HUO YAN, the Communist Party boss of a small district in north-east Beijing, was recently ordered by her bosses to take on a second job. Now Ms Huo must find time in her busy schedule to conduct weekly patrols along the Bahe river—an ancient canal that flows through her patch. She is responsible for protecting the waterway, scooping out garbage (or hiring others to do so) and keeping an eye out for pollution-causing activities on its banks. The side gig comes without extra pay.
The “river chief” system began more than a decade ago in the eastern province of Jiangsu. In 2016 the central government decreed that every lake and river, or segment thereof in the case of larger ones, must have someone tasked with keeping them free of visible pollutants. By the end of June every river had at least one local official designated as its supervisor.
There are now nearly 1.1m river chiefs. The government says they will be accountable “for life” for any serious pollution that relates to a lapse on their watch, but penalties have yet to be specified. Promotions in their regular jobs will take into account their riverine duties. Liu Dengwei, a researcher at the Ministry of Water Resources, says chiefs will not be unfairly punished for filth from upstream.
It is a tough assignment. Earlier this year a government report said that surface water in nearly a third of “river sections” surveyed was too risky to touch, let alone drink. Water in nearly 15% of them was rated too dirty even for industrial use. Lakes are worse. The report says that out of 54 large ones surveyed, 29 contained water deemed unsafe for human contact.
The chiefs’ appointment may be a sign that the government is worried about public anger over its perceived failure to deal with the problem. Surveys by the Pew Research Centre, a think-tank, found that 37% of respondents in 2016 saw water pollution as a “very big problem”, up from 28% in 2008. Those polled expressed less anxiety about smog and the rising cost of living.
Ministries responsible for bodies of water have unclear and sometimes overlapping responsibilities. The result has been buck-passing and finger-pointing, says Mr Liu. This will be more difficult now that named individuals are accountable for water quality, the theory goes. Whether this is really so may become clearer in 2019, when the government is expected to release data from the first nationwide water-quality survey since rivers got their chiefs. But anecdotal evidence is promising. A man fishing in the Bahe river recounts how the water was “opaque green” and fetid just two years ago. Today it is clear and odourless. He credits the river-chief system.
Those with complaints about foul water can easily find out whom to call: noticeboards have been erected by almost every river and lake with the name and mobile-phone number of a chief. Ms Huo, to her credit, answers calls. The same cannot be said of many other chiefs in Beijing. Surprise inspections will be carried out next year. Mr Liu says they may involve random test calls. Shirking chiefs, beware.