LEGAL GOVERNANCE ON MARINE ENVIRONMENTAL RISK CAUSED BY SEAWATER DESALINATION IN CHINA
Water, as the most abundant compound on the planet, covers three-quarters of the world’s area. However, freshwater resources are scarce, and the total amount of freshwater lakes and rivers on land is less than 2.5% of the total water. With the increasing pressure on resources and the environment due to social development and population growth, coupled with climate anomalies in recent years, more and more countries begin to seek freshwater resources. Because the ocean is rich in water resources, obtaining fresh water from seawater has become an important technology and means to increase the total amount of fresh water, ensure the water supply of coastal residents and industrial boilers, and realize the reuse of water resources. Seawater desalination has thus become the focus of many countries to solve the problem of lacking freshwater resources.
Seawater desalination in China launched in the 1960s. Especially since entering into the 21 Century, with the support of special national policies such as the National Five-Year Plan for National Economy and Social Development, the Special Plan for Seawater Utilization, the Opinions of General Office of the State Council on Accelerating the Development of Seawater Desalination Industry, etc., the seawater desalination in China has developed rapidly. By the end of 2016, 131 seawater desalination projects have been established in China, the scale of seawater desalination projects exceeded 1.18 million tons per day, and more than 120.1 billion tons seawater was used as cooling water. Recently, the National Development and Reform Commission issued the Thirteenth Five-Year Plan for National Seawater Utilization (2016-2020) and points out that the total scale of seawater desalination in China shall reach 2.2 million tons per day by the end of the Thirteenth Five-Year Plan. Besides, Thirteenth Five-Year Plan for National Seawater Utilization emphasizes to increase the input of the central and local governments, improve the incentive subsidy policy, and explore the PPP model. It is thus clear that the Thirteenth Five-Year Plan period will be a crucial period for the large-scale application of seawater utilization in China.
Although seawater desalination industry in China has significantly developed, and the problem of shortage of freshwater resources in China has been solved to a great extent, this technology causes marine environmental pollution including ocean water intake systems, brine/effluent discharge, and thermal pollution. For example, the water recovery rate of the desalination by distillation is 15% to 50%, the water recovery rate of the membrane desalination is around 50%, and the rest of the concentrated brine usually is discharged back to the sea directly after desalination. Also, the emissions of chemicals, corrosion products, absorbed heat, etc., during the desalination process will have an impact on the environment and ecology of the offshore waters. As the demand for freshwater and the scale of desalination increase, the degree of impact will increase inevitably. It thus can be seen that improving the current regulatory framework and legal system on seawater desalination is imminent.
Research on seawater desalination is developing rapidly. However, there appears to be no international literature considering the regulatory system and legal system for seawater desalination in China. The regulatory system refers to the system of managing desalinated seawater as an important non-traditional water resource under the guidance of the legal system. The legal system refers to laws and regulations related to seawater utilization management. For domestic literatures, most studies focus on the technological development of seawater desalination or consider how to encourage the construction of seawater desalination plants, rather than having identified the existing regulatory and legal problems or having set forth corresponding solutions systematically and comprehensively. Only one domestic study suggests enacting a new law to solve the problems caused by seawater desalination. However, the most effective way to solve the current problem is always to improve the existing regulatory and legal system rather than enacting a new law. Therefore, the aim of the present work tries to identify the regulatory deficiencies and legal absence and ensure the current regulatory framework and legal system for seawater desalination in China can be improved.
Since the main purpose of this article is to consider how to effectively prevent or reduce the marine environment risks caused by seawater desalination and improve the existing regulatory framework and legal system in China, the article is divided into five parts: introduction, marine environment risks caused by seawater desalination, current regulatory framework and legal systems involved in seawater desalination and reasons why they are inadequate, suggestions for improving Chinese regulatory framework and legal systems for seawater desalination, and conclusion.
II. MARINE ENVIRONMENT RISKS CAUSED BY SEAWATER DESALINATION
At the time of contributing to the improvement of living standards in China, the seawater desalination has also brought marine environmental pollution to certain degrees. This paper takes the seawater desalination projects in the Bohai Economic Rim as an example to demonstrate the marine environment risks of seawater desalination in the Bohai Sea of China.
The Bohai Economic Rim includes Beijing, Tianjin, and certain areas in Heibei, Shandong and Liaoning, the land area of the Bohai Economic Rim is 0.518 million square kilometers and accounts for 13.31% of the total territory, and the population in the Bohai Economic Rim is 230 million and accounts for 22.2% of the total population. In geography, the Bohai Economic Rim is located in the center of the Northeast Asian economic circle. To the south, it is connected to the Yangtze River Delta, the Pearl River Delta, Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan and Southeast Asian countries. To the east, it communicates with South Korea and Japan. To the north, it links Mongolia and Russia. This unique geographical advantage provides a favorable environment and conditions for the economic development of the Bohai Economic Rim. According to the China Marine Economic Statistics Bulletin 2018, the total marine production value of the Bohai Economic Rim has reached 2,466 billion yuan and accounted for 29.1% of the national total marine production by the end of 2018.
