Beijing Water

Beijing water experts spurn tap water in private, public confidence plummets

(February 15, 2013) When Zhao Feihong, an expert on water quality in Beijing, revealed last month that she didn’t drink the city’s tap water herself, and had not for the past 20 years, the news shredded what little public confidence remained in the capital’s drinking water supply. Hasty reassurances from city authorities in an effort to calm renewed concern, only served to heighten suspicion. Many believe that if someone in Zhao’s position, as well as her husband – another water expert and a public official – did not consider Beijing’s tap water fit to drink, why should they?

By Lisa Peryman, for Probe International

Zhao Feihong, a researcher on drinking water in Beijing, has not drunk water from the tap in 20 years. Photo: CFP.

Zhao Feihong, a researcher on drinking water in Beijing, has not drunk water from the tap in 20 years. “We are probably the most mindful family about healthy drinking water.” Photo: CFP.

Accidental whistleblower, or otherwise, Zhao Feihong, 58, a water quality researcher with the Drinking Water Committee under the Beijing Health Care Association, found herself in hot water last month when news broke that she and her husband Li Fuxing , a water expert affiliated with the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), had stopped drinking Beijing’s tap water 20 years ago.

An interview published on Jan. 3 by China’s respected Southern Weekend newspaper, quotes Zhao as saying that she and her husband have been relying on bottled water for two decades and had convinced many of their friends and relatives to follow suit.

Through years of testing, Zhao has followed a deterioration in Beijing’s water quality due to high levels of contamination from garbage, leachate and fecal matter: “There’s no dispute about it,” she told Southern Weekend.

The city’s mountain valley Miyun reservoir, Beijing’s largest surface and drinking water resource, was once so clean “you could drink from it,” says Zhao. In the 1980s, it even met stringent German water quality standards. But in 2002, the standards for surface water were changed: what is deemed Class I now would have ranked as only Class III in the 1980s. Today, Miyun’s water is ranked Class II, meaning “it wouldn’t even meet Class III standards under the old version,” she added.

Beijing’s water quality problem is made that much worse when surface and ground water from deteriorating sources is added to the mix.

A former Beijing water official and expert, Wang Jian shared an example with Southern Weekend from 2010, when Beijing was forced to bring in water from the Cetian reservoir in Shanxi province, and the Youyi, Huliuhe, Xiangshuibao and Yunzhou reservoirs in Hebei. A visit to the Cetian reservoir at the time revealed dead fish floating on the surface, said Wang, and a water quality of only Class IV.

“Beijing spent a fortune on getting that water, but it was polluted,” he says.

While groundwater is cleaner than surface water, asserts Zhao, quality remains an issue, thanks to a growing problem from organic pollution. In the 1980s, the molecules were larger, explains Zhao, and could be filtered out. Now they are smaller and are more difficult to remove. Once they combine with chlorine that is used to disinfect the water, it produces by-products. “And that’s what’s really scary,” Zhao says.

If Beijing weren’t having enough trouble with its water quality, quantity is an even greater problem, says Zhao. “Almost all the wells around Beijing which were providing water in the 1980s are now dry,” she adds. Public domain data shows Beijing’s level of groundwater dropped between 1999 and 2009 from an average of 12 metres from the surface, to 24 metres. Three years ago, when helping to test groundwater samples, Zhao found the quality of samples drawn from 300 metres underground had deteriorated in quality over previous samples. At the present time, Beijing’s groundwater lies 30 metres below the surface.

Although the media firestorm, in the wake of Zhao’s Southern Weekend interview, drew statements from Beijing officials declaring the city’s tap water was safe to drink, city residents who began testing for themselves, found the gunk gathering in their faucets belied government confidence in safety. If an expert on water quality wasn’t willing to drink the city’s tap water, and for 20 years to boot, her lead surely represented the truth of the matter. Government reassurances that standards for water quality safety are more strict in the country’s capital than elsewhere in China are also no cause for confidence. The national standards of assessment they refer to have themselves become far more flexible evaluators of what is acceptable to drink and what is not.

As part of its damage control response, Beijing also made water quality information available to the public for the first time on Jan. 15, in an effort to demonstrate to residents that their drinking water was safe (the information is scheduled for publication quarterly via online updates). The data is allegedly based on samples taken throughout Beijing by the city’s 300 water quality monitoring stations.

However, a media officer with the Beijing Water Authority (BWA), identified only as Yu, revealed to the Global Times that this gesture was less generous than it appeared to be: “We want to publish this water data to let the public feel safe about their drinking water,” Yu is quoted as saying, adding, “besides, delegates from the National People’s Congress and members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference have demanded that we release the data over the years.”

Yu also divulged a questionable logic in his dismissal of the need for more frequent updates on water quality: “Unlike the air which is in a state of constant change, water quality is stable. So the quarterly release is enough.”

According to Zhao, it is not enough. The government should also let people know immediately what to do when the safety of their drinking water has been compromised, she said.

Ma Jun, chief of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, agrees.  Ma told the Global Times the quarterly time frame for reporting data is too long and that an independent monitor is  needed.

“The government needs to increase their public credibility on the testing report by introducing the supervision of a third party,” he said.

Zhao’s husband, Li Fuxing, had earlier gone public with his concerns regarding water quality data from government sources. In July 2012, Li told the South China Morning Post (SCMP) that government statistics on water quality misled the public.

“I don’t care much about the official data about drinking water quality because we never know exactly how they are compiled or even where they originally come from,” said Li.

At the time, SCMP wrote: “Although Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing have boldly claimed to have met the new national standards, which some officials have interpreted as a declaration that tap water is fit to drink, the public and experts are not impressed.

“Many people in Beijing say they are confused by conflicting reports about drinking water quality and are unable to share the government’s optimism following startling revelations about a long list of safety concerns.”

Zhang Junfeng, the founder of Happy Water Journeys an environmental protection campaign initiated by local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to enhance public understanding of urban rivers told the Global Times that in spite of what the government says, residents remained unconvinced. Water quality data released quarterly will not silence their fears.

Further Reading

A drop in China’s dirty water bucket
No city in China provides safe tap water to all of its residents, claims a report by Caixin Online. Water treatment is too costly for city budgets, say some officials; others say even when properly treated, old pipes compromise tap water.

Beijing family boycotts city’s tap water
Official figures show that in just 50 years the city’s per capita water resources have dropped to less than 100 cubic metres per capita – one tenth of the global average (as recently as 2008 the Beijing Water Authority put per capita water resources at under 300 cubic metres).

Beijing’s water hardness not cause of lithiasis, says BWA head
Some residents are questioning the credibility of the information, arguing that no third-party supervisory organization participates in water quality monitoring across the city.

China’s river pollution “a threat to people’s lives
About 20 percent of rivers were so polluted their water quality was rated too toxic even to come into contact with. “The deterioration of water quality has threatened the safety and health of people, while the water quality problem has limited the economic and social development and people’s lives.”

New effort to ease fears over water quality
“The water quality usually deteriorates after going through the water distribution system. Usually the intensity of microorganisms witnesses a slight increase during the transmission.” If sewage leaks occur, the water will be seriously polluted. “It is necessary for the government to check the pipes more often and come up with a set of emergency plans.”

Old pipes may taint Beijing water
“It’s a giant step forward that the government has started making the test results available to the public. However, what measures to take when water pollution occurs or the index fails to meet the standard is more important.”

Watered down truth
“Some local officials worried that if the public knew the truth, they would run riot. So they kept the truth from the public and lost its trust.”

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