Can The Water Ten Protect Water Sources?

By Dawn McGregor, Hongqiao Liu 14 May, 2015

Can China's Water Ten deliver safe drinking water? If so, what happens to bottled water? Liu & McGregor expand

Water Ten could deliver safe drinking water with water source protection & urban water protection targets
Drinking water source quality target appears to fall from 97% to 93%, going backwards?; need more transparency
Quality issues mean around 40% of urban residents drink bottled water but does this mean quality improves?

We talked about China’s long march to safe drinking water in our in depth report here. A key part of this was protecting water sources (more on this here). So, does the ‘Water Pollution Prevention & Control Action Plan’ (also known as the “Water Ten Plan”), released by the State Council on 16 April 2015, deliver safe drinking water in China?

Water Ten Plan could deliver safe drinking water in China…
…So what about the bottled water industry?

The Water Ten Plan could very well do this as it is the most comprehensive water policy in China to date and includes stringent targets. After all it does tackle not just water quality but also water sources, a key part to achieving safe drinking water. If we can all drink from the tap in China by 2020 what will happen to the bottled water industry? Will we still turn to them for convenience? First let’s take a look at the Water Ten Plan targets and actions.

Water Ten Plan: drinking water, water source protection & urban water protection targets

Key drinking water, water source protection and urban water protection targets from the plan are listed below:
Drinking water source quality targets

  • By 2020: 93% of drinking water source should fall in Grade I – III
  • By 2030: 95% of drinking water source should fall in Grade I – III

Drinking water source protection targets

  • Draft a law dealing with the protection of drinking water sources (Legislative Affairs Office of the State Council, National Development & Reform Commission (NDRC), Ministry of Industry & Information Technology (MIIT), Ministry of Land Resources (MLR), Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MOHURD), Ministry of Transport (MoT), Ministry of Water Resources (MWR), Ministry of Agriculture (MoA), National Health & Family Planning Commission (NHFPC), China Instance Regulatory Commission (CIRC) & State Oceanic Administration (SOA))
  • Establish a life cycle drinking water safety monitoring system (led by MEP with support from NDRC, Ministry of Finance (MoF), MWR, NHFPC & MOHURD)
  • Local governments and water suppliers required to monitor, test, assess regional water source, finished water and end water quality (led by MEP with support from NDRC, Ministry of Finance (MoF), MWR, NHFPC & MOHURD)
  • Cities required to disclose quarterly water quality by 2016 & counties by 2018 (led by MEP with support from NDRC, Ministry of Finance (MoF), MWR, NHFPC & MOHURD)
  • Rural drinking water source and water quality test enhancement also addressed (led by MEP with support from NDRC, Ministry of Finance (MoF), MWR, NHFPC & MOHURD)
  • Construction of alternative drinking water sources by 2020 (led by MEP with support from NDRC, Ministry of Finance (MoF), MWR, NHFPC & MOHURD)
  • Prioritize technologies including drinking water purification (led by Ministry of Science & Technology, with support from NDRC, MIIT, MEP, MOHURD, MWR, MoA & SOA)

Urban drinking water protection targets

  • The following heavily polluting industries in urban areas will be gradually relocated or shutdown: Iron & steel, chemicals, textile dyeing & finishing, paper, pharmacy production, chemical fibres and non-ferrous metals (led by MIIT with support from MEP)
  • ‘Blue Lines’ will be drawn to retain specific percentages of water bodies in urbans areas and no new projects will be allowed in these zones (led by MOHURD & MLR with support from MEP, MWR & SOA)
  • Municipal wastewater treatment facilities located next to water bodies such as key lakes, key reservoirs and coastal river delta basins must comply with Grade IA water discharge quality by 2017 (led by MOHURD with support from NDRC & MEP)
  • By 2020 all counties and key townships should have wastewater collection abilities (led by MOHURD with support from NDRC & MEP)
  • By 2020 treatment targets should reach 85% for counties and 95% for cities (led by MOHURD with support from NDRC & MEP)
  • Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Yangtze River Delta & Pearl River Delta to have achieved the above by 2019 (one year ahead of the national target) (led by MOHURD with support from NDRC & MEP)
  • Comprehensive collection and treatment of wastewater should be realized for municipalities (Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai & Chongqing) and provincial capitals by 2017; other cities should realize this by 2020 (led by MOHURD with support from NDRC & MEP)
  • Existing sludge treatment facilities to be upgraded by the end of 2017 (led by MOHURD with support from NDRC, MIIT, MEP & MoA)
  • Restore urban dirty and odorous water (MOHURD, MEP, MWR, MoA)
    • Progress reports twice a year
    • By 2015 publish a list of concerned water bodies and responsible people
    • By the end of 2017 no floating garbage and no illegal discharge
    • Clean dirty and odorous water completed by 2020 but 2017 for provincial capitals

Water Ten Plan isn’t without obstacles but it does address dispersed water management authority issues

It’s clear from the long list of targets above that achieving clean drinking water is no easy task. Whilst the Water Ten Plan sets a strong path there are still pieces of the plan to be filled in and obstacles in overcoming dispersed authority in China’s water management. Good news though is that the Water Ten Plan clearly sets out responsible bodies, primary and secondary (denoted in target list) for every target and/or action. However, whilst this helps it’s not a long-term solve. But at least it has been recognised and action is being taken to mitigate it.