However, the Bohai Economic Rim is the most water-deficient region in China. The per capita water resources are less than 1,000 cubic meters, and the problems of groundwater over-exploitation and seawater intrusion are serious. Therefore, in recent years, the enthusiasm for constructing seawater desalination projects in the cities along the coast of the Bohai Sea keeps rising, and many seawater desalination projects such as the Qingdao Baifa Seawater Desalination Project, the BEWG Aqualyng Seawater Desalination Project, etc., have been put into use (Table 1). However, the geographical pattern of the Bohai Economic Rim makes the exchange capacity of the seawater in the Bohai Sea is inferior, and the entire water cycle is about 30 years or longer. Therefore, a large amount of concentrated brine, corrosion products, chemical cleaning agents produced by desalinating seawater will inevitably hurt the marine environment of the Bohai Sea.
Table 1: Major Seawater Desalination Projects in the Bohai Economic Rim
A. The Impact of Seawater Desalination on the Land Environment
At present, China mainly adopts reverse osmosis (RO) and multiple-effect distillation (MED) to desalinate seawater. As of the end of 2016, the proportion of RO accounted for 68.4%, and the proportion of EMD accounted for 31.07%. A serious disadvantage to seawater desalination is the amount of energy it requires. Relevant researches have shown that for one cubic meter of fresh water, the energy consumption range of RO and MED is 3-6 kWh and 18-30 kWh respectively. At the same time, MED should also include extra kinetic energy consumption of 1.2-4.5 kWh, while RO’s kinetic energy consumption is greater since RO has no energy recovery devices. Correspondingly, the process of burning fuel to generate energy will produce and discharge polluting exhaust gases, such as carbon dioxide, and this process will cause global warming and pollute the atmosphere. Although the energy consumption of reverse osmosis equipment has been improved with the advancement of technology, such as the application of energy recovery systems, energy consumption is still the most important cost component of seawater desalination.
In addition to the impact of energy consumption, other impacts on the social environment include: First, the seawater desalination facilities and plants normally locate at the coastline, and the relevant infrastructure construction needs a large amount of land. For example, a reverse osmosis desalination plant with a water production of 5,000-10,000 cubic meters per day may need 10,000 square meters of land. Moreover, the corresponding supporting infrastructure will also cause land occupation, such as the transmission of electrical energy, water supply and transportation pipelines for aquatic products. It will lead to the development of the coast to the industrial zone, destroying the natural landscape, and reducing the value of land in the coastal areas. Second, a large number of pipelines for transporting seawater and concentrated brine are buried underground, and corrosion or leakage of these pipelines will contaminate the aquifer. Third, the noise pollution of seawater reverse osmosis desalination equipment is very serious. The normal operation of the high-pressure pump and energy recovery system can generate more than 90 decibels of noise, which will affect the equipment operators and surrounding residents. Fourth, the RO must be degassed to prevent scaling and corrosion, and the CO2 released by the process of degassing will be directly discharged into the atmosphere, which also causes air pollution.
B. The Impact of Seawater Desalination on the Marine Environment
1. Salinity. — The average salinity of seawater in the Bohai Sea is approximately 30,000 milligrams per liter. However, due to the high evaporation rate, the small amount of freshwater inflow, and the concentrated brine discharge from desalination plants, the salinity of seawater in some areas far exceeds the average. Studies have shown that, according to the seawater desalination planning amount planned by China, the concentration brine caused by seawater desalination will lead to a significant increase in the salinity in the Bohai Sea. Although brine discharges are often denser than seawater of natural salinities, plumes tend to extend further along the seafloor than at the surface. The excessive salinity at the seafloor is still fatal to the crustaceans perched on the seafloor with poor salt tolerance, and long-term high salinity may cause changes in the species composition and distribution of marine organisms. For example, as the main target of marine aquaculture in the Bohai Sea, the survival rate of Orithyia Sinica and Litopenaeus Vannamei will significantly reduce when the salinity exceeds.
