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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

China's Rural Residents See Hope for Safe Drinking Water

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Nearly 312 million rural Chinese residents have no access to safe drinking water, facing problems of shortage as well as severe contamination. These rural populations, typically the most disadvantaged groups in China, suffer frequent and serious health attacks as a result of drinking unsafe water. The threats come from both naturally occurring contaminants such as arsenic, fluorine, and salt as well organic and industrial pollution caused by human activities.

Naturally occurring water contaminants have raised public health concerns in some areas of China. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported particularly high levels of arsenic in the well water of several counties in northern China’s Shanxi Province and Inner Mongolia, where villagers have drilled deep into arsenic-rich aquifers to obtain water. Long-term exposure to arsenic through contaminated drinking water can cause lung, bladder, kidney, skin, and other cancers, as well as skin lesions, according to the WHO.

Yet this natural contamination pales in comparison with that caused by humans. In September 2006, two chemical plants in Yueyang County of Hunan Province were cited for dumping tens of thousands of tons of wastewater containing high concentrations of arsenic compounds—at more than 1,000 times the permitted level—into a major river that serves as the primary water source for some 100,000 residents. Most villages in China still lack access to sewer pipes, wastewater treatment systems, and formal garbage collection and disposal services. As a result, wastewater, garbage, animal manure, and leftover pesticides are dumped into nearby rivers without proper treatment, or they enter into surface and ground water through runoff and leakage. This dumping, combined with weak public awareness of hygiene, easily triggers the spread of waterborne infectious diseases and other health concerns, China’s Ministry of Health said.

To address this challenge, the central government has promised in its latest Five Year Plan (2006–10) to make safe drinking water available to 160 million rural residents by 2010, giving priority to areas that face contamination from fluorine, arsenic, salt, pollution, and the schistosoma worm, which can attack people’s blood and liver and lead to schistosomiasis, or snail fever. The government has also set an ambitious target of providing all of China’s rural residents with clean drinking water by 2015. This is the same year the United Nations hopes to reach its goal of reducing by half the number of people worldwide without sustainable access to safe drinking water.

China’s budget of roughly 40 billion yuan (US$5 billion) for reaching its targets will be spent mainly on new water supply projects over the next 10 years. Tap services will be extended to the suburbs from existing urban water facilities, and villages located far from cities will have their own water supply and treatment systems installed. Government investments will favor projects in China’s less-developed western regions, while private investors are encouraged to participate in building rural water supply networks in the wealthier eastern part of the country.

A variety of international initiatives are helping to boost Chinese access to clean drinking water as well. The China Environmental Health Project, coordinated jointly by Western Kentucky University, the Woodrow Wilson Center’s China Environmental Forum (CEF), and several local research institutes and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in southwest China, seeks to use scientific research to improve local infrastructure in the areas of both water and air. The water portion of the project aims to build mutual trust with residents of a community in Yunnan Province by helping them gain access to clean water. At the same time, project developers will work with the township government of Chongqing municipality to provide decision-makers with scientific information through joint research activities, according to Jennifer Turner, coordinator of CEF.

The keys to the project’s success, Turner notes, will be conducting sound research as well as training local NGOs to properly translate this information to the benefit of local residents. “They are very poor people; they would be happy to do something different when facing a worsening environmental situation,” she says. The most challenging part of the project, according to Turner, will be building a win-win relationship with the local government.

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