Drinking Water Safety Faces "The Big Test"

By Hongqiao Liu 16 February, 2015

Chinese govt set ambitious goals to improve drinking water in 12FYP. 2015 is here, how have they done? Liu expands

In 12FYP China set goals to increase drinking water quality & access to public water; RMB700 bn was set aside
Govt. expects all cities in China to meet national drinking water standard by 2015 but many cities failing to do so
Info disclosure is poor, high concentrations of compounds in water & vague ownership are some of the obstacles

In wake of the upcoming ‘Water Pollution Prevention & Control Action Plan’, expected just before/during the National People’s Congress in early March 2015, China Water Risk and chinadialogue investigated the true status of China’s urban and rural drinking water. This article is part of this investigation. Scroll down for the Chinese version of the article (请向下阅读中文版)。
The full report of the investigation is available in English  & Chinese.
If you are in China and the English report is taking a while to download, please click here.

How well is China meeting ambitious goals for drinking water safety set five years ago, and under review as the government prepares its 13th Five Year Plan (2016-2020)?

China’s central government set ambitious goals to safeguard water quality in 2011, at the outset of the 12th Five Year Plan (2011-2015). It targeted improvements from source-to-tap, earmarking a budget of nearly RMB 700 billion (US$112 billion) to pay for upgrades to water treatment and piping systems. The funds were spread across multiple ministries and top level government bodies, including the State Council, the National Development and Reform Commission, the Ministry of Water Resource, the Ministry of Environment Protection, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development and the Ministry of Health.

Big goals

Separately, there was also a movement to lift and standardise the varying levels of provincial drinking water quality by introducing a new national standard.

Government expects cities across China to meet National Drinking Water Quality standard by 2015

In 2007, a National Drinking Water Quality Standard’ (GB 5749-2006) was introduced. This standard is accordance with international standards, but since the bar was set far above the actual quality levels of China’s water, it only came into full effect in July 2012. The government expects cities across China to meet this national standard by 2015.

2015 has arrived. How far is China’s government from realizing its water safety goals?

In 2010 over 600 mn urban residents had access to public water supply services & >400 mnrural residents had access to clean drinking water
However, 298 mn rural Chinese lacked safe drinking water

In 2010, over 600 million urban residents already enjoyed access to public water supply services, and more than 400 million rural residents had access to clean drinking water. This was primarily due to government-led improvements in water supply and safe drinking water initiatives. However, 298 million rural Chinese lacked safe drinking water. They were to get supplies during the 2011-2015 Plan. For urban residents, the stated public water supply penetration rate was to rise from 90% to 95%.

Questionable quality

Whilst it is clear that more people across China are enjoying access to public water supply, what is not clear is the quality of the water delivered. The mid-term evaluation of the 12FYP, which started in mid-2013 may have the answers. However, the assessment report is “classified” and has not yet been made available to the public.

Access to public water improving but quality of water delivered is not clear

In the wake of the anticipated ‘Water Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan’, which prioritizes drinking water safety, China Water Risk and chinadialogue have taken a closer look into the actual status of urban and rural drinking water in China.  The report finds that some urban water quality remains unreliable, while rural areas face many challenges in meeting requirements that are less stringent than in urban areas.
The full report, which sets out issues in water source protection, water financing and water governance, “China’s Long March to Safe Drinking Water”, is expected to be published later this month.
Drinking water is at the end of the water supply chain. It follows that to achieve high drinking water quality requires comprehensive standards, policies and regulations to be in place, governing the entire supply chain from source-to-tap. Water source protection was included in the China’s ambitious plan to safeguard safe drinking water in the 12thFYP, and targets set for both 2015 and 2020.

For water treatment & main-pipe network management, China is looking at high-tech innovation & infrastructure investment

For water treatment and main-pipe network management, China is locked into a ‘technology-focused’ path, and is looking at high-tech innovation and infrastructure investment to ensure water quality and delivery.
However, problems persist in secondary water supply to the end user, which has the greatest direct impact on tapwater water quality. Despite many attempts across the country to address this, there is still no perfect solution.


Macro-level success

Many insiders with access to water quality data and information at ministry and department-level share a common view of China’s water problems.

Provincial capitals & big cities in developed eastern coastal regions, water safety “essentially has no problems.”
In second and third-tier cities as well as medium to small towns, water safety development is “patchy”, but has been improving.
In rural areas, there has been rapid progress with collective water supply.