2. Thermal Pollution. — The seawater discharged from the cooling water system is accompanied by a certain amount of heat, and this will cause thermal pollution to the marine environment. The distribution and extent of thermal impacts are influenced by the location of the plant discharge, with brine discharges to enclosed water bodies more likely to result in measurable thermal effects than discharges to well-flushed environments. However, the Bohai Sea is a large semi-enclosed shallow water basin. Excessive temperatures may directly affect the growth and reproduction of marine organisms in the Bohai Sea, alter their physiological functions of marine organisms, and affect their ability to lay eggs, grow and hatch. Moreover, increased water temperature is an important consideration when toxic substances are present in water, and many substances, such as zinc, exhibit increased toxicity at elevated temperatures. All these may cause serious ecological damage and change the distribution, composition, and diversity of natural marine ecosystems. Also, the increase in seawater temperature affects many essential parameters such as seawater level and dissolved oxygen content, and this adversely affects marine life and water quality.
3. Corrosion Products. — In the process of MED, various heat transfer tubes such as aluminum brass and nickel brass are used inside the evaporator. Therefore, the concentrated brine discharged by seawater desalination plants usually contains some corrosion products such as copper, nickel, iron, and zinc. According to the 2017 Bulletin of China Marine Ecological Environment Status, most of the seawater quality in the Bohai Economic Rim is heavily polluted, and especially the heavy metals are seriously exceeded. Metal ions, through diffusion and deposition, will be absorbed by deep-sea organisms and eventually passed through the entire food chain. Although certain metal ions are also essential micronutrients for most organisms, they are toxic if their concentration exceeds the amount required by the organism. Therefore, these corrosion products can also adversely affect the marine environment in the Bohai Sea.
4. Chemical Cleaning Agents. — In the process of seawater desalination, filters, evaporators, and membrane modules need to be cleaned periodically. Although the discharge of cleaning waste liquid belongs to microscale discharge and generally meets discharge standards, the discharge should also satisfy the total emission limitation. Otherwise, the discharge of cleaning waste liquid will cause pollution of the marine environment and affect the living conditions of marine organisms.
5. Mechanical Effect on Marine Organism. — This kind of effect is mainly caused by the location of seawater desalination projects, the design of seawater desalination intake system and other non-biological factors. The flow of seawater through the filtration system and the condensing system is usually accompanied with the death of marine organisms, and this will influence the number and community of organisms in seawater and the composition of the biological chain in the ocean. For example, studies have shown that the damage rate caused by mechanical shock to phytoplankton entering the seawater intakes reached 11.89% to 27.08% in the Bohai Sea. Since the zooplankton is relatively large, the damage rate is much more serious. Other studies have shown that the damage rate to larval shrimp reached 24.3% to 56.9%, and the average damage rate reached 40% in the Bohai Sea.
In summary, the composition, concentration, heat, corrosion products and cleaning discharge water of the concentrated brine have seriously affected the marine environment and adversely affected the marine water quality, ecological environment, and marine life. It is thus necessary to explore whether that the existing legal system and regulatory framework in China can effectively solve all these potential environmental problems caused by seawater desalination industry.
III. THE EXISTING LEGAL SYSTEM CONCERNING SEAWATER DESALINATION IN CHINA
A. The Legal System of Reducing Marine Environment Risks of Seawater Desalination
The issue of seawater desalination pollution control is a comprehensive problem involving many fields. At present, the legal system in China has provided a relatively complete institutional guarantee for the utilization of resources in the sea and seabed areas and marine living resources. However, for the development, utilization and regulation of seawater that constitutes the main body of the ocean, China has not yet formed a specialized system. In order words, there are no specific laws or legal systems to regulate seawater desalination and its pollution in China, and the relevant stipulations are scattered among various laws and regulations. The imperfection of the legal system restricts the development of the seawater desalination and utilization to a certain extent, and it is also not conducive to the active and effective prevention and control of the adverse environmental impacts caused by seawater development and utilization activities.
First, from the perspective of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, the constitutional provisions on environmental protection are the basis of environmental law in China. Paragraph 2 of article 9 of the Constitution proposes safeguards requirements for natural resources. The first paragraph of article 26 of the Constitution stipulates that ‘the state protects and improves the environment in which people live and the ecological environment. It prevents and controls pollution and other public hazards.’ Also, article 32 of the Amendments to the Constitution of 2018 introduces the ‘Ecological Civilization’, and this demonstrates that the Constitution is going to further strengthen the maintenance and repair of the basic ecology by protecting the environment and preventing pollution.
Second, from the perspective of the specific laws, the specific legislations or regulations on environment protection in China are mainly classified into pollution control legislation and environmental protection legislation. The former includes the Environmental Protection Law of the People’s Republic of China, the Marine Environment Protection Law of the People’s Republic of China, etc., and the latter includes the Water Law of the People’s Republic of China, the Fisheries Law of the People’s Republic of China, the Wild Animal Conservation Law of the People’s Republic of China, etc.?At present, the laws as mentioned above, together with relevant laws and regulations and international conventions, have formed a marine environmental protection legal system in China.
