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A Thirsty Billion: High Toxic Risk In China's Water System

Warning in Dongguan, China
Warning in Dongguan, China
Han Yuting

LANZHOU Over the last few days, panic has been spreading about the drinking water in Lanzhou, the capital city of the northwest Gansu Province. The water contains dangerously high levels of benzene, a cancer-causing substance. Television reports show the public madly rushing to the supermarkets for bottled water.

What if this also happens to the city I'm living in? That is the first reaction for many of those watching these scenes on television — a very natural human instinct of self-protection. Water, after all, is a central source of life.

In terms of national and social governance, how safe water resource is provided can be regarded as the basic measure of a government's administrative performance and the degree of civilization of any given place. Thus, much is on the line.

The poor management of the Lanzhou municipality once again highlights the general awkward response of local governments in the face of public emergencies. Delaying, blocking information and covering up: These are their usual reactions.

Back in March, people started detecting a strange odor in their tap water. Yet the Lanzhou authorities insisted that the water quality was up to standard and even threatened to arrest the "rumor mongers."

After weeks of covering up the truth, city officials finally admitted that the contamination was caused by a large amount of oil that had leaked when pipelines run by the China National Petroleum Corporation exploded twice over the past years, which tainted a water treatment facility.

The event shines a light on the inadequate governance of and long-term ignorance about water sources among many of China's local governments.

Water safety is no doubt a global issue, and in particular in developing countries, where as many as 12.4 million people die of disease from drinking contaminated water each year.

In China, some reports have said that 50% of China's water table is contaminated. Hundreds of kinds of organic compounds as well as heavy metal ions have tainted water sources. Meanwhile, even the groundwater sources are not safe, with excessive levels of fluoride, arsenic, iron and manganese.

Rusty traditions

In 2011, China's Ministry of Health published a test report stating that they had found 2,221 kinds of organic compounds in water. More than 750 of these compounds are found in the drinking water; of these, 20 are carcinogens, 23 are suspected carcinogens, 18 are pro-carcinogens and 56 are mutagens.

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Sha Tin water treatment facility in Tai Wai — Photo: Chong Fat

So what could this mean? When water is contaminated with organic matter, boiling the water can kill microbial contamination. Nonetheless, boiling cannot remove organic pollutants and heavy metal ions. When these pollutants accumulate to a certain level in the human body, it may cause carcinogenic, teratogenic and mutagenic effects

In 2009, in order to estimate China's overall urban drinking water quality, the Ministry of Housing conducted a national survey. This survey covered more than 4,000 water plants of above-county-level cities and obtained the most detailed analysis of China's national drinking water condition. Yet, five years on this data is still unpublished.

What's stopping these numbers from being disclosed? It is largely fear that the water quality will provoke public outrage. Among the aforementioned 4,000 water plants, 98% still use the traditional water treatment process. When the water is contaminated with heavy metal ions and organic compounds, the traditional process cannot cope.

This is a reality we have to face seriously. China's regulatory mechanism of urban water supply facilities is extremely weak. In recent years, many provincial capitals' water tanks and reservoirs have all experienced similar contamination incidents.

China's so-called modernization of industry and agriculture has failed to establish rigorous and meticulous water monitoring mechanisms. That has left the Chinese public as unwitting "filters" of China's water. The method to change this situation is simple — just refer to the supervision and management standards of the developed countries. Many tools and measures are readily available. The rest lies in the conscience and motivation of those in power.

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