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Drinking Water Safety Faces “The Big Test”

In wake of the upcoming ‘Water Pollution Prevention & Control Action Plan’, expected just before/during the National People’s Congress in early March 2015, China Water Risk and chinadialogue investigated the true status of China’s urban and rural drinking water. This article is part of this investigation. Scroll down for the Chinese version of the article (请向下阅读中文版)。

The full report of the investigation is available in English  & Chinese.

If you are in China and the English report is taking a while to download, please click here.


How well is China meeting ambitious goals for drinking water safety set five years ago, and under review as the government prepares its 13th Five Year Plan (2016-2020)?

China’s central government set ambitious goals to safeguard water quality in 2011, at the outset of the 12th Five Year Plan (2011-2015). It targeted improvements from source-to-tap, earmarking a budget of nearly RMB 700 billion (US$112 billion) to pay for upgrades to water treatment and piping systems. The funds were spread across multiple ministries and top level government bodies, including the State Council, the National Development and Reform Commission, the Ministry of Water Resource, the Ministry of Environment Protection, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development and the Ministry of Health.

Big goals

Separately, there was also a movement to lift and standardise the varying levels of provincial drinking water quality by introducing a new national standard.

Government expects cities across China to meet National Drinking Water Quality standard by 2015

In 2007, a National Drinking Water Quality Standard’ (GB 5749-2006) was introduced. This standard is accordance with international standards, but since the bar was set far above the actual quality levels of China’s water, it only came into full effect in July 2012. The government expects cities across China to meet this national standard by 2015.

 

2015 has arrived. How far is China’s government from realizing its water safety goals?

In 2010 over 600 mn urban residents had access to public water supply services & >400 mnrural residents had access to clean drinking water

However, 298 mn rural Chinese lacked safe drinking water

In 2010, over 600 million urban residents already enjoyed access to public water supply services, and more than 400 million rural residents had access to clean drinking water. This was primarily due to government-led improvements in water supply and safe drinking water initiatives. However, 298 million rural Chinese lacked safe drinking water. They were to get supplies during the 2011-2015 Plan. For urban residents, the stated public water supply penetration rate was to rise from 90% to 95%.

Questionable quality

Whilst it is clear that more people across China are enjoying access to public water supply, what is not clear is the quality of the water delivered. The mid-term evaluation of the 12FYP, which started in mid-2013 may have the answers. However, the assessment report is “classified” and has not yet been made available to the public.

Access to public water improving but quality of water delivered is not clear

In the wake of the anticipated ‘Water Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan’, which prioritizes drinking water safety, China Water Risk and chinadialogue have taken a closer look into the actual status of urban and rural drinking water in China.  The report finds that some urban water quality remains unreliable, while rural areas face many challenges in meeting requirements that are less stringent than in urban areas.

The full report, which sets out issues in water source protection, water financing and water governance, “China’s Long March to Safe Drinking Water”, is expected to be published later this month.

Drinking water is at the end of the water supply chain. It follows that to achieve high drinking water quality requires comprehensive standards, policies and regulations to be in place, governing the entire supply chain from source-to-tap. Water source protection was included in the China’s ambitious plan to safeguard safe drinking water in the 12thFYP, and targets set for both 2015 and 2020.

For water treatment & main-pipe network management, China is looking at high-tech innovation & infrastructure investment

For water treatment and main-pipe network management, China is locked into a ‘technology-focused’ path, and is looking at high-tech innovation and infrastructure investment to ensure water quality and delivery.

However, problems persist in secondary water supply to the end user, which has the greatest direct impact on tapwater water quality. Despite many attempts across the country to address this, there is still no perfect solution.

 

Macro-level success

Many insiders with access to water quality data and information at ministry and department-level share a common view of China’s water problems.

Provincial capitals & big cities in developed eastern coastal regions, water safety “essentially has no problems.”

In second and third-tier cities as well as medium to small towns, water safety development is “patchy”, but has been improving.

In rural areas, there has been rapid progress with collective water supply.

They say that in provincial capitals and big cities in developed eastern coastal regions, water safety “essentially has no problems.” In second and third-tier cities as well as medium to small towns, water safety development is “patchy”, but has been improving. In rural areas, there has been rapid progress with collective water supply.

Problems with the “Three Highs”, namely high concentrations of fluorine, arsenic and salt found in water in some rural areas, have largely been resolved. Meanwhile, rural drinking water improvement works to stem pollution are also progressing.

In this portrait of China’s drinking water safety landscape, improvement in water quality have been radiating out from the big cities to smaller cities and towns. In reality, however, information on rural areas remains limited; the rural waterscape is shrouded in fog.

Furthermore, beyond this largely positive macro-level overview of China’s drinking water safety, on a local-level the real status of water safety in each city, town, county or village remains unclear.