The Environmental Protection Law of the People’s Republic of China of 2014 is the basic law for environmental and resource protection in China. This law has established the basic guidelines to coordinate economic and social development with environmental protection and formulated five major policies of ‘giving priority to protection, focusing on prevention, conducting comprehensive treatment, engaging the general public, and enforcing accountability for damage’. In addition, articles 6 and 28(2) of this law stipulates that ‘the local people’s governments at all levels shall be responsible for the environmental quality within their respective administrative regions’, and ‘relevant local people’s governments in the key regions and valley areas failing to meet the national standards for environment quality shall work out plans for correction and take measures to meet such national standards within a prescribed period’. These two provisions clarify the responsible authority for regional water pollution (including water pollution caused by desalination) in China and demonstrate the general measures of preventing water pollution in key areas.
The Marine Environment Protection Law of the People’s Republic of China of 2017 applies to the internal waters, territorial seas, contiguous zones, exclusive economic zones and continental shelves of China and all other sea areas under the jurisdiction of China. Article 47 of this law stipulates that ‘The marine engineering construction project must conform to the national marine main functional area planning, marine functional zoning, marine environmental protection planning, and national environmental protection standards. The marine engineering construction project unit shall conduct a scientific investigation on the marine environment, prepare a marine environmental impact report, and report it to the marine administrative department for review and approval before the construction project starts.’ Article 49 stipulates that ‘Marine engineering construction projects shall not use materials containing ultra-standard radioactive materials or easily toxic and harmful substances.’
The Fisheries Law of the People’s Republic of China of 2013 is formulated to enhance the protection, increase, development and reasonable utilization of fishery resources, developing artificial cultivation, protecting fishery workers’ lawful rights and interests and boosting fishery production. This law mainly provides for the rational development of the aquaculture system, the rational fishing system, the proliferation of fishery resources and the protection system. Although there are no specific provisions on related pollution, this law also plays a protective role in the development of the fishery environment.
The Water Law of the People’s Republic of China of 2016 is formulated for the rational development, utilization, preservation, and protection of water. It should be noted that article 24 of this law is the only article that directly mentions seawater desalination in China. Article 24 stipulates that ‘In areas short of water resources, the state shall encourage the collection, development, and utilization of rain and minor salt water and the utilization and desalination of seawater.’ Moreover, the relevant stipulations of the development and utilization of water resources and the protection of water resources contained in this law are closely related to seawater desalination pollution control. For example, article 28 stipulates that ‘No entity or individual shall, while channeling, storing, or discharging water, infringe upon public interests or the lawful rights and interests of other people.’ Also, article 33 stipulates that ‘The State establishes a protection system for zones of drinking water sources. The people’s governments of provinces, autonomous regions or municipalities directly under the Central Government shall define the drying-up of the water sources and pollution of the water bodies, for the purpose of ensuring town and county residents’ safety in respect of drinking water.’
The Wild Animal Conservation Law of the People’s Republic of China of 2018 has been enacted to conserve wild animals, saving rare and endangered species of wild animals, maintaining biological diversity and ecological balance, and advancing ecological civilization. The wild animals in the law include marine organism. Therefore, this also promotes pollution control by protecting the contaminated objects in certain degrees, although the law lacks detailed and specific regulations.
Table 2: Provisions Related in Seawater Desalination in China
Third, from the perspective of the statutory function of regulatory departments, the specific functions of various regulatory departments have mainly focused on how to ensure the development of seawater desalination industry, rather than protecting the marine environment and solving the problems of marine environmental pollution. At the national level, the national ministries and commissions related to seawater desalination affairs mainly include the National Development and Reform Commission, the Ministry of Water Resources, the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Ministry of Nature Resource, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the Ministry of Finance. However, according to the State Council Institutional Reform Proposal and the Notice of the State Council on the Setup of Institutions, the National Development and Reform Commission, the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, and the Ministry of Finance provide development conditions for seawater desalination from development strategies, industrial policies, fiscal policies, technological equipment development, research and development, the Ministry of Water Resources and the State Oceanic Administration implement specific regulations of seawater desalination from guiding the development and utilization of unconventional water sources, and regulating the use of seawater desalination sea area (Table 3).
Also, at the provincial level, certain provinces and municipalities directly under the central government have established specific seawater desalination development leading groups. For example, Zhejiang Province has established the seawater desalination industry development coordination group to compile the desalination industry development plan and implement the management of seawater desalination. Tianjin has established the seawater desalination leading group to formulate the seawater desalination development planning and coordinate and guide the development of seawater desalination industry. Fujian Province established the leading group for comprehensive utilization of seawater to strengthen guidance and coordination and timely solve significant problems in the utilization of seawater. However, in the vast majority of provinces and municipalities directly under the central government, the regulatory departments carry out certain regulatory works according to the relevant laws, policies and regulations.
