Rural Drinking Water Far From Solved

By Hongqiao Liu 13 March, 2015

Experts say govt's plan to 'completely solve' rural drinking water is a 'mission impossible'. CWR's Liu expands

Rural drinking water issues more urgent than urban yet RMB235 mn less invested in rural water than urban
12FYP rural target to provide water for 298 mn rural Chinese; big challenges remain in quality & quantity
Rural drinking water suffers from 'heavy on construction' and 'light on management'; 13FYP expected to plug gaps

In wake of the upcoming ‘Water Pollution Prevention & Control Action Plan’ 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.

On 24 November 2014, Premier Li Keqiang visited the Ministry of Water Resource (MWR). His first stop was the Rural Water Division to follow up on the progress of rural drinking water safety projects and plans. According to the 12th Five Year Plan (12FYP), the Chinese government planned to “completely solve rural drinking water safety issues”.

Rural drinking water safety issues more urgent than urban

Compared with the demands of urban residents for higher water quality, the rural population faces drinking water safety issues that are even more urgent. Firstly, there is the issue of having water at all, and then there is the issue of having enough basic, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water.

12FYP target: 298 mn rural residents & 114,000 rural schools to have access to safe drinking water, and 80% centralised water supply rate

According to the ‘12FYP Rural Safe Drinking Water Project’, the goal is for 298 million rural residents as well as teachers and students in 114,000 rural schools to have access to safe drinking water during the period 2011-2015. Additionally, the centralized water supply rate will go up to 80%.


A burdensome task

In order to tackle the drinking water difficulties of the rural population, the Ministry of Health (MoH) launched a nation-wide ‘rural water supply improvement’ project in 1990. Since 2000, the central government has invested almost RMB300 billion into rural drinking water safety projects. During the 11th Five Year Plan period (2006-2010), rural drinking water safety was promoted to a national planning level. In the same period the National Development and Reformation Commission (NDRC), MWR and Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) jointly released the first ‘National Rural Drinking Water Safety Project’ five-year plan. During those five years, the government invested a total of RMB100.9 billion and improved the drinking water safety for over 210 million rural residents.

RMB235 mn less invested in rural water than urban during 12FYP

During the 12FYP investment in rural drinking water safety-related infrastructure construction is expected to reach RMB175 billion. Although, compared with the RMB410 billion investment in urban water supply, RMB175 billion seems relatively low, it is still the largest investment in rural drinking water in recent years.

Contingency projects by the government brought “life-saving water” to rural people who either lacked water or didn’t have drinkable water. But the task remains burdensome. By the end of 2010, there were still over 400 million rural people collecting water directly from water sources with either no facilities, or with only very simple water supply delivery systems. This accounts for 42% of the rural population. Among them, 85.72 million people have no water supply facilities at all and get their water directly from rivers, streams and ponds.

Among the 298 million rural residents with drinking water safety problems to be addressed during the 12FYP, 105 million have substandard quality water and 91.3 million face water shortages to varying degrees.

Big challenges remain
Drinking water still an issue for 52 mn rural residents in 2015

According to the MWR, by the beginning of 2015, drinking water issues of 51.63 million rural residents as well as 7.04 million rural teachers and students remain unresolved.

2015 is an important year as it is the deadline for 12FYP targets. However, it is clear that China still faces many challenges in order to meet its rural drinking water safety goals.

Big challenges ahead in quantity and quality

The remaining unsolved tasks are all “hard bones”, said Premier Li Keqiang during his visit to the MWR in November 2014.

Remaining tasks are all “hard bones”

Premier Li Keqiang

A staff member involved in the mid-term evaluation of the ‘National Rural Drinking Water Safety Project 12FYP’ revealed that a group of experts submitted an assessment of early achievements and problems with the projects in the first half of the 12FYP. A worry is that in the quest to achieve the central government’s goal of “completely solving” rural water problems by 2015, construction will be completed in a hurry but water supply and quality might still not be guaranteed.

“completely solving” rural drinking water is a ‘mission impossible’

Liu Wenjun, director of Division of Drinking Water Safety with Tsinghua University commented that, “completely solving” rural drinking water problems would involve more of an administrative planning style than is the current approach. He added that completely solving the issue for everyone is a ‘mission impossible’.

Liu explains that, rural drinking water is a complex issue. He worries that there will always be people who are missed out. These are usually people living in remote areas with no, or only poor quality water due to geographical limitations. Moreover, with limited economic conditions, it is extremely difficult to solve the drinking water issue for these people.

The initiative project ‘A Glass of Clean Water’ conducted a survey in nearly 100 villages and 6 schools across 11 provinces in China. The survey found that local governments have favoured large-scale, low-cost rural drinking water construction projects with larger numbers of beneficiaries in an effort to achieve central government goals. As a result, remote and small-scale projects have lagged.

Water resource challenges are in both quantity and quality, with added pressures from climate change & industrial growth

Rural drinking water safety in China faces great challenges on water resources, in means of both quantity and quality. On one hand, the reduction in incoming water, climate change and overuse of groundwater has led to significant reduction or depletion of groundwater and surface water sources in certain rural areas. This means that some of the people who were helped through previous projects are once again facing a lack of safe drinking water. On the other hand, mining, industrial wastewater discharge, excessive use of pesticides and fertilizers, livestock breeding and domestic sewage discharge, as well as improper waste disposal in rural areas, has led to the deterioration of the quality of rural drinking water sources.

With these exacerbating factors in mind, the actual drinking water quality in rural China needs urgent attention. At present, rural drinking water quality is regulated by a “less stringent” version of the ‘National Drinking Water Quality Standard’, some indicators are relaxed. Whether rural drinking water can meet the standard remains unclear. Official channels rarely disclose information on this and yet the rural drinking water crisis is widely reported by media across the country.

Unclear water price mechanism, lack of  human resources & securing funding pose threats to rural solve

The report “China’s Long March To Safe Drinking Water” jointly released by China Water Risk and chinadialogue examines the above challenges and more. Key issues threating rural drinking water safety in the report are: an unclear water price mechanism, lack of sustainable projects, lack of human resources and securing funding for existing and future projects. The report highlights that rural drinking water safety is “heavy on construction” and “light on management”.

13FYP expected to tackle efficiency, increasing rural tap water penetration & more

2015 is a “decisive year” of the 12FYP and it is a year of preparation for the 13FYP. MWR Minister, Chen Lei, said in a conference in January that the 13FYP would include work related to improving rural drinking water quality and the efficiency of water supply. Steps will be taken to increase rural tap water penetration rate, water supply guarantee rate and water quality levels.




根据《全国农村饮水安全工程“十二五”规划》,中国拟在 2015年底解决2.98亿农村人口和11.4万所农村学校师生的安全饮水问题,并将集中供水率提高至80%。

Further Reading

  • Pollution Prevention: What’s The Plan? – The ‘Water Ten’, expected to be released during the National People’s Congress 2015 hasn’t been. So, what’s Beijing’s plan with pollution so clearly on everyone’s mind; though mainly air pollution with “Under the Dome”? CWR’s Dawn McGregor and Hongqiao Liu expand
  • 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
  • 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
  • Environmental Law: A New Era – Professor Wang Canfa from the University of Political Science and Law in Beijing thinks China has a relatively perfect system on environmental law and that the amended law marks a new era. See why
  • 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


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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