Alarm at poor quality of tap water
Shi Jiangtao and Wei Hanyang
Mainland experts are alarmed at the poor quality of tap water in major cities, saying a lack of government action and inadequate public attention has made widespread contamination problems even worse.
Their warnings, which shed light on a rarely talked about issue, come just days after a revised guideline on drinking water quality was put into effect across the mainland this month.
Government officials have hailed the new guideline, which expands the number of parameters monitored from 35 to 106, with particular focus on the measurement of heavy metals and organic pollutants, as a major step towards the ultimate goal of residents being able to drink water directly from their taps.
But environmental and medical experts have cautioned against such optimism, citing a lack of government funding when it comes to improving outdated water treatment plants.
They warn that most drinking water processing facilities on the mainland cannot meet the stricter standards, despite being given a grace period of seven years after the guideline was first introduced in 2006.
Even if the new guideline can be implemented at some time in the future, they say it will still be difficult to ensure that tap water piped into homes is safe to drink because of contamination from chemicals used in the pipes connecting treatment plants and homes and from toxic organic compounds that are soluble and difficult to remove.
'We still need some eight or nine years before the people can drink tap water directly, although some major cities may achieve that sooner,' said Professor Wang Zhansheng from Tsinghua University's school of environment.
The People's Daily, a Communist Party mouthpiece, also raised questions about the quality of the mainland's drinking water last week.
Citing several scholars, including Professor Fu Tao , another environmental expert from Tsinghua University, it cast doubt on a recent government claim that drinking water quality had improved markedly in the past three years due to the upgrading of water treatment plants and the protection of water sources.
A survey of more than 4,400 mainland water treatment plants three years ago found that 58 per cent of tap water met national standards after processing, according to the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development.
But the ministry and the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) said the rate rose to 83 per cent last year, citing another ministry survey. Fu said such rapid improvement was definitely impossible, given the worsening pollution near urban freshwater sources and a shortfall in funding needed to revamp water supply networks.
Li Fuxing , a water expert affiliated with the NDRC, said he was worried about tap water quality in Beijing and that government statistics misled the public.
'I don't care much about the official data about drinking water quality because we never know exactly how they are compiled or even where they originally come from,' Li said.
Although Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing have boldly claimed to have met the new national standards, which some officials have interpreted as a declaration that tap water is fit to drink, the public and experts are not impressed.
Many people in Beijing say they are confused by conflicting reports about drinking water quality and are unable to share the government's optimism following startling revelations about a long list of safety concerns.
Wang, who was involved in the drafting of the revised drinking water standards, said hoses and pipes that were permeable to chemicals and other contamination often rendered the government's effort to sanitise tap water useless.
'Although water may have met the standards at the waterworks, it does not count if it is polluted in the pipes,' he said. 'What the World Health Organisation recommends is the safety of tap water in homes.'
Experts have also challenged claims by officials in the capital that there is no need for Beijing residents to worry about the safety of tap water because its drinking water standards are far stricter than in most mainland cities.
Citing disheartening findings from a recent survey sponsored by Green Earth Volunteers and WWF, Professor Dou Yisong , a water standards expert at Beijing University of Technology, warned that water pollution in the capital had yet to be brought under control despite a costly clean-up effort led by the government.
Both Li and Dou also point to growing pollution from organic and inorganic substances, such as chemicals and even heavy metals.
'The public are told tap water is safe to drink if boiled, but the truth is those toxic substances cannot be removed by boiling water,' Li said.
Health Minister Chen Zhu admitted late last month that his ministry had postponed its goal of ensuring the safety of urban tap water to the end of 2015 - it was originally set for this month - given the mounting challenges in tackling pollution and upgrading water pipes.
But experts said a lack of motivation among local authorities and the absence of public oversight meant that even the revised goal was unlikely to be met.
Wang said that most water treatment facilities on the mainland continue to use decades-old methods and technologies, including some introduced more than 100 years ago, to tackle pollution.
'We have dumped all sorts of pollution into our waterways over the past 30 years. How could any improvement be possible if we deal with modern chemical pollutants with outdated technology?' he asked.
Last week Wang blamed local authorities for substandard tap water across the mainland.
'I want to ask if mayors and leaders of urban water authorities drink directly from their taps,' he said. 'If not, how can you ask the public to drink it without risking their health?
'They have failed to do their jobs if they are incapable of tackling pollution because of their blind pursuit of economic growth.'
The number of rivers and lakes surveyed by environmentalists in the past year that revealed a worsening water pollution picture for Beijing