Water Source: Who Is Responsible?

By Hongqiao Liu 13 March, 2015

Unclear responsibilities & standards mean China's water sources are not protected enough. CWR's Liu expands

Data shows water source quality improving but without a specific standard experts question how accurate this can be
Groundwater & surface water standards used to manage water source quality; lack of sufficient quality water sources
Toxic pollutants, varied monitoring, ineffective treatment & unclear ministry responsibilities threaten water sources

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. 

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.

Water source protection needs more action

The Ganjiang River flows across Ji’an City, Jiangxi Province. On the third day of the Spring Festival whilst other people were celebrating, a fishermen was on his wooden boat killing a fish he had caught. Beside him were three docked boats and a few steps away from them, a women washing clothes.

This would be a nice tranquil picture if it was not a Class I Drinking Water Source Protection Zone. An arm’s length away from the women washing clothes are four huge black pipes spanning from the bank to the center of the river. Water is pumped from these to the nearby waterworks facility 24 x 7 to supply water to the 340,000 people in the main part of Ji’an city.

Facing the docked boats is a 2-metre high warning sign saying on one side, “Docked vessels are prohibited in Class I Drinking Water Source Protection Zone”, and a reporting hotline on the other side. Ji’an city is a reflection of the current water source protection situation across the country.
Water Source - Who is Responsible - banner

In 2010 various govt ministries issued ‘National Urban Drinking Water Source Environmental Protection Plan (2008-2020)’
Intended to mobilze MRB58 bn

Back in 2010, the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) in conjunction with National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MOHURD), Ministry of Water Resources (MWR) and Ministry of Health (MoH),  jointly issued China’s first drinking water sources environmental protection plan: ‘National Urban Drinking Water Source Environmental Protection Plan (2008-2020)’.

The Plan was to mobilize RMB58 billion with the intention of solving the substandard polluted water source quality. The Plan prohibits any activities that may contaminate water in the water source protection zone.

Urban water source quality improving, only 3.8% of supply doesn’t meet standard

Looking at water source quality survey results released by the MEP, it would appear as though the quality of urban water sources is improving steadily. In 2011, a survey carried out by the MEP on centralized drinking water sources of prefecture-level cities and above showed that water sources accounting for 11.4% of supply failed to meet quality standards. By the first half of 2014 this had decreased to 3.8%.

A closer look at the MEP’s data regarding different types of water sources shows that 94.3% of surface water sources meet requirements, with the main exceptions being excessive levels of phosphorus, ammonia and manganese. Of groundwater sources only 87.6% were reported to meet requirements. The main challenges there were again ammonia and manganese but also iron.

From the statistics drinking water source quality has undoubtedly seen a significant improvement. However, a key question needs to be addressed: How does a water source ‘meet standard’?

Without a ‘Drinking Water Source Quality Standard’ how can a water source ‘meet standard’?

China has never issued a specific ‘Drinking Water Source Quality Standard’. Water source quality is managed by the ‘Surface Water Environmental Quality Standard’ (GB 3838-2002) or the ‘Groundwater Quality Standard’ (GB/T 14848-93), depending on the type of source. The ‘National Drinking Water Quality Standard’ (GB 5749-2006) only makes reference to relevant provisions in these two existing environmental quality standards of surface water and groundwater.

Data shows water source quality improving but without a specific standard some experts question how accurate this data can be

Some industry experts believe that since there is no clear standard to measure water source quality, the conclusion that a water source ‘meets standard’ is actually very ambiguous. This means that although it looks like the water source quality compliance rate has been rising, it’s actually totally useless to understand the actual situation of water source quality because there are no standards.

If we take surface water sources as an example, according to the MEP’s ‘Management Measures for Pollution Prevention and Control in Drinking Water Source Protection Zones’, certain areas near to sources of drinking water are designated as Class I drinking water source protection zones. Here, the water must reach the Class II requirement as per the ‘Surface Water Environmental Quality Standard’. Outside the Class I zone, there are Class II protection zones, where the water quality of surface water should at least meet Class III surface water environmental standards.

According to ‘Surface Water Environmental Quality Standard’,  surface water quality is divided into a total of five Classes (I-V), with Class I being the best. Compared to Class III water, Class II water requirements of permanganate, chemical oxygen demand (COD), ammonia, mercury, lead, cyanide, volatile phenol, petroleum and other more stringent toxicological indicators mean better water quality. As a centralized water source, surface water quality needs to meet the requirements of 80 toxicological indicators.

Standards say only Class II surface water can be used as drinking water

According to related standards, only Class II water quality can be used as drinking water source, yet MEP staff said in reality water source quality standard follows Class III water quality requirements. In January 2015 China Water Risk/ chinadialogue spoke with a staff member from the Drinking Water Office of the MEP. The officer candidly said, “In reality, some drinking water sources can only meet Class III water quality requirements”.

“In reality, some drinking water sources can only meet Class III water quality requirements”

Staff member from the Drinking Water Office of the MEP

“China does not have many water bodies at Class II level”, according to Wang Zhansheng, a professor with the Department of Environment Science and Engineering at Tsinghua University. “If the requirements of Class II are followed strictly, then probably only up to one-half of surface water sources can meet the Class II level”.

