Kick-starting a Circular Water Economy in China

China’s water problems are the stuff of legend. Decades of extraordinary economic growth have gone hand-in-hand with the mismanagement, pollution and overuse of the country’s water resources and ecosystems. Recognition of the importance of water to both the health and wellbeing of China’s citizens, and to sustainable economic development has moved the government to action.

In Recent years, China has been ferociously tackling its immense water challenges by building thousands of wastewater treatment plants. This has resulted in hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens receiving wastewater treatment services. In the coming years thousands more treatment plants are planned. These are needed not only to cover current gaps in wastewater treatment, but also to serve the additional 300 million Chinese citizens who will be born over coming decades. That is equivalent to adding the entire population of United States.

This counts as one of the biggest investments and achievements in water management humanity has ever seen: the modern equivalent of Victorian sewers, just on a grander scale and reaching many times the number of people.

Now, however, a group of leading Chinese sanitation engineers are questioning the value of ‘more of the same’, and are proposing a fundamental review of the direction of China’s wastewater treatment programme. Rather than ploughing on with conventional wastewater treatment, Jiuhui Qu, Professor at the Research Centre for Eco-Environmental Sciences, CAS, propose a new initiative that views wastewater differently, “We need to build the health, resource and recycling factories of tomorrow.”.

I joined Mr Qu and his fellow engineers at the International Science Summit on the China Concept Wastewater Treatment Plant in Beijing, Jiuhui Qu, and other top Chinese scientists, debated how this could be achieved in the shortest possible time with the support of international water and wastewater experts.

Discussing potential opportunities, Halvard Odegaard, Professor at the University of Science and Technology in Norway, and Chair of the IWA Distinguished fellows said,“Today there are many technologies that can start to deliver these outcomes. These technologies can be very compact and fit even in very densely populated cities”. He points out that new frontiers need to be explored and that China is well positioned to be a global pioneer.

The wastewater treatment plant as we know it today, is no longer fit for purpose. Major benefits can come from truly rethinking the entire urban water, carbon and energy systems. This approach would be a crucial part of establishing a circular economy in which water and materials loops are closed. John Crittenden of the Georgia Institute of Technology in the USA stated that, “At this point we do have the concepts and an initial set of numbers underpinning this is a realistic target. What we now need are cities to step forward and really take this on”.

Earlier in the week, at the opening of the IWA ASPIRE Conference, where a thousand water scientists and practitioners from the Asia region gathered, this approach was also promoted by Qiu Boaxing, Counsellor of the China State Council and winner of the 2014 Global Water Award. “We need to move beyond large scale water transfers and build ‘sponge cities’ that manage water locally using rainwater harvesting and recycling,” he said. “Without this Chinese cities will face major water stress in the future”.

The new initiative, supported by the IWA, is increasingly a source of inspiration for many Chinese water professionals. Nanqi Ren, Vice President of Harbin Institute of Technology, indicates that still much needs to be done to turn this source of inspiration into reality, “We want to build the first of the new style plants in the coming two years, then many others should follow. We need to further develop cooperation with local government and the private sector to realise this, but inspiration will become reality.”


Dr. Bergkamp will be speaking at the IWA Water and Development Congress & Exhibition, taking place in Jordan, 18-22 October, 2015.

Ger Bergkamp

Past IWA Executive Director
Ger Bergkamp is the former Executive Director of the International Water Association. He held the post between the years, 2012 and 2017. Connect with Ger Bergkamp on IWA Connect.   Read full biography