World Water Day may have come and gone, but many eyes are still set on China’s water crisis, including those of China’s expat population, who are constantly trying to keep abreast of the latest developments and in reach of healthy water. As Greenpeace shares in a list of devastating facts about water pollution, approximately 320 million people are without access to clean water in China. This is not surprising, given the rapid industrialization and urbanization taking place within the nation’s borders. But what is being done about it? By taking a look at the general water situation in China as well as several recent high-profile incidents related to water pollution, this article will help you to better understand the environment and also offer advice on drinking safe, clean water in China.
The lowdown on China’s water situation
Water quality is a major concern in China largely due to man-made pollution and natural contamination. According to a long-term study completed in 2011 by the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Chinese Academy of Engineering, over 90 percent of the groundwater in cities was polluted to different degrees. Of 118 major cities, 64 percent had seriously contaminated groundwater supplies. Furthermore, laboratory tests conducted by the Ministry of Water Resources found that 20 percent of China’s rivers were so badly polluted that their waters were too dangerous to even come in contact with. These alarming water pollution statistics can be traced back to sources including manufacturing emissions, poorly treated sewage, industrial spills, and agricultural runoff. With 70 percent of China’s population depending on groundwater for their drinking supply, these startling numbers present a very serious health concern.
Unfortunately, pollution is only half of the country’s water problem. Not only might China’s water be toxic; it is also scarce. The Ministry of Water Resources reported in 2012 that nearly two-thirds of China’s cities are “water-needy” and more than 300 million rural residents lack access to drinking water. The Ministry concluded that the nation, on the whole, is only using 50 percent of its water supply effectively, with the agricultural industry held accountable for significant levels of wasted water.
Recent high-profile incidents related to water pollution
The issues impacting China’s environment are not going unnoticed in the media these days and water quality has certainly held its fair share of time in the spotlight. Let’s recall a few recent episodes that testify to China’s growing water pollution problem.
Just when you thought you could avoid all this mess by drinking bottled water, think again as a recent scandal has highlighted even more concerns in regard to water safety. As China Daily reported, the bottled water producer Nongfu Spring Company has previously received public warnings for using quality standards below those set by the government for the nation’s tap water, while the beverages they produce have come under scrutiny for containing high levels of arsenic and cadmium. And on May 3, 2013, amid fresh claims that the company’s bottled water contains trace amounts of what is essentially liquid garbage, Beijing’s Bottled Water Sales Association published a notice, recommending all shops in Beijing to pull Nongfu Spring 5-gallon jugs of water off the shelves. But Nongfu Spring shouldn’t be held entirely guilty—it was recently discovered that China, as a nation, has 80 percent fewer national standards for bottled water than for regular tap water.
If you’re anything like me, perhaps your apartment came furnished with a water dispenser that you count(ed) on for safe, clean water and refill with those large bottles that are conveniently delivered to your doorstep. Well buyer beware, as in July 2011 the Industry and Commerce Administration reported that 31 water brands had failed regular safety checks and exceeded the allowable count of aerobic bacteria. One brand in particular, Liquan, was 9,000 times over the allowable bacteria limit! If you still dare to use these potentially dangerous bottles that may have been illegally manufactured and therefore tainted, remember that they should be consumed within a month of opening and the dispenser itself should be cleaned regularly with a bleach or vinegar solution.
Water testing and clean water solutions
Although state officials claim that more than 80 percent of water leaving treatment facilities met government standards in 2011, other assessments show differing opinions on the actual water quality. A report by Century Weekly notes that infrequent testing, inadequate independent water-monitoring bureaus, weak transparency from local governments, and contamination from piping after leaving the water-treatment plant as major reasons for these assessment disparities. Without trustworthy information to rely on, how can we be sure what we’re putting into our bodies? We all know there is no shortage of boiled water in China, but that only makes it microbiologically safe. What about all of the toxins?
This concern has led to the rise of the water purification industry in China, largely dominated by foreign brands. Water filtration systems use various means to remove impurities and produce water fit for human consumption, with the most common types including ion exchange, distillation, filtration, ultra-filtration and reverse osmosis. PureLiving China has a good breakdown of the pros and cons of each type of filtration system and how effective they will be in China. As the website notes, the right water filter will depend on the type of contaminant you wish to remove, your desired water use, and your budget. Speaking of money, the price of a filtration system will depend on the technology, capacity, type of device, and brand. There are personal, portable water filters (such as LifeStraw), water filter pitchers, faucet-mount filters, under-sink filters, and whole-house filtration systems. A simple search on Amazon will reveal a number of different filtration options at various price points, and the list below contains some common domestic and foreign brands dominating the Chinese market.
Many government offices, foreign restaurant chains, and hotels are already making use of water filtration systems in China. For example, every Starbucks and McDonald's in China is using American-made A.J. Antunes filtration systems, with a price exceeding 20,000 RMB per location. In my mind, if the same restaurant that is handing out greasy burgers and fries finds it important enough to filter water, maybe I should too. So whether you want to fork out several thousand RMB for a foreign-made filtration system or spend much less on a portable, personal water filter, well that’s your decision. Just remember, it’s hard to put a price tag on your health and in the long run, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Hope for the future
Modern China has both the knowledge and the capability to effectively deal with the environmental and health challenges its rapid development has created. However, they face an ongoing battle with manufacturers who have found a myriad of ways of working around the rules, including constructing secret pipes or directly dumping wastewater into rivers. Fortunately, Chinese citizens aren’t keeping quiet about these issues. Mounting public outrage, largely aided by the power of social media, is starting to push officials to take action. The government has introduced efforts to tighten its supervision over exploitation of underground water, further protect sources of drinking water, and restore the aquatic ecological system.
There has been a long-term buildup to this problem, and the resolution will require a long-term process, but China knows they must act and take responsibility, and they are. As compared to an issue like food safety where immediate solutions are much less obvious, with proper water filtration devices we can rest assured that we are consuming safe, clean water in the meantime, at least until a sustainable, long-term solution is worked out.
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I think this is going on in the west too. There are chemicals in the water for sure. The prevalence of illnesses such as gall stones should corroborate this. It's always small pockets of specific countries with a specific type of water.
Mar 20, 2017 19:14 Report Abuse
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Aug 26, 2013 21:57 Report Abuse
So you are saying that China can't actually provide the three basics of water, food and air? If that is the case then surely the people should get off their complacent, heavy metal filled arses and call for change. How can the people of China tolerate such incompetence from their officials?
May 15, 2013 20:31 Report Abuse