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China's Attempt To Bring Safe Drinking Water To All Runs Dry

For years Beijing has said it's working to provide safe drinking water to people in the countryside, but experts say the goal is far from being realized.

A villager drinks drips of water in Zhongbang Village, southern China
A villager drinks drips of water in Zhongbang Village, southern China
Yao Jiayi and Han Wei

BEIJING — Ten years after launching a national campaign to provide hundreds of millions people with clean drinking water, many residents of China's vast rural areas still lack this basic public service.

In 2005, the Ministry of Water, the National Development Reform Commission (NDRC) and the Ministry of Health released a report on the quality of rural drinking water, concluding that that at least 323 million people — one-third of the rural population — was exposed to unsafe supplies.

As a response, from 2006 to 2011, the government invested $17.5 billion in rural tap water projects. It built facilities for 221 million rural people, and according to the government, about 58% of farmers had access to safe water supplies by the end of 2011. Another $27.2 billion was set aside for projects to fix problems facing another 298 million people between 2011 and 2015.

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Sign in Dongguan — Photo: Bob Usselman

Jiang Wenlai, a researcher of rural development policy at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, says the government is likely to meet all the goals it had set for a five-year period ending this year. Those goals include providing 298 million more rural residents and 114,000 more schools in the countryside with clean supplies of drinking water. This would mean that, at least according to the government, four-fifths of the country's rural population has access to clean water.

But according to a report from a former NDRC deputy head in June 2012, the government was fighting an uphill battle because another 196 million rural people began facing risks associated with polluted water and aging facilities. That means that even if China meets the targets it set for this year, many millions of people will still lack safe drinking water.

Yang Jifu, a deputy director at the China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research, says that before 2004 the government was mainly focused on meeting demand and less worried about quality.

A survey Yang's department conducted late last year found that only 38% of the people living in rural areas had access to clean tap water. The rest obtained it from wells, rivers and lakes. Moreover, most of the facilities to provide tap water that were built in rural areas are not properly maintained and lack quality control systems.

Out west

Officials and water experts say that local governments primarily use three measures to meet water demand in rural areas. For suburbs and areas close to cities, tap water facilities are extended to connect with urban systems, and highly populated rural areas have water processing networks. But in remote areas or those with sparce populations, facilities are dispersed and insecure.

Jiang says a key problem regarding rural water supplies is the lack of an established mechanism for managing tap water facilities and supervising quality.

Current tariff policies also create a problem. Li Yuefeng, a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, says that seven of the 10 provinces he surveyed set tariffs lower than cost, meaning the local governments are unable to afford upgrades and maintenance costs.

The World Health Organization says that four-fifths of diseases and half of child deaths around the world are related to unsafe drinking water. This holds true for China, too. A 2012 State Council document shows that about 167 million residents of rural areas were drinking substandard water. This was followed by a 2013 investigation by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention that concluded that many villages along the Huai River, which runs from Henan, through Anhui and empties into the sea in Jiangsu Province, reported high rates of cancer, primarily blamed on industrial plants polluting their water supply.

Shi Liling, a project manager for the non-profit organization Greenovation, says that as many industries move from the east to the vast central and western regions, water pollution risks are only bound to grow.

Shi is leading a program to find ways for villages to access clean drinking water. She says that western regions face particular problems because officials there lack experience in pollution control, little tap water is available, and the environment is disproportionately susceptible to water pollution.

Li also concerned about water safety in underdeveloped regions in the west, suggesting that the central government pay more attention to the region when setting policy. He also believes it should increase subsidies to local governments to help build sustainable and safe drinking water facilities.

In 2013, Shi's team surveyed 78 villages across the country, finding that some people relied on wells for drinking water because surface water was polluted. The problem was that wells are easily polluted and most of the sources of water in the countryside are not protected like they are in cities.

In recent years, businesses have started to make inroads into the rural water processing and purifying market by manufacturing and selling household devices. And we are now seeing the fruits, as more and more rural families have begun to install purifying equipment on their own to make sure water is safe.

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