Table 3: The Current Statutory Functions of Central Ministries
B. Inadequate Legal Protection
The legal system as mentioned earlier has played a positive role in the treatment of seawater desalination. However, the lack of a specific legal system on the governance of marine pollution risks caused by seawater desalination in China directly causes the issues of pollution cannot be adequately solved.
The first is conceptual limitations. From a historical perspective, China values land and pays insufficient attention to seawater utilization. For example, when solving the problem of water shortage in coastal cities, the government always consider how to transfer remote water, rather than using seawater to alleviate water shortages in coastal cities. In the long run, traditional methods such as impounding precipitation, mining groundwater and transferring remote water can only achieve spatial and temporal displacement of water resources, and this cannot increase the total amount of water resources. Therefore, the strategic choice to solve the shortage of freshwater in coastal cities shall vigorously develop the seawater utilization industry and seek new freshwater source only. It is thus necessary to further improve the understanding of how to use seawater as a water resource and pay more attention to seawater desalination.?Besides, we have not fully considered the comprehensive utilization of seawater resources. The specific performances include: (1) insufficient understanding on the development and utilization of seawater resources and the growing maturity of economics brought by technological progress; (2) lack of understanding of the status quo of economic development and self-improvement of the industry; (3) lack of enthusiasm for using seawater based on misconceptions that the cost of seawater desalination is high, and the technology is complex, and worrying about the cost and reliability of seawater desalination technology subjectively. These misunderstandings about the use of seawater have caused China seawater utilization industry to fall behind the developed countries of the world.
The second is the limitations on the legislative value. The legislative value is the social value of the law pursued in the process of lawmaking. On the issue of seawater desalination, its legislative value is how the law balances the relationship between sewage treatment and economic development. In the early stage of economic development, we must acknowledge that the ecological environment has indeed contributed to economic development and we conceded the protection of the ecological environment. With the development of economy and society, people’s values and behavior patterns have gradually changed, and the concept of coordination between economic development and environmental protection has formed in China today. For example, the Third Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Central Committee held in 2013 initiated the reform of the ecological civilization system. The specific measures include: (1) establishing a systematic theory of ecological civilization and cultivating the concept of ecological civilization from indoctrination to self-consciousness; (2) ensuring the authenticity of the environment and development decision-making and the evaluation and assessment of the objectives of ecological civilization construction by monitoring the data fraud; (3) ensuring the full and fair implementation of the law through ecological compensation, compensation for ecological environmental damage, administrative detention, and serious internal party discipline; and (4) promoting environmental co-governance through information disclosure, public participation and judicial intervention. However, the development of the law has not quickly adapted to this change. Especially, the enforcement of relevant laws in China has not yet shaken off the constraints of economic development on relevant pollution prevention legal systems and policy instruments.
The third is the lack of a complete regulatory system. As a technology that is beneficial and can effectively solve the current water shortage, most of the laws or regulations related to seawater desalination in China are standing in an encouraging position rather than carrying out the research on their pollution, regulating the source of pollution, and dealing with the damage results. Although the Thirteenth Five-Year Plan for National Seawater Utilization has emphasized to establish a regulatory system for the seawater utilization, China’s seawater desalination regulatory system is still unsatisfactory so far, and it is difficult to meet the institutional requirements for protecting the marine environment and ecology and promoting the development of seawater desalination. First, the division of power of relevant departments is unclear, and the administrative functions overlap each other. For example, under the current regulatory framework, the Ministry of Water Resources has the task of guiding the development of non-traditional water resources, and the Ministry of Nature Resource has the tasks of researching and managing seawater utilization. However, the seawater desalination belongs to both non-traditional water resources development and seawater utilization in China. It is thus clear that the division of power between the Ministry of Water Resources and the Ministry of Nature Resource is unclear, and the administrative functions of these two departments overlap each other. This may result in unfavorable situations such as functional vacuum, overlapping management, unclear responsibilities, and mutual prevarication. Second, the working mechanism for departmental collaboration has not been established. There are many departments involved in the management of seawater desalination in China. However, the absence of departmental cooperation working mechanism in marine environmental protection, research and development, equipment development, etc., is not conducive to managing the seawater desalination industry jointly.
The fourth is the lack of a normative system. As a technology that is beneficial and can effectively solve the current water shortage, most of the laws or regulations related to seawater desalination in China are standing in an encouraging position rather than carrying out the research on their pollution, regulating the source of pollution, and dealing with the damage results.
