(May 17, 2012) News of a nationwide survey on the precarious safety of China’s drinking water has brought an already volatile issue to the forefront of public concern, in part because the survey was never made public.
Lisa Peryman, Probe International
At least 1,000 out of 4,000 providers of urban tap water failed to meet revised, new quality standards introduced by the Ministry of Health in 2006, Beijing news magazine Century Weekly has revealed.
Conducted by Beijing’s Urban Water Quality Monitoring Center under the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development between 2008 and 2009, the monitoring center’s chief engineer Song Lanhe is quoted as saying water quality has not improved much since then, either.
“Among more than 4,000 water plants we surveyed, we found the water provided by over 1,000 plants was disqualified. I am not authorized to tell you the exact figure,” Song said.
Sources close to the ministry said the actual number of problematic treatment plants exposed by the survey could be as high as 50 percent. Song did not rule out, or confirm, the estimate.
The survey showed that the disqualified tap water contained high levels of CODmn – an index used to gauge the amounts of organic compounds in water. In severe cases, the accumulation of organic compounds in human bodies can cause cancer, deformities, even mutations.
In the wake of the report’s explosive findings, users of China’s leading website portal sina.com.cn twittered fears concerning the possibility of serious disease as a result of high CODmn and untreated remnants of heavy metals in drinking water, and criticized the government’s inability to ensure safety on this issue.
The government authorized news portal China.org.cn circulated a lengthy article on the magazine expose, stressing the urgency for independent water quality monitoring, stricter water treatment methods and upgraded urban water pipes. In the case of the latter, the water suppliers who failed the monitoring center’s tests did so because they were using outdated water pipes easily corrupted by pollution.
Meanwhile, a Caixin Online report claims 98 percent of more than 4,000 tap water plants at the end of 2009, were still using traditional treatment processes. Only some plants in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hangzhou and Zhengzhou were using the advanced treatment processes necessary to purify water and remove heavy metals and toxicological substances.
Various experts across the country emphasize the gravity of the Century Weekly report and the underlying failure of government to implement relevant safety standard regulations.
Speaking to Radio Free Asia, Guo Yongfeng, a Shenzhen-based, self-appointed consumer rights activist, said poor safety standards were a result of systemic problems at the official level to apply existing laws and safeguards.
“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.”
Calling on citizens to hold public servants to account for a recent spate of air pollution and product safety scandals, Guo said:
“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. The entrenched power of the bureaucracy is very strong. They look on us as if we were ants.”
Experts agree the fundamental solution to addressing the country’s water pollution is to clean up its water sources. However, they say this is a formidable task that may take 15 to 20 years to accomplish, at great expense. Although the technology is there, the will to implement it depends on investment from government and the water suppliers themselves.
Meanwhile, the water standards that were revised by the Ministry of Health in 2006 have been adopted in only some areas to date.
The 2006 revision, which will become mandatory for all of China on July 1, increases the number of water quality indicators that must be met from 35 to 106, in line with international standards. The increased range includes the detection of agricultural pesticides, various endocrine disrupting chemicals in the environment that threaten human health and better disinfectant measures, such as ozonization, which is widely used in developed countries.
Even so, Caixin Online’s sources estimate that by the time the new standards go into effect, the proportion of plants employing the necessary advanced treatment processes will only have ticked up by just one percentage point.
“China’s drinking water has become an extremely dangerous matter,” said Wu Yegang, a water resources expert. [See Radio Free Asia].
“There is so much pollution of the rivers and lakes, and also the groundwater, that this [survey expose] isn’t a surprise at all.”
Wu said China needed to establish a nationwide monitoring system for water providers and publish water quality findings on a regular basis.
“This is the most basic requirement,” he said.
It is widely recognized that massive amounts of capital and state-of-the art water treatment technology will be needed to supply Chinese citizens with safe water. This, says Elizabeth Brubaker, Environment Probe’s Executive Director, is best accomplished by private companies operating in arms-length relationships with municipal governments under the rule of law and with transparent contracts. See “The Economic Water Cycle” by Ms. Brubaker for further details.