China's Drinking Water in Crisis

Poor safety standards, uneven enforcement lead to widespread pollution.
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A student drinks water on a hot day in Jiangsu province, May 6, 2012.
A student drinks water on a hot day in Jiangsu province, May 6, 2012.

Tap water supplied to millions of residents in hundreds of Chinese cities has failed to pass water quality tests in a recent nationwide survey, official media reported.

At least 1,000 providers of urban tap water failed the tests, which were carried out by the Urban Water Quality Monitoring Center under the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development in Beijing in 2009, the Century Weekly magazine reported this week.

It cited the monitoring center's chief engineer Song Lanhe as saying that water quality hadn't improved much since the survey, either.

"Among more than 4,000 water plants we surveyed, we found the water provided by over 1,000 plants was disqualified," the magazine quoted Song as saying.

"I am not authorized to tell you the exact figure," Song said.

Water resources expert Wu Yegang said he was unsurprised by the findings.

"China's drinking water has become an extremely dangerous matter," Wu told RFA's Mandarin service.

"There is so much pollution of the rivers and lakes, and also the groundwater, that this isn't a surprise at all."

He said the report sounded entirely credible. "This is a very real issue," he said. "There has to be a nationwide system for monitoring the water providers, and for publishing water quality figures at regular intervals."

"This is the most basic requirement."

Poor safety standards

The 2009 survey focused on the equipment used by companies to filter and supply the water. Previous studies have tested groundwater before it is supplied to people's homes.

It found that 50.8 percent of tap water suppliers failed water quality tests because they were using substandard pipes made of outdated materials.

Shenzhen-based consumer rights activist Guo Yongfeng said the poor safety standards came as a result of systemic problems in implementing existing laws and regulations.

"A lot of officials don't uphold the law, and they don't take their role as servants of society seriously," he said.

"The one-party dictatorship that we have in China right now gives way to all kinds of disasters at every level."

He called for a nationwide movement of Chinese citizens to hold public servants accountable for a slew of product safety and pollution scandals in recent years.

"It's not enough for a few people to get enlightened, and to write a few articles and give a few interviews to the media," Guo said.

"The entrenched power of the bureaucracy is very strong."

"They look on us as if we were ants."

Investment needed

Wu said that the equipment and technology already exists to solve China's drinking water problem.

"We are not talking high-tech here, we are talking very ordinary technology," he said.

"It's a question of whether the government wants to invest in it and bring the quality of drinking water up to standard."

"All that is required is investment; technology is not the issue here," Wu added.

According to a report last year from the State Environmental Protection Agency and the Chinese Academy of Engineering, around 90 percent of the water table under China's major cities is polluted to some extent, with residents of the worst-affected areas forced to buy drinking water.

Subterranean water reserves in nearly one-half of China's towns and cities fall short of national safety standards for drinking water, it said, meaning that the drinking water supply for around 190 million people has excessive pollution levels, it said.

Reported by Wen Jian for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.





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