The fifth is the ambiguity of related concepts. In the relevant laws, there are confusions about the titles of management departments, the qualification of behavioral subjects, and the concept of behavior. For example, the title of the environmental protection administrative department has various titles such as the environmental protection department, the environmental protection bureau, and the environmental protection administrative department. The main body of the behavior is different from ‘the enterprise and public institutions’, ‘the sewage units or key pollutant discharge units’, ‘legal persons, other organizations and individual industrial and commercial households’. In fact, this phenomenon also exposed the lack of relevant research in China.
According to China’s political tradition, the author believes that as long as the awareness of the desalination industry is enhanced and strengthened from the policy and legal level, the traditional Chinese thinking about water use will naturally be changed. Therefore, in terms of the current status of China’s seawater desalination industry, the most important thing is to improve the legal system and the regulatory system at the same time. Specifically, first of all, improving the understanding of the development and utilization of seawater resources, relevant technical means of desalination, and the status quo of economic development and self-improvement of the industry through the formulation of regulatory policies; secondly, clarifying the legal responsibility and ensuring the reliability of desalination technology through a complete legal system.
IV. SUGGESTIONS FOR PREVENTING AND REDUCING MARINE ENVIRONMENTAL RISKS
A. Establishing Correct Legislative Values and Macro Strategic Plans for Marine Development
As one of the marine development and utilization projects, seawater desalination reflects the efficient use of oceans by humans, but we should also take into account the protection of marine resources. Therefore, it is necessary to adhere to the coordination between economic development and environmental protection and establish a macro-strategy for marine development. This will be conducive to preventing and controlling pollution and protecting marine resources. Under the guidance of the macro-strategy of marine development, the local governments shall select appropriate seawater desalination and sewage treatment methods based on different characteristics of each region to achieve source control of seawater desalination pollution. Also, according to the actual operation, it is necessary to enact matching laws and regulations to control pollution sources and improve pollution control rules strictly.
B. Improving the Relevant Legal Systems
All laws and related provisions in China that directly or indirectly involve seawater environmental protection are presented in this paper. Obviously, it is impossible to prevent seawater pollution or even environmental pollution caused by seawater desalination according to these legal provisions. China thus needs to establish a marine environmental protection legal system to effectively solve the pollution risks caused by seawater desalination, including revising and improving the Marine Environmental Protection Law.
China had initially enacted the Marine Environmental Protection Law in the 1980s, and the law mainly focused on the prevention and control of marine pollution. Although this law has been amended twice in 1999 and 2017 respectively, there are still many shortcomings in regulating seawater desalination. As mentioned earlier, during the desalination of seawater, a large area of high-concentration brine is discharged, which has a salinity higher than twice that of ordinary seawater and the temperature is far higher than the temperature of ordinary seawater. Also, desalination techniques such as evaporation are prone to causing corrosion, which in turn causes some heavy metal waste to be released. Since these concentrations of brine and corrosion products are circulated into the ocean, the Marine Environment Protection Law shall thus pay attention to the marine pollution caused by these high-concentration brines and corrosion products during the development of the desalination industry.
No matter which way we choose, the marine pollution risk regulation must include the following standards: (1) An environmental impact assessment system to assess and analyze the environmental impacts of seawater desalination projects, propose measures to mitigate or prevent adverse environmental effects and continue to monitor sites after construction and operation. (2) A scientific and reasonable standard for emission by addressing the pollution caused by wastewater of seawater desalination projects. On the one hand, it needs to satisfy the freshwater needs for social development, but on the other hand, it is also necessary to curb pollution from the source without causing environmental pollution according to the actual local environmental conditions. (3) Clarify the regulatory system as mentioned earlier, define the regulatory functions of each department, and implement all-round and adequate supervision and regulation. (4) Implement a strict accountability system, formulate targeted punishment measures, and strictly supervise and manage the seawater desalination projects. Once any seawater desalination project violates the law, it will face administrative penalties such as high fines, social publicity and shutting down the facility until the problems are corrected.
C. Improving the Regulatory System for the Seawater Utilization
Seawater desalination regulation is an important part of the attribution of titles to natural resources and regulatory system in China. Especially since the marine environment situation becomes more and more severe, the development of seawater desalination industry is related to the healthy and sustainable development of human beings in the future. In the face of the lack of legislation on seawater desalination, China needs to make overall plans and actively formulate relevant policies, standards and regulations for the development of green seawater utilization. Therefore, in addition to confirm the legal status of seawater and establish a marine environmental protection system, China needs to further strengthen the industrial planning of seawater desalination, pay attention to its connection with relevant systems such as marine ecological red line and ecological compensation, clarify the government’s regulatory responsibility and public participation procedures, and legalize a rational, standardized and unified regulatory system for developing seawater desalination utilization and protecting marine environment.
