Fears Over Drinking Water

Reports of contaminated tap water in southern China's Hainan province highlight a nationwide concern.
2013-01-15
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A local environmental protection department worker shows sample water from a chemical-contaminated river in Zhujing town, Shanghai, Jan. 11, 2013.
AFP

Residents and officials in China's southern island province of Hainan have been avoiding drinking local tap water for months, following reports that the water supplied to their homes is contaminated by heavy metals.

Wang Guanggan, a propaganda department official at the Zhonghe county town government, told local media that tests on tap water supplied by a newly established company in the county had revealed higher-than-permitted levels of manganese and nitrates.

Wang said the local government had already demanded that the water supply company invest in technical personnel and equipment and appoint someone to fix the problem.

He said that iron and manganese levels were also high in the underground water table, meaning that artesian well water was also unsafe to drink.

A Zhonghe resident also surnamed Wang said many local people had avoided drinking local tap water since May.

"None of the villagers drink tap water now," she said. "There is a problem with the water quality."

She said she didn't know whether well water was safe or not, however.

Water shipped in

Three decades of breakneck economic growth have taken a toll on China's natural resources, sparking a huge increase in public anger linked to environmental degradation and health problems caused by pollution.

While the country has a comprehensive set of environmental legislation, powerful vested interests at local level often hamper attempts to enforce it, campaigners say.

Ms. Wang said a truck shipped fresh water into her village daily, charging 2.5 yuan (U.S. $0.40) for a plastic container, a price which had since risen to 3 yuan (U.S. $0.48).

She said a family of five could easily use up 20 containers a month, while wholesale water would sell at 100 yuan (U.S. $16) a metric tonne.

"Some of the villagers here buy water [by the tonne] with their own money, but of course it's very inconvenient because you have to go and pick it up," she said.

New water supply station

Ms. Wang said the problems had started in early May after a new water supply station built by the local government began operations.

"I think the local government should take the most responsibility for this, because they're the ones who built the water supply station in the first place," she said.

"Why, after all this time, have they found no solution to the water quality issues?"

"They can't expect people to buy water over the long term; it's very inconvenient to have to carry our water up the stairs."

Government employees avoiding tap water

An official who answered the phone at the Zhonghe township government offices on Tuesday said colleagues there drank well water instead of water from the pipe system.

"Yes, I think so," the employee said, when asked if there were problems with the piped water supply.

And an official who answered the phone in the department responsible for building the water supply depot said experts were in the process of investigating the cause of the pollution.

"I have no concrete details to tell you, because this is the job of the testing departments, so you had better call them," she said.

Asked if colleagues in that department were drinking piped tap water, she replied: "No, none of us drinks the tap water."

"We have all drilled wells and we drink well water."

But she declined to answer further questions.

National issue

Meanwhile, authorities in Beijing began on Tuesday to make public test results for the city's tap water quality, as some residents said they hadn't drunk the tap water in two decades.

Beijing resident Li Bingui said that while residents had been avoiding tap water, recent product safety scares across China meant that even bottled mineral water was unsafe to drink.

"We say that Beijing tap water isn't very clean, or very healthy, but it is probably cleaner than some bottled water," Li said.

"We know even less about the quality of bottled water, and it might even be tap water that has become contaminated a second time during the bottling process.

A recent issue of the China Economics Weekly reported that less than 50% of China's piped water supply passed the government's own quality standards.

Public health experts are warning of the risk of a growing burden of disease as a result of dwindling supplies of drinkable water, as over-drilling of wells in drought-stricken northern China has led to unacceptably high levels of salt in the water table.

Water in southern China is commonly siphoned off from rivers to irrigate crops, with the run-off from farmlands pouring large quantities of nitrates and phosphorus from fertilizers back into the rivers, the paper said.

Officials have warned that China is facing a "grave" environmental crisis, with more than half its cities affected by acid rain and one-sixth of its major rivers too polluted even to water the crops with.

In September, Beijing pledged a renewed clampdown on the dumping of toxic waste following a chromium pollution scandal in its southwestern province of Yunnan which has prompted food safety fears in Hong Kong.

And last January, residents of the southwestern province of Guangxi began panic-buying bottled water after officials admitted that excessive cadmium levels were detected in the Longjiang River, a tributary of the Liujiang River, in Hechi city on Jan. 15.

Reported by Fung Yat-yiu and Ho Shan for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.