Toxic organic pollutants in water and inconsistent monitoring challenge effective treatment

As ‘the world’s factory’, China is one of the highest consumers and emitters of many heavy metals, compounds and other industrial raw materials. Survey data in recent years show toxic organic pollutants can be found in China’s major rivers, lakes and other bodies of water. In the Yangtze and Songhua rivers basin alone, 107 kinds of toxic and hazardous organic pollutants have been detected.

68 kinds of antibiotics found in China’s water bodies

In December 2014, China’s national television CCTV reported that Nanjing’s tap water contained amoxicillin. This and other antibiotics were detected in the Huangpu River. In April 2014, the magazine ‘Science China’ published a review showing that 158 kinds of pharmaceuticals and other personal care products were found in China’s rivers, lakes and other natural water bodies. These included 68 kinds of antibiotics. In 2014, Greenpeace conducted tests along the Yangtze River Basin and found environmental hormones, perfluorooctanoate (PFOA) and bisphenol A, in the drinking water sources of Chongqing, Wuhan and Nanjing City.

The conventional three-stage water treatment process has been unable to respond effectively to the changed water sources

Mr. Fu Tao, the Director of the Water Industry Policy Research Centre at Tsinghua University, once said that the conventional three-stage water treatment process has been unable to respond effectively to the changed water sources. Water treatment and production process as well as management and maintenance all need to be modified appropriately by water supply companies. Compared to big cities, small and medium-sized cities face bigger challenges in this regard.

On top of this, monitoring of water resource quality also differs in different cities. Some research institutions such as the South China Institute of Environmental Sciences, have established a ‘Water Source Risk Control System’ on the Pearl River Basin. The Deputy Director, Xuzhen Cheng, revealed that beyond the 106 regular indicators they are also monitoring 202 additional indicators that are not required by the standard, including heavy metals, antibiotics, environmental hormones and pesticides. Across China, only a few cities are equipped with such monitoring capability.

Various plans and lots of ‘indians’ but no ‘chief’ makes for unclear responsibility

At the planning level, the central government has announced a series of plans and measures to tackle the water source problem. The ‘National Groundwater Pollution Prevention & Control Plan (2011-2020)’ aims to invest a total of RMB34.66 billion. Its main goals are to do work related to the prevention of groundwater pollution and to remedy environmental safety issues related to using groundwater as drinking water. The ‘National Plan to Ensure Urban Drinking Water Safety (2011-2020)’ led by the MoH and the ‘12FYP National Urban Water Supply Infrastructure Retrofitting & Construction & 2020 Targets’ led by the MOHURD also clearly focus on work to strengthen the protection of drinking water sources.

It is worth noting that although various ministries have plans that are in some way related to the protection of drinking water sources, the main regulatory responsibility still falls on the head of the MEP and the MWR.

“[If] there are problems with the water source… It is clearly not the responsibility of one single government body. The reality is more complex.”

Mr. Xue Tao, Deputy Director of the Water Industry Policy Research Centre of Tsinghua University

“[If] there are problems with the water source, is it the responsibility of the MEP for its bad management or the MWR’s poor planning? It is clearly not the responsibility of one single government body. The reality is more complex”, said Mr. Xue Tao, Deputy Director of the Water Industry Policy Research Centre of Tsinghua University.

“I think the MEP is not protecting water source as ‘priority among priorities’, said Professor Tao Tao from Tongji University. In an article she wrote for Nature she points out that as a developing country, infrastructure-focused solutions to ensure drinking water safety are unsuitable for China. Instead, water sources protection and clean-up as well as the development of water recycling would be more effective.

In the ‘National Urban Drinking Water Source Environmental Protection Plan (2008-2020)’ mentioned at the start of the article, the establishment of a water source information management system across the country was highlighted. The system is supposed to improve the ability of safeguarding drinking water security. In order to obtain more information about the latest efforts on water source protection, China Water Risk/ chinadialogue requested the MEP publish results from the mid-term evaluation of the Plan. A ministry staff responded in a phone call that the results were classified as ‘state secret’. The results are not available to the public and are instead only used for reference during the government decision-making process.

Getting water source protection right will improve China’s drinking water quality, but clearly many challenges remain.

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 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 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

  • Soil & Water Pollution: Forecasting Impact -In the face of large scale soil and groundwater pollution a risk and megasite approach is best to remediate in a cost effective and sustainable manner. Deltares’ Dr. Annemieke Marsman outlines the strategy they developed
  • Pollution: It Doesn’t Pay to be Naughty – State Council wants to use the enforcement of law & regulation “to force the economy to transform and upgrade”. See how violation cost surges with daily fines, new standards & discharge permit trading in a bid to push China to go clean
  • 2013 State of Environment Report Review – MEP’s 2013 State of Environment Report says the ‘overall environmental quality was average’ but a closer look reveals mixed news, whilst discrepancies found in sets of pollution data add uncertainty of the real state of the environment
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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