China thirsts for change as water crisis hits

From dirty laundry to tainted wells – strain on China’s water resources is being felt nationwide after years of industrialization have left the country high and dry.

Farmer Jiang Delan was living a quiet life near Bengbu city in Anhui Province until an industrial park near the Sanpudagou river tainted her village’s water source.

“Now the fish from the river are inedible, it stinks when cooked,” Jiang said.

“The water quality has got worse since the establishment of the industrial park. It makes the air smell and the water in our well taste weird,” Jiang said.

While her village once relied on income from growing rice, their crops are now rejected at the local market because they taste bad.

“It does not surprise me. How could the rice taste good if it is irrigated by such polluted water?” Jiang said. “Now we only grow crops that depend less on water.”

Her village is not the only one facing crisis. Water shortages and contamination problems have become widespread in recent years as industrialization and urbanization take their toll.

Sanxianhu township in Hunan province, named after the once pristine Sanxianhu lake, used to be famous for its abundant and clear waters.

But its quality began slipping toward the end of the 1970s, when industrial and agricultural wastewater were discharged directly into the lake. “Sometimes the water is black, it’s impossible to drink,” local resident Li Qinglan said.

Around 1980, local residents dug a well to access clean water, but other problems arose.

“At that time, girls liked to wear white dresses. But the dresses turned yellow after being washed by the tap water. White clothes soon became a rare sight in our town,” Li said.

Several years later, experts discovered excessive iron and manganese content was to blame for the dirty laundry.

“The iron content in the water is 84 times higher than the national standard, and manganese is 25 times higher,” said Zhao Yong, deputy head of the water administrative station of Sanxianhu township.

In 2008, the provincial financial department funded a water processing plant to filter the iron and manganese from the well water, but the content was still too high, making the process slow and ineffective.

As a result, the villagers created their own filters by placing buckets filled with sand and cloth under their taps. “Everyone in the village now has one,” Li said.

The bad water has led many of the younger generation to abandon the village to seek a higher quality life elsewhere. A new water factory is under construction and is expected to improve the water quality and increase supply, but many worry it’s too late.

“White clothes have already become a part of history for Sanxianhu. I’m afraid that youngsters will also become history,” said Zhou Can, the head of a local community.

Nationwide, 27.2 percent of river water and 67.8 percent of lake water is undrinkable, according to the Ministry of Water Resources.

In 2014, the ministry monitored 2,071 wells from 17 provincial regions in the northern part of the country. They found underground water quality is below par as well. Quality underground water was found in just 15.2 percent of tested areas. Low and bad quality water made up 48.9 percent and 35.9 percent respectively.

Faced with the biggest water crisis, northern Hebei province has one seventh the national average of per capita water resources, with just 307 cubic meters.

“The province has 6 billion cubic meters of overexploited underground water out of the country’s total 17 billion cubic meters,” said Qi Bingqiang, an official with the water resources ministry.

In 2006, an eight-kilometer-long sinkhole suddenly appeared in Baixiang county of Hebei Province in 2006. Experts linked the sudden land collapse to drought and decreasing underground water levels.

“The gap grew wider and wider, with the widest spot about one meter. You could hardly see the bottom of it, ” said a village named Zhai Jingli in Zhailixi village.

Cracks not only showed on the ground, but also in homes. Out of total420 houses in the village, more than 20 showed cracked walls due to shifting foundations.

Cracks formed on the ceilings, walls and floor throughout villager Lu Haisu’s house.

“We rebuilt the house twice after it started to crack in 2006, but the cracks kept showing up again after the reconstruction,” the 54-year-old said. “I can hear the wall cracking at night when I’m sleeping.”

Water shortages also plague the nearby capital Beijing. Its average annual rainfall of 500 millimeters can only provide water for a population of 12 million people. The city’s population reached 20 million in 2011, according to municipal water authorities.

“Even after receiving water from the south-north water project, Beijing still partly relies on the exploitation of underground water to meet its needs,” said Xu Xinxuan, head of the water sciences institute of Beijing Normal University.

In southern provinces, the water level in several lakes, including Dongting and Poyang, is declining. Experts believe the shortage is spreading from north to south.

Even without the pressures put on by industrialization, China’s water situation is rough. The water resources are just 27 percent of the global average and are unevenly distributed. Floods and droughts are common occurrences.

But the country is making efforts to conserve its water resources and fight pollution. Between 2011 and 2015, 238 billion yuan (36 billion U.S. dollars) was spent on water conservation projects in poor areas, according to the water resources ministry.

In April 2015, a detailed action plan aimed at improving drinking water and promoting water conservation was introduced.

According to the plan, annual pollution checks will become part of performance reviews for provincial officials. Distribution of funds for the campaign will also depend on the results.

From 2016, a blacklist will name businesses that exceed their water pollution quotas, with severe violators risking closure.

The plan stipulates that more than 70 percent of the water in the seven major river valleys, including the Yangtze and Yellow rivers, should be in good condition by 2020. It set the same target for offshore areas.

Twenty major water projects are scheduled to start in 2016 and a total of 172 key water projects will be pushed forward in the coming five years, according to the minister Chen Lei.

A multi-tier water pricing system was also launched in 321 cities across 29 provinces and regions, allowing the price of water to reflect local conditions.

However, experts point out the system is not strict enough in some cities. In many areas, the price increase is only felt by those with limited income and most people are not motivated to save water.

Zhu Dangsheng, chief engineer of China Renewable Energy Engineering Institute under the water resources ministry, advised that cities and areas that share rivers or lakes must coordinate to resolve the problem.

“The central government has invested huge amount of money to save underground water and protect the ecosystem in Hebei Province. But at the same time, the agriculture department is pushing for higher grain output,” one local official, who requested anonymity, said.

“With Hebei’s serious water problem, the agricultural department should lower the designated grain output in those cities and counties which suffer most,” the official said.

As one of the 13 major grain suppliers in the country, about 70 percent of Hebei’s underground water is being used for irrigation.

 

(Source:  ecns.cn; January 22, 2016; http://tinyurl.com/z9rgqvm)

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