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.

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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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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