To improve seawater desalination regulatory system and protect marine environment, China shall integrate seawater desalination into unified regulation of marine resources, clarify statutory functions of various regulatory departments, improve the coordination mechanism, and promote marine environment and ecology protection by institutional construction. The improvement of China’s seawater desalination regulatory system should follow three principles, which are the principle of coordination and cooperation, the principle of performing functions by law, and the principle of managing seawater desalination according to law. The principle of coordination and cooperation requires that the regulation of seawater desalination should reflect the rational arrangement between the longitudinal structural authority and lateral functional structure within the government system, clarify the regulatory functions of sweater desalination, and form a rational division of liabilities. The principle of performing functions by law requires that the regulatory departments shall perform duties according to laws and regulations and avoid exercising their administrative power arbitrarily. The principle of managing seawater desalination according to law requires that the regulation of seawater desalination should be clearly defined through laws and regulations to ensure there are laws to be obeyed and avoid the arbitrary exercise of administrative powers.
Based on these three principles, the National Development and Reform Commission shall formulate the seawater desalination development strategy and reasonably arrange major seawater desalination projects, the Ministry of Finance shall improve the fiscal policy for the development of seawater desalination and the protection of marine environment, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology shall formulate the environment protection standards for seawater desalination equipment, the Ministry of Science and Technology shall formulate the policy of technical research and development and provide technological support for marine environment and ecology, the Ministry of Water Resources shall guide the exploitation of seawater desalination, the Ministry of Nature Resource shall formulate seawater desalination regulations and standards to protect the marine environment and ecology, and the Ministry of Ecology and Environment shall demonstrate the environmental impact of seawater desalination, prevent marine pollution, monitor marine environment, and protect marine environment and ecology (Table 4). Correspondingly, various provincial-level or municipal-level departments shall perform their functions related to the regulation of seawater desalination under the leadership of central ministries. If necessary, the provinces and cities may, according to their circumstances, establish a coordination group to formulate environmental protection policies to protect marine environment and ecology and promote the healthy development of marine environment and ecology in China.
Table 4: Proposed Statutory Functions of Central Ministries
Table 4 shows the author’s expectations for the statutory functions that the State Council of China and its functional departments should have. The author believes if the functional departments of the State Council can correctly perform these duties, the development of China’s desalination industry will not only lead to the dilemma of high-risk and low-return but also continue to promote the further development of people livelihood and industrial economy in China.
D. Establishing an Industry Access System for Seawater Utilization
Since seawater utilization projects are associated with many other industries, it is an extremely heavy system engineering, so a comprehensive planning is required in terms of skills innovation, industrial adjustment, and industrial development. Even though the government has paid great attention to the development prospects of the seawater desalination industry in terms of relevant national policies, so far the relevant departments have not formulated a set of rules and regulations that can be put into effective industry access for seawater desalination. The lack of industry access system will limit the progress of the desalination industry in China. For example, the lack of industry access system will cause the main bodies in the market are uneven, so that the quality of the product water cannot be effectively guaranteed. In addition, the lack of industry access system also causes many problems in industry and regional planning, such as the enterprise level is uneven, the industrial effect cannot be guaranteed, and there is no complete market chain and macro-control of government. Also, we cannot solve the questions that which department shall have the right to supervise and manage seawater desalination industry and what are corresponding standards without industry access system. All these problems are not conducive to the long-term development of the seawater desalination industry in China, and can only be solved by establishing an industry access system for seawater utilization.
Therefore, the State Oceanic Administration, the Ministry of Water Resources, the State Administration of Taxation, the Ministry of Land and Resources, the Ministry of Environmental Protection and other departments shall jointly establish an Industry Access System for Seawater Utilization to standardize seawater utilization. Or it can be dominated by the State Oceanic Administration by establishing a permanent joint institution to implement or detail the future seawater utilization in China.
E. Establishing and Improving the System for Seawater Utilization Technology Standardization
The scientific research on seawater desalination began in China in the 1950s, and it has achieved the success of many projects with the social development. Due to the continuous improvement of seawater development and utilization technology, the standardization of seawater desalination has also made great progress. Nowadays, in the development of seawater resources, more than 20 industry standardizations have been released, including roll type ultrafiltration technology, the technology of electrodialysis and hollow fiber reverse osmosis technology, etc. The development of high-tech technology in seawater development plays an important role in the development and progress of human civilization, but we still need to further formulate and implement more industry standardizations for more technologies, including the standardization for chemical agents for desalination and anti-corrosion coatings used in seawater desalination evaporators, etc.