 

Official information disclosure on water quality is poor & govt keeps test data secret

Official information disclosure on water quality is poor, and the government keeps official tests and monitoring data secret. Although water supply enterprises have been publishing their water quality test data, there is room for improvement in test frequency, the number of published indicators and public interfaces.

 

Local concerns

Against this backdrop, civil society groups have resorted to self-testing drinking water to obtain water quality data.

Civil society have resorted to self-testing drinking water to obtain quality data

A recent report from China Water Safety Foundation shows that only half of the 29 big and medium sized cities it surveyed passed the test on all 20 selected indicators from the National Drinking Water Standard; one city failed the tests on 4 indicators. These test results, together with all other civic monitoring actions, do not give a comprehensive picture of drinking water safety, but they are enough to point out the risks and challenges ahead.

The health and environmental implications of unsafe water are already evident. In some cases, the health impacts have geological causes due to naturally occurring arsenic, fluorine and salt. But elsewhere, they result from human activity and pollution.

Toxic organic pollutants detected in drinking water have caused widespread public concern

In recent years, Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), environmental hormones and other toxic organic pollutants have been detected in drinking water, causing widespread public concern. These chemicals are not yet effectively monitored, partly because not enough research has been undertaken on the health impacts when they are absorbed through drinking water.

As the report points out, many obstacles need to be addressed in China’s long march to safe drinking water. China faces problems of ambiguous ownership, unclear water pricing mechanisms, immature market mechanisms and a lack of rural business models, among other issues. There are also governance challenges with dispersed and overlapping responsibilities among various departments across ministries.

China facing ambiguous ownership, unclear water pricing mechanisms, immature market mechanisms and governance challenges

Given the current situation of “nine dragons managing water“, many people are expecting to see reforms to the government’s administrative systems for water management. This would mean establishing a water management and coordination mechanism across different government bodies. A drinking water monitoring system at both national and local levels is clearly required, as are a water quality technology framework from source-to-tap; supervision and early warning systems; and integrated watershed management. The report suggests these needs should be addressed in the coming ‘Water Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan’.

Please watch out for the full report “China’s Long March to Safe Drinking Water” by China Water Risk and chinadialogue. It is expected to be published online for free download in late February 2015 in both Chinese and English.


中国安全饮水将在2015年迎来大考

饮用水安全将是即将出台的《水污染防治行动规划》(也即“水十条”)的重要内容。在“水十条”将出之际,中国水危机与中外对话试图对中国城市与农村供水的实际状况一探究竟

请关注中国水危机与中外对话的联合报告《安全饮用水:中国的艰难长征欢迎欢迎下载中文版报告了解更多详情 。


中国政府在“十二五”期间,规划设立了一系列“从水源到龙头”的颇具野心的饮用水水质保障目标,涵盖水处理与供水系统。2011年与2012年间,包括国务院、发改委、环保部、水利部、住建部、卫生部在内的多个部委,为实现这些目标规划了共计近7000亿元人民币(约1120亿美元)的投入。

远大目标

与这些规划同时进行的,是随新国家饮用水标准出台而进行的全国饮用水水质提升与标准化运动。2007年,新国家饮用水水质标准《生活饮用水卫生标准》(GB 5749-2006)正式实施。这项标准的出台实现了与国际标准接轨,但因超越饮用水水质的现实国情,新标准直到2012年7月才正式全面实施。政府期待,全国城市能在2015年达标。

全国城市在2015年达标。

2015年已至,我们距离实现这些目标还有多远?

 

至2010年,6亿多城市居民可享有公共供水,4亿多农民受益于饮用水工程。“十二五”仍需给2.98亿农村人口提供安全饮水

2010年,6亿多城市居民可以享受城市公共供水服务,4亿多农村居民也能使用干净饮水。这主要归功于政府主导推动的供水和安全饮水项目。2011年至2015年间,中国政府计划继续为2.98亿农村人口提供安全饮水,并将城市公共供水普及率由90%提升至95%。

 

水质疑虑

越来越多的中国人已经享受到公共供水服务,这点毋庸置疑,但供水水质状况如何,并不明确。于2013年年中启动的“十二五”规划的中期评估或许能给出答案,但这些评估报告“涉密”,暂未对外披露。

越来越多人受益于公共供水,但供水水质仍未知

饮用水安全将是即将出台的《水污染防治行动规划》(也即“水十条”)的重要内容。在“水十条”将出之际,中国水危机与中外对话试图对中国城市与农村供水的实际状况一探究竟。结论显示,城市水质并非完全可靠,农村虽执行放宽标准,却依旧面临达标挑战。

这份题为《中国饮水安全长征》的报告对水源保护、水金融与水治理作出分析,预期将于本月下旬正式发布。

饮用水处于水链条的终端。这意味着,为实现饮用水水质的高标准,需要整个供水链条中采取一系列从源头到龙头的全面配套标准、政策法规与行动。在中国雄心勃勃的饮用水保障计划中,已经纳入水源保护,并设立了2015年和2020年目标。

