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China's central government has set ambitious goals to safeguard water quality in 2011. There was a movement to lift and standardize the varying levels of provincial drinking water quality by introducing a new national standard. In 2007, a National Drinking Water Quality Standard 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.

Recent China's government water safety goals are: 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. However, 298 million rural Chinese lacked safe drinking water; they were to get supplies during the 2011-2015 Plan, while for urban residents, the stated public water supply penetration rate was to rise from 90% to 95%.

What is not clear is the quality of the water delivered. In the wake of the anticipated “Water Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan”, which prioritizes drinking water safety, China Water Risk has taken a closer look into the actual status of urban and rural drinking water in China, and unfortunately some urban water quality is still unreliable, while rural areas face many challenges in meeting requirements that are less stringent than in urban areas. 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 12th Five Year Plan, and targets set for both 2015 and 2020.

China is locked into a “technology-focused” path, and is looking at high-tech innovation and infrastructure investment to ensure water quality and delivery.

Considering the macro-level success, 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.

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

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.

Given the current situation, 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”.


The gLAWcal Team

POREEN project

(Source: China Dialogue)

Friday, 13th February 2015