China and EU join forces for better water

The media follows closely, while Chen Lei, Karmenu Vella and Kimmo Tiilikainen sign the Turku Declaration accompanied by the Swedish and Estonian environment ministers, Karolina Skog and Siim Kiisler, on September 21, 2017.  Sara

Every day, nearly 1000 children die due to preventable water and sanitation related diarrhoeal diseases.

Safe water in sufficient quantities is a matter of life and death and has, since 2010, been recognised as a human right. Yet, according to United Nations, 40 percent of the global population is affected by water scarcity. At the same time floods and other water related disasters account for 70 per cent of all deaths associated with natural disasters.

As with climate change and rapid urbanisation, the earth’s water problems will only worsen unless something is done. That is why, five years ago, China and Europe decided to build a platform from where they can work together to reverse the negative trends: the China-Europe Water Platform (CEWP).

Committed to UN goals

The CEWP engages politicians and researchers as well as inventors and business people and since 2012 has held an annual high-level conference, with hosting responsibilities alternating between China and EU countries.

At the latest high-level meeting of the platform in the Finnish city of Turku on September 21-22, the EU’s Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella, China’s Water Resource Minister Chen Lei and other ministers and high-level delegates met to strengthen the dialogue and cooperation on water issues.

They signed a Memorandum of Understanding and the ‘Turku Declaration’, affirming their dedication to work together in order to reach the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) no. 6, to “ensure access to water and sanitation for all”. The Declaration also noted that water is embodied in all 17 SDGs and that the platform takes responsibility for aspects in each and every one.

The SDGs are the UN’s goals for a more sustainable world in 2030.

“Our commitment to the SDGs is not simply that the European Union will reach the objectives, but also that we have to share our knowledge, and we have to help others to achieve those objectives as well,” EU Commissioner Vella told gbtimes at the conference.

The Chinese government also attaches great importance to reaching the SDGs through an increasingly green development that focuses on the conservation of resources and protection of the environment, Chinese Minister Chen said in his speech (link in Chinese).

China only has about seven percent of the world's freshwater resources, but around 20 percent of the population. If China manages to solve its water issues, that will be a major contribution to global development, Chen reiterated.

Droughts and floods

China and Europe do not share rivers, but they share many water related issues – though China’s problems are generally on a larger scale, according to Dr. Olli Varis. He is a professor at Aalto University in Finland and has studied global water issues – with special focus on Asia – for decades.

“China is politically very engaged in the fight against climate change, and for a good reason,” said Varis.

He explains that the change in the earth’s climate manifests itself in very different ways in different areas. In China, the existing split between the dry north and the flood prone south is steadily becoming more pronounced.

“In the south, they are mostly preoccupied with floods and monsoon rain, while there are places in northern China that are drier than many Arab countries,” he explained, giving an idea of the enormous polarisation the country faces.

The 28 member states of the European Union also experience diverse water problems, though it is generally the south that experiences droughts.

Polluting urbanisation

Rapid urbanisation in China also has a big impact on water resources, which are easily spoiled by pollution.

In China, the urbanisation rate soared from 17.5 percent in 1976 to almost 57 percent last year. In the same 40-year period, the share of city dwellers in the EU’s member states has remained pretty stable and only grown from 68 to 75 percent, World Bank data shows.

“China invests a lot in urban development and related issues such as waste water treatment. The investments are paying back and China is doing pretty well, but the challenges are extreme,” noted Varis.

Moreover, the pollution problems follow the flow of the Chinese rivers that, in many cases, continue to other countries. “Roughly one billion people are living near river basins downstream from China,” says Varis. That means that many countries, such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, all get much of their water from Chinese rivers. This gives what Varis calls an “interesting asymmetry with political implications”.

The transboundary challenges are not only international. Major Chinese rivers such as the Yangtze are shared by several provinces that are forced to find ways of working together.

The possibly conflicting interests between upstream and downstream users are well known in Europe. “Europe has many transboundary issues with its many small states and rivers that criss-cross borders,” Varis said. "The Baltic Sea, for instance, gets water from 14 countries and the Danube goes through nine, so Europe has been forced through necessity to develop mechanisms for collaboration and is now a world leader in this area," he noted.

A business opportunity

The China-Europe Water Platform has four main projects implemented by experts from EU member states and their Chinese partners, the EU Commission told

The projects deal with knowledge exchange and the implementation of legislation, rural water and food security, and sustainable hydropower. One project aims to mitigate the unfavourable effects of urbanisation by focusing on the sponge city concept, which, shortly put, means mimicking nature’s own water cycles.

“The idea is that we can influence water policies in China positively, that together we can look for sustainable projects and sustainable solutions,” EU Commissioner Karmenu Vella explained. “We know that the technology we can pass on to China, means China will be in a position to pass it on to even poorer countries.”

While ministers and high-level officials at the latest CEWP meeting in Finland were discussing broad political themes and signing deals and declarations promoting cooperation, researchers met at another event to exchange thoughts and results, while business people tried to find cooperation partners that could help them gain access to new markets.

Among them was Sensmet, a Finnish startup. Co-founder Kalle Blomberg had come to present a technology that can quickly analyse the chemical elements of water. Though the measuring device is so far only a prototype, Blomberg was already looking for potential Chinese partners among the 38 businesses and governmental institutions from China that were in attendance at the CEWP business event.

“In China, they understand that water in the future will be an extremely sought after natural resource, and the Chinese state will invest enormous amounts in measurement and purification. We are here to observe and find out how we can help them,” he said.

“We hope to soon be in China. We are here to find potential cooperation partners with whom we could do some pilot testing and prove that our technology works,” added Blomberg, who had already received many interesting contacts.

Finnish firm Labkotec was also present at the CEWP event in Turku. Three years ago, the company opened a sales office in Shanghai with one Chinese employee, who promotes and sells ice detection devices for wind power stations and oil separator alarms.

While the ice detection device has gained a lot of interest from Chinese wind turbine producers, there are still some obstacles before the oil separator alarms can become a Finnish export success, explains Labkotec’s Export Area Director Ole Martola.

“I am here because I would like to talk to the Chinese about Chinese legislation in this area, since there are quite a lot of regulations regarding oil separation,” he explained.

Not development aid

The beauty of the CEWP cooperation is precisely that it is not a project, but a platform with room for players from all fields, thinks Professor Olli Varis, who lectured about circular economy and water conservancy at the research and innovation part of the recent conference.

“China develops fast and needs a lot of expertise. It cannot be compared with any other developing country or emerging area, because China has a lot of high quality research, state institutions and businesses,” he says, while stressing that "this cooperation is far from traditional development assistance, as it is quite beneficial to both sides.”

To reach the world’s goal of ensuring sufficient and safe water for all, everybody needs to do their part. Politicians need to make sure that water stays high up on the agenda. Researchers need to exchange experiences and results, and inventers and businesses must keep carrying out practical solutions that can give more people access to good quality water.

The host of the this year’s CEWP meeting, Finnish Minister for the Environment, Kimmo Tiilikainen, is confident that the cooperation between China and the EU can help the whole world reach their goals for a more sustainable future.

“Access to clean water and waste water management are challenges on a global scale, and China and EU happen to be global actors, so if these two powers combine their abilities and will, then we can do a lot for the world’s water resources,” the minister told