中国着重高额水处理技术改造和管网基础设施投入

在水处理和管网问题上,中国政府采用“技术锁定”路线,以高额技术改造和基础设施投入换取水质保障与供应安全。不过,对于最直接影响终端饮用水水质的“二次供水”问题,各地虽各有尝试,却还未找出完美解决方案。

总体成功

诸多接近部委层面水质数据信息的业内人士, 对中国饮用水水质状况做出了几乎一致的判断:以省会城市和东部沿海经济发达地区为代表的大城市,水质安全“基本没有问题”;二三线城市和中小城镇发展不平衡,但总体有所改善;“三高”(高氟、高砷、高盐)地区农村饮水问题基本得到解决,集中式供水进展较快,因污染导致的农村饮水改善工作正在推进。

省会和东部沿海城市水质安全“基本没有问题”

二三线城市和中小城镇发展不平衡但总体有改善

农村集中式供水进展较快

在这幅关于中国安全饮水状况的图景中,水质保障从城市向城镇不断扩散。但在现实中,因信息相对匮乏,农村地区的情况尚处于迷雾之中。

业内人士描绘出了中国饮水安全的宏观状况,但在地方层面,具体到每个城市、城镇、村庄,真实的水质状况并不清晰。官方的水质信息披露有限,政府检测和监测数据秘而不宣。供水企业虽有公布,但检测频次、公布指标数目、用户体验等尚有改进空间。

 

地方忧虑

在这种背景下,民间社会对饮用水水质进行自行检测,以获得水质数据。中国水安全公益基金最新发布的一份报告显示,在报告涉及的29个大中城市中,只有一半左右的居民饮用水抽检水样能够全部满足从新国标中选取的20项抽检项目,一个城市甚至存在四项指标不合格。这些零散的民间报告,虽不足以还原中国饮用水水质的全景,却足已勾勒中国饮用水安全面临的风险和挑战。

民间自行检测饮用水水质

饮水中检测出有毒有害物质,已引发广泛公众担忧

在中国,由不安全饮水所带来的环境健康问题已经显现。在一些地区,这种健康影响源自自然地质原因,如因自然条件导致的饮水高砷、高氟、高盐;另一些则是由人类活动和污染导致的。近年来,多地饮用水中检测出持久性有机物(POPs)、环境激素等有毒有害物质,引发广泛的公众担忧。但因缺乏人群饮水途径暴露的健康风险研究,这些化学物质还未被有效监控。

饮用水面临产权不清、水价机制不明、市场机制不成熟、农村商业模式匮乏、政府职能协调等挑战

这份报告指出,中国安全饮用水长征需要理清许多障碍。产权不清、水价机制不明、市场机制不成熟、农村商业模式匮乏,只是其中一些问题。跨部门间的职能分散与重叠也为政府治理带来了挑战。

针对“九龙治水”的现状,各界畅想改革政府管理系统。一种可能方案是,建立一个跨部门的水管理和协调机制。此外,还需要建立从国家到地方的饮用水质监控体系、从水源地到水龙头的水质保障技术体系、监控预警和流域综合管理体系。报告建议,即将出台的“水十条”能够在这些问题上有所突破。


Further Reading

  • Consumers Willing To Pay More for Water – Lu Shuping, President of Xylem China, shares the findings of a survey of six Tier 1 & Tier 2 cities in China which show that consumers understand the seriousness of water issues & are willing to pay more for safe drinking water
  • China Water Investments: 3 Thoughts – Investing in the water sector looks attractive with the Chinese government & consumers wanting water tariff hikes. Will water supply or wastewater treatment be the larger market? Debra Tan shares some on-ground views distilled from recent conversations
  • Pricing Water - With the NDRC’s recent announcement of tiered tariff hikes across China’s cities to rein in top end water users, Tan mulls over the proposed tiered water tariffs hikes and whether price points and switchpoints between tiers are properly set
  • MEP Reform: From Mountain Top to Ocean? - The MEP is currently regarded as too weak to punish polluters due to dispersed authority & overlapping functions. Given the ‘war on pollution’, is reform to make a Super MEP necessary to improve China’s ‘mountains, water, forest, farmland & lakes’?
Hongqiao Liu

About Hongqiao Liu

Hongqiao is China Water Risk’s external researcher. She is an award-winning environmental & science journalist and prior to joining China Water Risk, she worked for leading Chinese media: Caixin Media and the Southern Metropolis Daily. Her investigative stories published by Caixin on tap water quality, contaminated farmland and diseases caused by environmental pollution brought about lasting public debate and cast positive impacts on policy makers. Hongqiao has lived and worked across China and South Africa.

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