Although China has made brilliant achievements in the process of exploiting seawater in recent years, there are still some difficulties. The number of management standards is small, and some important technologies, products, testing standards, etc. are still blank; and many international standards for seawater utilization products have hindered not only the advancement and improvement of seawater development and utilization technologies in China, but also the entry of China’s marine products into the international market. Therefore, establishing and improving the system of seawater utilization technology standardization will enable China to develop the seawater utilization industry better and strengthen the core competitiveness of related products in the international market. First, further establish and improve various standards for seawater utilization, including technology, management and product standards, so that the certification field of water-saving products covers seawater development and utilization products; Second, vigorously strengthen the research on relevant standards in the fields of comprehensive utilization of seawater, seawater desalination, seawater cooling technology, etc., which will make the standard of comprehensive utilization of seawater more perfect; and third, further standardize the supervision and quality inspection of relevant industrial equipment, improve the standardization of the use of seawater, and promote the rapid development of the industry. To this end, China should continue to develop and rectify seawater utilization standards in accordance with the development needs of the national seawater utilization industry and technology, continue to implement the seawater utilization standard strategy, and establish and improve the seawater utilization standard system in China.
First, further development of technical indicators related to the utilization of seawater resources will be strengthened. Actively carry out research work on the standardization for seawater desalination raw materials, pharmaceuticals, installations and water drainage, increase monitoring and testing of seawater utilization water quality, seawater utilization survey, seawater resource utilization and protection, and further improve the effectiveness and usability of existing relevant standards. Correspondingly, accelerate the formulation of relevant laws and policies and the establishment of relevant management norms to strengthen the development of the utilization of seawater resources.
Second, strengthen the formulation of national mandatory standards for the sanitation, safety and environmental protection of seawater utilization. In accordance with the relevant national requirements, strengthen the research on mandatory standards for the seawater production equipment related to the health of the human body and property safety in the aspects of transportation, packaging, use, etc. Moreover, it is necessary to formulate mandatory standards in the use of seawater resources and energy conservation, and implement the certification of seawater utilization products again.
By studying the management requirements of seawater utilization in China, we will establish relevant technical systems and equipment certification systems for the utilization of seawater resources, and promote the further standardization of certification procedures for seawater equipment.?In terms of market access and market supervision, the role of seawater utilization standards shall be greatly enhanced, and the further development of seawater development and utilization industries in China shall be strengthened and promoted.
F. Clarifying the Incentive System for Seawater Utilization
China should increase financial support and concretize incentives to ensure that all major towns receive water supply and reduce dependence on rainwater. Moreover, China should use subsidies, taxation, credit and other incentives to provide financial interest subsidies for seawater utilization project construction loans that have passed environmental impact assessment and meet the procedural requirements. At the same time, China should formulate the implementing rules and regulations for tax reduction and exemption of seawater utilization enterprises and the promotion of new products. Relevant laws and regulations shall support seawater utilization products and equipment manufacturers and users in terms of land use, electricity, water, tax, credit, and charges, and encourage the enterprises to develop key technologies, equipment manufacturing and innovation capabilities for seawater desalination with independent intellectual property rights. In addition, in the initial stage of the development of seawater utilization industry, it is necessary to establish special funds for special seawater utilization, and promise to, at the time of gaining profits, set a scientific and reasonable water price of government purchase and establish a standardized seawater utilization assessment agency by taking into account the factors such as price and water price in various regions. All these will fundamentally mobilize the enthusiasm of seawater utilization enterprises in research and development, guide the capital to enter the seawater utilization industry and promote the sustainable utilization and development of seawater resources.
It is clear that the issue of seawater desalination has become more and more important than ever before in modern Chinese society. China needs seawater desalination to produce more freshwater. Correspondingly, the impact of seawater desalination on the marine environment is a new issue in China. With the growing desalination industry and China’s requirements that the development of emerging industries shall be green sustainability, this issue will surely attract the attention of the government and the public. Researching the damage that seawater desalination may cause to the marine environment and proposing effective and feasible solutions will play an important role in the benign development of the seawater desalination industry in China.
However, China has not paid enough attention to the environmental impact of seawater desalination, nor has not conducted a comprehensive and systematic study on the possible harm caused by seawater desalination. Therefore, we must acknowledge that the reality is that the current Chinese legal system and regulatory system cannot effectively regulate seawater desalination and protect the marine environment. Although some scholars advocate paying more attention to technology, expenditure and the role of government (not governance), what is needed in China is to further improve the Marine Environmental Protection Law through the National People’s Congress and its Standing Committee, and integrate seawater desalination into unified regulation of marine resources, clarify statutory functions of various regulatory departments, improve the coordination mechanism, and promote marine environment and ecology protection by institutional construction through the State Council. The benefit of this would be not only adequate water resources and environmental protection but also the economic benefit for China.