Clean water a basic right that is sadly not always delivered

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 April, 2014, 3:14am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 April, 2014, 3:14am

Breathing filthy air and drinking polluted water are, unfortunately, common threats for many people on the mainland. Over the years, efforts have been made to improve air quality. Although the situation still leaves a lot to be desired, residents can take their own precautions when they see a thick blanket of smog over the city. Water quality is not as visible, though. The public can only rely on the authorities to provide clean and safe water for daily consumption.

Those living in the northwestern city of Lanzhou can therefore be excused for feeling outraged by the way the government has handled a health crisis. Officials were accused of keeping millions of people in the dark, after benzene - a carcinogenic substance used in industrial chemicals - was found in tap water. Despite complaints of a foul smell by residents in early March, officials gave assurances that tests showed there was nothing wrong. It was not until early this month that a contamination alert was issued. The gap has raised disturbing questions about delays and cover-ups.

That millions of people could be drinking and using contaminated water during the period is worrying. It goes against the transparency and accountability expected of governments nowadays. Regrettably, public health has yet to become a priority on the mainland. Cover-ups are seemingly the norm rather than the exception.

Damage has already be done, not only to public health but also confidence that is sorely needed. That explains why there is general distrust even after the authorities declared an end to the crisis on Tuesday. To the public, there are still unanswered questions, and the threat is far from over.

A suggestion that the pollution was the result of poor cleaning and maintenance after an underground oil leak decades ago has reinforced the impression that the mainland is still pushing development at all costs. Instead of ploughing money into grand infrastructure projects, the people must come first.