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In China, the water you drink is as dangerous as the air you breathe

Shanghai, with its chic cafes, glitzy shopping malls and organic health food shops, is emblematic of improving quality of life for China’s urban middle class. Yet while the city’s veil of smog has lifted slightly in recent years, its water pollution crisis continues unabated – 85% of the water in the city’s major rivers was undrinkable in 2015, according to official standards, and 56.4% was unfit for any purpose.

These findings come from our new water quality report, which found water pollution levels in China’s other major cities are also extremely high. In Beijing, 39.9% of water was so polluted that it was essentially functionless. In Tianjin, northern China’s principal port city and home to 15 million people, a mere 4.9% of water is usable as a drinking water source.

One reason for this is that local governments have too often failed to crack down on polluting industries. In 2011, reports emerged that said Luliang Chemical Industry in Yunnan province had disposed of 5,000 tonnes of chemical waste next to a river used as a drinking water source. According to local residents, more than 140,000 tonnes of waste had already accumulated over 22 years. A year later, seven people, including employees and contractors of Luliang Chemical Industry, were found guilty by the Qilin District Court of Qujing for illegally discharging chromium-contaminated waste. The local government, however, took no action to regulate the company’s chemical waste disposal, and there was no monitoring system in place to track the transport of hazardous materials.

The nationwide standards for the treatment of sewage are also far from sufficient. Despite some improvements in recent years, wastewater, water which has been used in the home, in a business or as part of an industrial process and may now contain hazardous materials, remains a major pollution source, particularly in urban centres. In 2015, 3.78bn cubic metres of untreated wastewater was discharged across China, including 1.98m cubic metres in Beijing alone. This is water that has been ruled unusable for agricultural, industrial and even decorative purposes dumped into rivers and lakes.

This is not for want of China’s Ministry of Environment stepping up efforts to address water pollution. In 2015, the ministry ordered provinces to actually meet the water quality targets they set every five years. For Shanghai that means ensuring there is “basically no surface water” that cannot serve at least some function by 2020.

The problem is in many cases provinces simply failed to comply. After analyzing 145 water quality data sets from 31 provinces, we found that nearly half of the country missed its targets for the period 2011-15. In three provinces – Shanxi, Sichuan and Inner Mongolia – the water even got worse, with the amount of surface water “fit for human contact” falling by 1.4%, 6.3%, and 13.6% respectively.

Across China, access to drinkable water is not just a quality of life issue, it’s about survival. There have been reports of local authorities digging deeper wells to reach drinkable water, which has become harder to come by as 80% of groundwater from major river basins is “unsuitable for human contact”.

There are clear parallels between efforts to address China’s water pollution problem and action to fix its infamously smoggy air. Since 2011, when a particularly thick cloud of smog settled over northern China for days and triggered public outcry on the internet, air pollution awareness has swelled. This attention was met with swift government action, including industrial emissions inspections and the introduction of more than 2000 air quality monitoring stations.

The same vigilance is now needed to address water pollution. First, water pollution data must be made publicly available so that local governments can be held to account. China’s environment ministry announced that the 2017 water quality rankings will only be released for the 10 best and 10 worst performing cities. Data from all cities should be made public.

Second, it is imperative that province-level governments set ambitious water quality targets and that 100% of these governments meet their targets. If they don’t, it should be a black mark for officials in line for a promotion. Third, local governments should be given more resources to monitor water pollution, including increased inspections staff and improved technologies. Companies that are found to violate dumping laws should be subject to legal penalties - such as fines - that are actually enforced.

As Chinese citizens’ demand for higher quality of life grows, so too does the national focus on environmental efforts. Just as public awareness of air pollution led to significant changes in government policy, public demand for clean water could be enough to spur long overdue action.

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