluted waters. Source: Weibo (x)

Since then, efforts have went beyond simply altering the built environment. The Chinese government moved their approach upstream, to Zhejiang province. Just 60 miles from Shanghai, the province holds an ever-growing community of pig farmers, which can be attributed to population and economic growth. 

Over the years, the pig industry has gained a notorious reputation for pollution scandals, with pig excrement and corpses being the greatest offences. Understanding the reason for the pig carcasses begins with the extensive consumption of pork in China. The increased demand for pork saw an ensuing pig farming boom, resulting in two significant outcomes: stiff competition amongst small scale farmers, and difficulty for environmental protection bureaus to keep up with pig disposal incinerators. As a result of the competition and insufficient disposal methods, there is a great number of unsold pigs, most of which are killed and dumped into the rivers by the farmers.

With unease arising amongst Shanghai’s citizens and the various pig farming scandals, stricter crackdowns have been imposed on this industry. Now, there exists zones where pig farming is banned or limited. Taking it further, the Chinese government are encouraging large corporations – even those from the video-gaming industry – to enter the pig farming business. This effort to phase out small-scale farms and replace them with easier-to-manage corporations (and the resulting pollution) is restructuring the industry. 

It is fascinating to note that water pollution in Shanghai does not simply involve changes in the built environment, but is also implicating shifts in an industry through both soft and hard approaches. This then entails an important question: what does this mean for the small-scale farmers? Whether they remain in competition with the new giants or leave the industry, many of them are expecting to (or are already) facing poor results. The livelihoods of these pig farmers have already taken a hit when the industry grew competitive years back and a decline is to be expected with these new reforms. 

“Dead pigs have always ended up in Shanghai. This time they just went there by river, instead of by truck,” said one Shaoxing pig farmer.

Ironically, the pigs that were found in Shanghai’s waterways were mainly bred for her consumption. Yet, hypocritically, the pig farmers are bearing the brunt of the pollution crackdown. Furthermore, the farmers are not just facing a possible loss of their livelihood, but they are affected in terms resource stress and environmental deterioration. Investigations by Zhao et al. (2016) and Shanghai Environmental Protection Bureau (2001) found evidence that Shanghai’s consumption patterns have created such issues for many smaller provinces.  

In the former, these stresses are understood through “virtual water”, which is the virtual import or export of water in regions measured through the production of goods and services (Tamea et al., 2014, cited by Zhao et al., 2016). This measurement suggests that ‘wealthy consumers [are able to] shift local water quantity stress to the economically poorer exporters of goods and services’ (Ibid.: 6917), as seen above in the case of Shanghai. In addition, many factories have been transferred from the city centre to suburban and rural areas, which has further deteriorated water quality in these areas (Shanghai Environmental Protection Bureau, 2001). This idea to disperse the industries was designed ‘to improve rural economies, slow emigration to the cities, and dilute the concentration of industrial pollution’ (Ward & Wen, 1995: 145). However, the effect seems to be contrary: as illustrated through the pig farming industry, rural dwellers are suffering from polluted waters and increasing economic stress.

Tracing the issue of water pollution upstream and curbing it there is helping to appease the water concerns of Shanghai’s citizens. However, in ensuring her water safety, Shanghai continues to disproportionately affect citizens outside of the metropolis. Zhao et al. (2016) suggests that relieving such stresses must come from regulating consumption in Shanghai. However, urban areas remain focal points of great concern because of the rapidly growing populations and the interest of the government in attracting foreign investment (Ward & Wen, 1995). Hence, I argue that this urbanisation process has allowed Shanghai to continue consuming goods and services unashamedly, whilst leaving the lives and livelihoods of rural dwellers negatively impacted.  


Ward, R. M. and Wen, L., 1995. ‘Shanghai Water Supply and Wastewater Disposal’, Geographical Review, vol. 85, no. 2, pp. 141-156.

Zhao, S., Da, L., Tang, Z., Fang, H., Song, K. and Fang, J., 2006. ‘Ecological Consequences of Rapid Urban Expansion: Shanghai, China’, Front Ecol Environ, vol. 4, no. 7, pp. 341-346. 

Zhao, X., Liu, J., Yang, H., Duarte, R., Tillotson, M. R. and Hubacek, K., 2016. ‘Burden Shifting of Water Quantity and Quality Stress from Megacity Shanghai’, Water Resour. Res., vol. 52, no. 9, pp. 6916–6927. doi:10.1002/2016WR018595. 

3 thoughts on “Moving Upstream: Dealing with Shanghai’s Polluted Waters

  1. Hello, this is a really interesting post, it has given my so much insight into the issues regarding Shanghai’s water pollution, below are some of my comments:
    -Firstly, the background information on the water access to Shanghai and explaining how the water system is graded. It was also really useful to explain why there is a problem with pollution through talking about the growing population and how water systems tied to housing this population is a problem relating to sewage.
    -Secondly, the use of maps and images to highlight the issues you were discussing really illustrates to the reader that the problem of pollution is not a contained one. The issues in Shanghai are well known and depicted within media such as the satire poster from ‘Life of Pi’.
    -In my opinion, I believe it may have really homed in on the widespread impact of water pollution if you has attached some videos and maybe some more images to create a better picture of the issues you have discussed. Although overall I found this post very insightful and I will check your blog out again :).

    Liked by 1 person

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