They say that in provincial capitals and big cities in developed eastern coastal regions, water safety “essentially has no problems.” In second and third-tier cities as well as medium to small towns, water safety development is “patchy”, but has been improving. In rural areas, there has been rapid progress with collective water supply.
Problems with the “Three Highs”, namely high concentrations of fluorine, arsenic and salt found in water in some rural areas, have largely been resolved. Meanwhile, rural drinking water improvement works to stem pollution are also progressing.
In this portrait of China’s drinking water safety landscape, improvement in water quality have been radiating out from the big cities to smaller cities and towns. In reality, however, information on rural areas remains limited; the rural waterscape is shrouded in fog.
Furthermore, beyond this largely positive macro-level overview of China’s drinking water safety, on a local-level the real status of water safety in each city, town, county or village remains unclear.

Official information disclosure on water quality is poor & govt keeps test data secret

Official information disclosure on water quality is poor, and the government keeps official tests and monitoring data secret. Although water supply enterprises have been publishing their water quality test data, there is room for improvement in test frequency, the number of published indicators and public interfaces.

Local concerns

Against this backdrop, civil society groups have resorted to self-testing drinking water to obtain water quality data.

Civil society have resorted to self-testing drinking water to obtain quality data

A recent report from China Water Safety Foundation shows that only half of the 29 big and medium sized cities it surveyed passed the test on all 20 selected indicators from the National Drinking Water Standard; one city failed the tests on 4 indicators. These test results, together with all other civic monitoring actions, do not give a comprehensive picture of drinking water safety, but they are enough to point out the risks and challenges ahead.
The health and environmental implications of unsafe water are already evident. In some cases, the health impacts have geological causes due to naturally occurring arsenic, fluorine and salt. But elsewhere, they result from human activity and pollution.

Toxic organic pollutants detected in drinking water have caused widespread public concern

In recent years, Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), environmental hormones and other toxic organic pollutants have been detected in drinking water, causing widespread public concern. These chemicals are not yet effectively monitored, partly because not enough research has been undertaken on the health impacts when they are absorbed through drinking water.
As the report points out, many obstacles need to be addressed in China’s long march to safe drinking water. China faces problems of ambiguous ownership, unclear water pricing mechanisms, immature market mechanisms and a lack of rural business models, among other issues. There are also governance challenges with dispersed and overlapping responsibilities among various departments across ministries.

China facing ambiguous ownership, unclear water pricing mechanisms, immature market mechanisms and governance challenges

Given the current situation of “nine dragons managing water“, many people are expecting to see reforms to the government’s administrative systems for water management. This would mean establishing a water management and coordination mechanism across different government bodies. A drinking water monitoring system at both national and local levels is clearly required, as are a water quality technology framework from source-to-tap; supervision and early warning systems; and integrated watershed management. The report suggests these needs should be addressed in the coming ‘Water Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan’.
Please watch out for the full report “China’s Long March to Safe Drinking Water” by China Water Risk and chinadialogue. It is expected to be published online for free download in late February 2015 in both Chinese and English.


请关注中国水危机与中外对话的联合报告《安全饮用水:中国的艰难长征欢迎欢迎下载中文版报告了解更多详情 。



与这些规划同时进行的,是随新国家饮用水标准出台而进行的全国饮用水水质提升与标准化运动。2007年,新国家饮用水水质标准《生活饮用水卫生标准》(GB 5749-2006)正式实施。这项标准的出台实现了与国际标准接轨,但因超越饮用水水质的现实国情,新标准直到2012年7月才正式全面实施。政府期待,全国城市能在2015年达标。












诸多接近部委层面水质数据信息的业内人士, 对中国饮用水水质状况做出了几乎一致的判断:以省会城市和东部沿海经济发达地区为代表的大城市,水质安全“基本没有问题”;二三线城市和中小城镇发展不平衡,但总体有所改善;“三高”(高氟、高砷、高盐)地区农村饮水问题基本得到解决,集中式供水进展较快,因污染导致的农村饮水改善工作正在推进。









Further Reading

  • 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
  • Pricing Water – With the NDRC’s recent announcement of tiered tariff hikes across China’s cities to rein in top end water users, Tan mulls over the proposed tiered water tariffs hikes and whether price points and switchpoints between tiers are properly set
  • MEP Reform: From Mountain Top to Ocean? – The MEP is currently regarded as too weak to punish polluters due to dispersed authority & overlapping functions. Given the ‘war on pollution’, is reform to make a Super MEP necessary to improve China’s ‘mountains, water, forest, farmland & lakes’?
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.
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