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China pollution

Beijing’s dirty water exhibition hits road to highlight environmental cost of China’s rapid economic boom

Mobile exhibition by activist known as ‘Nut Brother’ shines spotlight on provinces where the water is not safe to drink

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 July, 2018, 11:50am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 July, 2018, 4:54pm

At first glance, it may seem like just a black truck filled with bottles of water, but a closer look reveals a darker – or rather murkier – side to what’s sloshing around inside.

Its cargo of more than 500 bottles of Nongfu Spring, a ubiquitous Chinese brand, filled with contaminated drinking water from the village of Xiaohaotu in China’s northwest Shaanxi province is being driven around Beijing as a reminder of the costs of the country’s rapid economic development.

The mobile exhibition, created by “Nut Brother” – an artist known for advocacy work on environmental and social issues – was created in defiance after his initial show was shut down.

Shocked by Shaanxi’s dirty drinking water during a work trip to the province in May, the 37-year-old enlisted the help of villagers to fill 9,000 empty Nongfu bottles and brought them back to Beijing, where they were installed in a museum.

The exhibition caught the attention of Nongfu Spring Company and two weeks later, authorities from the Industrial and Commercial Bureau dismantled his display, removing most of the bottled water.

The company later filed a complaint claiming his work infringed on its copyright.

“Nongfu Spring literally means ‘farmer’s spring water’, using village farmers as a brand,” Nut Brother – who does not reveal his name to the media – told AFP.

“But the reality is farmers don’t drink this water. A lot of their water is seriously tainted with pollution.”

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Nongfu Spring Company’s legal department refused interview requests and calls to their public relations team went unanswered.

Large parts of China are blanketed in toxic smog and suffer from polluted waterways as a result of the country’s economic boom.

While much attention has been paid to the impact of rapid industrialisation on China’s air, the effects on the country’s water supply are less well known – and less visible.

Across China, much of the water is “unfit for human contact”, according to a 2017 report by Greenpeace East Asia, and 14 of 31 provinces failed to meet water quality targets despite a nationwide push for improvement in previous years.

“They’ve been drinking this water for more than 10 years,” Nut Brother said.

The samples contain high levels of iron and manganese, which can be toxic in large doses, he added.

“It’s not fit for consumption but the villagers have no choice.”

The roving exhibit seems to have startled some visitors.

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“It’s shocking to know we have people who drink this kind of water,” one of the onlookers said.

Another passer-by bravely took a swig from the bottle.

“You can definitely feel bits of the dirt,” he said.

“It makes me feel very lucky to be able to drink clean water. Very lucky.”