The plan also heavily focuses on wastewater treatment and water use & pollution by agriculture, which will both lead to improved water quality, particularly in rural areas. For more on rural issues and the plan’s targets for groundwater see here.

Going backwards? Drinking water source quality meeting Grade I – III to fall from 97% to 93%

One big issue of the drinking water targets in the Water Ten Plan is the 2020 and 2030 drinking water quality compliance targets of 93% (2020) and 95% (2030). Why? Because according to government data in 2013 already 97% of drinking water sources was falling between Grade I – III or was ‘meeting standard’. So, why are the 2020 & 2030 targets lower? Is China going backwards?
China's Drinking Water Source Quality & Monitoring (2010-2030F)

Lower targets don’t mean China isn’t marching towards safe drinking water…
…but need more transparency

A closer look reveals that the lower targets reflect more stringent enforcement. Also, the number of monitoring stations has increased and is expected to rise. These two factors account for the fall in drinking water source quality meeting Grades I – III.

So, it appears that China is actually marching towards safer drinking water but with discrepancies in data like this it’s not hard to see why there is public mistrust over whether tap water is safe. Also, if as the number of monitoring stations increase this downward trend continues one can’t help but question what the real situation is, and what about those areas that are still not monitored?

If the quality & transparency over tap water is not improved the Chinese population will continue to turn to bottled water as a method to ensure safe drinking water… or at least what they think is safe.

Tap vs. bottled water: Is bottled water a viable path to safe drinking water in China?

Going back to the mid-1990s hardly anyone in China drank bottled water. But this has changed and over the last decade bottled water consumption has grown rapidly with an annual growth rate as high as 20% at times. It’s not surprising then that in 2013 China overtook the US as the largest bottled water market for bottled water by volume, according to research group Canadean. Something we were surprised about was the bottled water freely available at the World Water Forum in Korea last month (see why here). Back to China.
Urban Residents Drinking Water Choice
Now as much as 40% of urban residents in China no longer drink tap water, according to a 100-city survey by h2o-china. For them, carboy water (large-format bottled water, normally sold in a 5 gallon portion that comes with home-delivery service) is the preferred choice. In fact, half of the revenue from some major bottled water companies in China comes from carboy water.

Should we be worried when people stop using tap water and buy bottled water? The answer is yes. For China especially there are three major questions to be answered:

  1. Is bottled water really as clean, safe and healthy as the ads indicate? Is bottled water cleaner, safer and healthier than tap water?
  2. If a considerable proportion of public water supply consumers no longer drinks from the tap, should the Chinese government adjust its policy direction to move money from public water investment to bottled water production?
  3. Should bottled water be considered as a supplement to public water supply service in China’s path to safe drinking water?

No, bottled water is not the solution to safe drinking water

Our answer to all three questions is no. Reasons for why this is are detailed in our upcoming report on drinking water in China. Sneak preview, bottled water isn’t necessarily cleaner than tap water with between 37.5% – 60% of carboy water samples failing to meet quality standards, according to a provincial quality review in 2012.

Water Ten & Drinking Water

Clean water comes at a price and for some it means knowingly drinking polluted water

As our report on China’s drinking water highlighted many public water suppliers can’t find qualified water sources. “Some cities have to drink polluted water“, said Professor Gong Peng from Tsinghua University. Meanwhile, some other cities rely on expensive long-distance water transfer projects of which, the South to North Water Transfer Project is best known by the public.

Not everyone can afford clean water…
… “Some cities have to drink polluted water”

professor Gong Peng from Tsinghua University

However, for rural residents once a water source is polluted they are left with very limited choices. It’s sad to find out that in some rural villages where residents are seriously concerned about water pollution they have to spend between RMB100-200 every month on carboy water. That’s RMB1,200-2,400 per year. For some very poor families, that can almost be their entire annual income. Therefore, once water is polluted they have no choice but to drink polluted water or to spend their whole income on bottled water – it’s just as insane as it sounds.

If drinking water quality doesn’t improve bottled water will continue to thrive

If the overall water ecology and water quality can’t be improved in the future then the water sources that public water supply systems rely on will also not improve and the bottled water market will continue to thrive.


Bottled water definitely cannot not be the solution for China’s drinking water challenges

Given this, it is crucial that the government deliver on the Water Ten Plan thereby ensuring safe drinking water from the tap for both rural and urban residents. However, as we have highlighted this is not an easy task and will take time (at least until 2030) (more here). So, in the interim whilst people continue to drink bottled water the government must release further guidance for the bottled water industry.

Watch this space for our upcoming special report on bottled water

Watch this space for our upcoming special report on bottled water covering environmental, social & regulatory issues and the challenges & opportunities in China.

