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Thursday, November 30, 2006

China's Groundwater Future Increasingly Murky

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The water in Zhao Bo’s village on the outskirts of Beijing was a sickly shade of green. After drinking from the local well, Zhao and his fellow villagers could not go a month without suffering from diarrhea. The contamination was believed to originate from a zinc-plating plant established near the upper reaches of the well ten years ago.

Plant officials compensated for the worsening water quality by drilling a second well, according to Zhao, a 50-year-old farmer from Daciluo Village. But the water in that well became contaminated too. To access cleaner drinking water, residents decided to drill yet another well further upstream, while wealthier members of the community vowed to drink only bottled water. But the problem still did not go away.

“The new well could provide only enough water for drinking. We still have to use the original well to water our crops and feed our pigs, chicken, and ducks,” Zhao says. He explains that the state-supplied tap water was cut off in the village three years ago after water prices went up and residents were no longer able to pay the bills.

No administrative action was taken against the polluting factory until last September, when the government closed down the zinc-plating plant after a local newspaper exposed the case. Daciluo Village was one of the lucky ones. While water contamination is not rare in China, few polluting enterprises are ultimately punished, according to Dr. Wen Dongguang with the China Geological Survey (CGS). “Those enterprises are pillars of the local economy. Local governments are reluctant to take action against them for fear of affecting their revenues and social stability if the companies…lay off their workers.”

Such misgivings have resulted in loopholes in the implementation of pollution prevention and control laws, and groundwater pollution has become ever more serious with China’s economic growth. Groundwater is now contaminated in about 90 percent of the nation’s cities, says Zhang Lijun, deputy director of the State Environmental Protection Administration. An increasing number of water samples have been found to contain toxic substances.

Groundwater constitutes a third of China’s freshwater resources and plays a key role in the nation’s water supply. About 70 percent of drinking water and 40 percent of agricultural irrigation water come from groundwater.

Pollution is the biggest challenge to China’s groundwater management. Yet the most recent national survey, completed by the Ministry of Land Resources in 2004, downplays the alarm. It concludes that China’s shallow aquifer (rocky areas containing water that can be used to supply wells) is “relatively good,” with about 92 percent of the water supply fit for daily use and 63 percent suitable for drinking.

Due to the uneven distribution of groundwater—67.7 percent in the south and 32.3 percent in the north—China’s arid northern areas and relatively developed eastern areas suffer the most pollution, while poverty-stricken areas in the northwest are plagued by extreme water shortages. “China’s groundwater management is about 20 years behind the world’s most advanced levels,” says Yin Yueping, an expert with CGS.

Yin notes that many areas have reported ground subsidence or clefts due to groundwater overuse. “It’s easier for pollutants to seep into the groundwater in areas that have experienced unsustainable exploitation, due to underground pressure changes,” he observes. About 50 cities in China have reported sinking ground. Shanghai, Tianjin, and Taiyuan report the worst subsidence, each having dropped by more than two meters since the early 1900s, according to the Ministry of Land Resources survey.

In coastal areas, unbridled exploitation of groundwater has resulted in the infiltration of water supplies by seawater. This has occurred in Liaoning, Hebei, Shandong, and Hainan provinces and in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, leaving wells dry and residents with little access to clean water. In the eastern Bohai Gulf, seawater invades 62 square kilometers of groundwater annually. In 2003, the infiltration topped 2,457 square kilometers, leaving 400,000 people without access to clean water and destroying 300 million kilograms of grain, according to the survey.

“The areas in which the groundwater is highly exploited are where the pollution is most serious,” Wen says. The most affected areas include northern China, the reaches of the Huaihe River, and the Yangtze and Pearl River deltas, he notes.

According to Wen, the major culprit of the worsening groundwater pollution is industrial waste. “Some plants discharge waste without proper treatment due to the poor enforcement of environmental protection laws,” he says. He adds that an increase in human activities has exacerbated the situation. “For example, gas stations have boomed in recent years, causing serious pollution to nearby soil and groundwater.” Wen points to a survey that concludes that oil leakage occurs in 70 percent of gas stations in the United States, mostly from oil tanks stored underground.

Another major source of groundwater pollution is solid waste. “A large amount of solid waste is not treated properly before it is buried,” says Ma Jun, Beijing author of China’s Water Crisis and a water protection campaigner.

The overall deterioration of China’s water environment has compelled the Chinese government to tackle the issue. Qiu Baoqing, vice-minister of construction, claimed in August that the government would invest an unprecedented US$125 billion over the next five years to improve water treatment, recycling, and other water management to fight the mounting threat of urban water pollution.

Wen says only a tiny proportion of the spending will be devoted to groundwater, though he notes that the funding marks the real start of China’s investment in groundwater protection. In another landmark effort to tackle the problem, the government launched a large-scale survey earlier this year to investigate groundwater pollution. It is expected to be completed in five years. “The core problem is that no one knows how bad the overall situation is,” Wen says. “This survey is the first systematic one on groundwater pollution to provide scientific information for policymakers.”

Legislative measures are also picking up speed. According to Wen, more revisions on groundwater protection are expected to be added to China’s Water Pollution Prevention and Control Law, adopted in 1984. Experts are also calling for a real-time monitoring network on groundwater quality in key areas such as large plains, basins, populous cities, and energy bases. “Information on groundwater should be available to the public, since water pollution has been jeopardizing people’s health and safety,” Wen says.

Each year, China pumps 100 billion cubic meters of groundwater, about 30 percent of the nation’s annual exploitable groundwater. With merely a quarter of the world's average water resources per capita, China reports that 320 million people, about a quarter of its population, have difficulties in obtaining clean water. About 80 percent of diseases in the developing world are caused by contaminated water, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.

China’s existing groundwater resources range from some 20,000 years old in the deepest aquifers to as recent as the last rainstorm, Wen says, adding that it is common to find a 1,000-year-old aquifer in Shijiazhuang or Baoding in Hebei Province near Beijing. According to Ma, the long life of an aquifer can be critical to its purity. “If polluted, surface water can soon clean itself,” he explains. “But groundwater needs an unimaginable length of time to become clean. Prevention is all we can do.”

Groundwater is a strategic freshwater reserve for humans, says Wen. “In water pollution emergencies, deep groundwater plays a key role in providing drinking water for affected residents, as occurred in the aftermath of the chemical spill in the Songhua River in northeastern China last November.”

“Don't wait until the water in the well dries up to cherish the value of groundwater," Wen says. “It’s imperative to prevent pollution from the outset and improve the public’s awareness of fighting pollution.”

Yan Zhan is a senior journalist with China Features. This article was coordinated through the Global Environmental Institute (GEI) in Beijing.

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