Survey raises alarm over polluted water

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 October, 2011, 12:00am

A government survey has shed rare light on a less talked about aspect of the mainland's water woes: massive contamination of groundwater.

Only a small part of the findings of the nationwide survey appears to have been made public by the Ministry of Land and Resources. But it paints a grim picture that analysts say yet again highlights the severity of the country's water pollution problems - and the government's failure to tackle environmental challenges.

It contains startling revelations that support Premier Wen Jiabao's recent warnings about worsening water quality - especially pollution of underground water sources, from where nearly 70 per cent of the population get their drinking water.

Wen told a State Council meeting two months ago that groundwater contamination posed grave challenges to public health and threatened to derail the country's social and economic development.

His administration approved an ambitious 10-year blueprint to address the issue and vowed to bring the problem under control by 2020.

But analysts say Beijing's new commitment and the nearly 59 billion yuan (HK$72.2 billion) earmarked for the plan may not be enough to restore public confidence in its ability to curb pollution, a growing source of tension and unrest.

Officials are increasingly vocal about mounting environmental problems and their dire consequences, but all this talk has yet to be translated into any concrete steps to change the situation.

More than 57 per cent of groundwater is substandard and 17 per cent of extremely poor quality, according to the survey of 182 cities last year. In addition, a marked deterioration in quality was widely seen in the northern regions.

'Things look rather gloomy in terms of the overall quality of groundwater as more than half of the water sources assessed have been contaminated,' the survey says.

The findings, which are available on the ministry's website, do not include further details such as a ranking of the cities by water quality or a breakdown of their sample test results.

Beijing is expected to release the first national blueprint for tackling groundwater problems later this month. It planned to spend 2.7 billion yuan over the next five years on surveys of pollution sources, testing the impact of groundwater contamination and setting up a national supervision system, the 21st Century Business Herald reported.

Citing environment ministry experts, the newspaper said previous surveys on groundwater contamination - including by the land and resources ministry - had failed to provide the comprehensive information needed to give an accurate picture of pollution.

Beijing, and cities in Shandong, Guizhou and Hainan provinces, will be the first to have their underground water sources surveyed this year, followed by other cities in 2013.

Groundwater provides 18 per cent of the nation's water supply and is the lifeblood of the parched northern region, according to Xinhua. It provides 65 per cent of the freshwater supply for domestic use, 50 per cent for industry and 33 per cent for irrigation and farming in the north.

But it is not only pollution and overuse that is compromising groundwater quality. The problems had been compounded by the government's failure to deal with a long list of environmental hazards such as urban sewage, household refuse, industrial waste and widespread fertiliser and pesticide use, Xinhua said.

In Beijing, more than 70 per cent of the city's freshwater supply comes from underground sources. The groundwater level has dropped by 1.2 metres every year since 1999.

In Hebei province, decades of groundwater overuse has left about 40,000 square kilometres of land prone to subsidence and other geological disasters.

About 40 per cent of groundwater in urban areas was considered undrinkable by 2008, affecting more than 40 million people in about 400 cities, according to a preliminary draft of the plan available on the internet.

In rural areas, the situation is even worse: 360 million people are without access to clean drinking water.

The draft document even makes rare reference to the appalling human cost of the water problems. 'Cancer villages have emerged in Henan, Anhui, Sichuan, Guangdong, Heilongjiang and Shandong', it says, estimating direct economic losses from water pollution of at least several billion yuan per year.

Although the plan was first drafted in 2006 by the ministries of environment and land and resources, bickering among officials, including those from the water resources ministry, has delayed its approval, the 21st Century Business Herald said.

But analysts were doubtful about the plan's impact and speed - with a target of bringing the situation under control in five years - given Beijing's poor track record on enforcing laws and regulations, and its failure to rein in development-minded local authorities and industrial polluters.

Shi Xiaojuan, an environment ministry official, was quoted by the newspaper as saying that Beijing had yet to find an effective way to tackle groundwater problems.

'Unlike water problems with lakes and rivers, underground water pollution is a lot more difficult to deal with in terms of both technology and cost,' Shi said. 'Once contaminated, it's hard to get it clean again. It can take three to five years, three to five decades - or it might drag on indefinitely.'

Wang Yongchen, of the Beijing-based Green Earth Volunteers, said the plan was unlikely to solve the problem without public participation and media scrutiny.

Veteran environmentalist Wu Lihong - who was jailed for three years on extortion charges after years of vigorous campaigning over pollution at Lake Tai - agreed.

'This blueprint might be wellintended, the measures may even be good, but implementing them is a different thing entirely,' Wu said.

'The reality is that it's a struggle to implement most other policies, so I don't see any possibility of this one being carried out,' he said, citing Lake Tai as an example.

After years of expensive clean-up efforts under a central government guideline, Lake Tai - one of the country's largest freshwater lakes - continues to be swamped by algal blooms nearly every year.

30m

The number of environmental refugees from water stress the World Bank expects to see in China by 2020 if trends are not reversed

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