Further Reading

  • Water Ten: Comply Or Else – China’s new Water Ten Plan sets tough action on pollution prevention & control. While this is good for the water sector, less obvious is who or which sectors will be impacted. China Water Risk’s Tan on why China is serious about its fast & furious pollution reforms to propel China to a new norm
  • Groundwater Under Pressure – New official survey says that China’s groundwater quality has yet again deteriorated. Can the ‘Water Ten Plan’ turn this around? Who will be affected? Hear from China Water Risk’s Hu on what’s at stake & why the next 5 years are crucial
  • 2015 World Water Forum: 5 Key Takeaways – See what tops our list of key takeaways from the 2015 World Water Forum in South Korea. From bottled water to ‘green hydropower’ and transboundary issues – where does China stand? China Water Risk’s McGregor expands
  • Water In Coal: Still Murky – Multiple policies were issued recently over the proper management of coal mine water, in particular mine water reuse to alleviate groundwater woes. But the road ahead is still murky. China Water Risk’s Thieriot walks us through inconsistencies in data & targets
  • Water Ten To Revamp Chinese Agriculture – Takeaways from Shanghai’s Global Agriculture Sustainability Forum are reviewed in relation to the new Water Ten Plan. Fertilizer, pesticide, irrigation & product tractability markets look set to change. China Water Risk’s Hu on what the new plan means for the future of Chinese agriculture

More on drinking water in China

Chinas Long March To Drinking Water 2015 Reprot - EnglishChinas Long March To Safe Drinking Water 2015 - CH

  • Drinking Water Safety Faces “The Big Test” – In wake of the upcoming ‘Water Pollution Prevention & Control Action Plan’ China Water Risk & chinadialogue investigated the true status of China’s urban and rural drinking water
  • Water Source: Who Is Responsible? – Data shows water source quality improving but some experts question how accurate this can be without a specific standard? Moreover, pollutants, ineffective treatment & unclear ministry responsibilities pose threats. CWR’s Hongqiao Liu expands
  • Rural Drinking Water Far From Solved – Experts say the Chinese government’s plan to ‘completely solve’ the problem of rural drinking water safety by the end of 2015 is a ‘mission impossible’. Find out why and more as CWR’s Hongqiao Liu expand
  • Just What is Bottled Water? – We probably drink a bottle of water each day but do we really know what’s inside? China Water Risk’s Debra Tan takes a closer look – It might change the way you choose your water
  • Consumers Willing To Pay More for Water – Lu Shuping, President of Xylem China, shares the findings of a survey of six Tier 1 & Tier 2 cities in China which show that consumers understand the seriousness of water issues & are willing to pay more for safe drinking water China Water
  • Investments: 3 Thoughts – Investing in the water sector looks attractive with the Chinese government & consumers wanting water tariff hikes. Will water supply or wastewater treatment be the larger market? Debra Tan shares some on-ground views distilled from recent conversations
Dawn McGregor
Author: Dawn McGregor
Dawn leads CWR’s work to help corporates navigate increasingly disruptive & material risks from water & climate threats, as well as transitional risks in the supply chain arising from new regulations in China. Here, Dawn engages extensively with the global fashion industry delivering on-ground workshops in China to keynotes and strategic input at European HQs. She has written at length on the end of dirty and thirsty fast fashion and her report to overcome gaps between brands and manufacturers for a clean and circular future inspired the industry to create a new wastewater tool. Dawn also works closely with the property and tourism sectors where she not only conducts strategic assessments of their exposure but builds collective action toward resilience via closed door working groups and invite-only events. Having helped build CWR, Dawn is a frequent keynote, panellist & moderator at events, including being twice selected as the lead-rapporteur at World Water Week. Her articles are cited in various industry publications including the UN’s ‘World Without Water’. Dawn previously worked in a global investment bank assessing geo-political risk, crisis management and business resiliency. She was born and bred in Hong Kong and has lived in France, England, Singapore and Beijing.
Read more from Dawn McGregor →
Hongqiao Liu
Author: Hongqiao Liu
Hongqiao Liu is a Chinese journalist and policy expert who covers China, climate, energy, environment and everything in between. She currently writes for Carbon Brief, an award-winning specialist website focused on explaining climate science and policy. Hongqiao believes in the power of journalism in fostering informed discussion, decision-making and actions on tackling climate change -- the biggest challenge of our century. Her journalism brings facts, nuance and context to heated discussions about China and provides digestible information on complex policy issues. Her early career as an investigative journalist at Southern Metropolis Daily and Caixin - two of the most prestigious Chinese media - saw her publish a series of influential exposés on social, environmental and governance challenges arising from China’s emergence. Many of her work have triggered public debate, helped foster accountability and sparked critical reform of several national environmental policies in China. She also works as an independent consultant, mostly with international non-profit organisations, advising on strategic planning and policy research. Her clients include some of the most influential advocators for the public good. Hongqiao worked with China Water Risk between 2014 and 2017 as principal researcher.
Read more from Hongqiao Liu →