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A thirst for change

Updated: Jan 29,2016 9:36 AM     Xinhua

Visitors can visit a scenic spot in Poyang Lake, Jiangxi province, by foot and bike because of the falling water level in the lake.[Photo provided to China Daily]

From dirty laundry to tainted wells, the strain on China’s water resources is being felt nationwide after years of industrialization have left the country high and dry. Farmer Jiang Delan lived a quiet life near Bengbu city in Anhui province until an industrial park near the Sanpudagou River tainted her village’s water source.

“Now the fish from the river are inedible and they stink when cooked,” Jiang said. “The water quality has worsened since the establishment of the industrial park. It makes the air smell and the water in our well tastes strange.”

While the village once relied on money earned from growing rice, the residents’ crops are now rejected at the local market because they have an unpleasant taste.

“It does not surprise me. How can rice taste good if it is irrigated by such polluted water?” Jiang asked. “Now we only grow crops that depend less on water.”

Her village is not the only one facing a crisis. Water shortages and problems related to contamination have become widespread in recent years as industrialization and urbanization take their toll.

Lu Haisu, a resident of Zhailixi village, Hebei province, examines a crack in the wall of his house.[Photo/Xinhua]

White clothes are history

Sanxianhu township in Hunan province, named after the once pristine Sanxianhu Lake, was once famous for its abundant clear water.

But the quality began slipping toward the end of the 1970s, when industrial and agricultural wastewater was discharged directly into the lake. “Sometimes the water is black. It’s impossible to drink,” local resident Li Qinglan said.

Around 1980, the residents dug a well to access clean water, but other problems arose.

“At that time, girls liked to wear white dresses. But the dresses turned yellow after being washed in the tap water. White clothes soon became a rare sight in our town,” Li said.

Several years later, experts discovered excessive iron and manganese content was to blame for the dirty laundry.

“The iron content in the water is 84 times higher than the national standard, and manganese is 25 times higher,” said Zhao Yong, deputy head of Sanxianhu’s water administration station.

In 2008, the provincial finance department funded a water-processing plant to filter the iron and manganese from the well water, but the content was still too high, making the process slow and ineffective.

In response, the villagers created their own filters by placing buckets filled with sand and cloth under their taps. “Now, everyone in the village has one,” Li said.

The poor water quality has led many of the younger generation to abandon the village and seek a better life elsewhere. A new water processing plant is under construction and is expected to improve the water quality and increase supply, but many worry that it is too late.

“White clothes have already become a part of history for Sanxianhu. I’m afraid that young people will also become history,” said Zhou Can, the head of a local community.

Nationwide, 27.2 percent of river water and 67.8 percent of lake water is undrinkable, according to the Ministry of Water Resources.

In 2014, when the ministry monitored 2,071 wells from 17 provincial regions in the northern part of the country, it discovered that the quality of the subterranean water was below par, meeting national standards in just 15.2 percent of the areas tested. In 48.9 percent of the areas the water was classified as “low quality”, while it was designated “poor quality” in 35.9 percent.

Structural damage

Northern Hebei province is faced with the country’s biggest water crisis. It has one-seventh the national average of per capita water resources, with just 307 cubic meters.

“The province has 6 billion cubic meters of overexploited underground water out of the country’s total 17 billion cubic meters,” said Qi Bingqiang, an official with the Ministry of Water Resources.

In 2006, an 8-kilometer-long sinkhole suddenly appeared in Baixiang county, Hebei. Experts linked the sudden collapse to drought and falling levels of underground water.

“The gap grew wider and wider, with the widest spot about 1 meter. You could hardly see the bottom,” said Zhai Jingli, a resident of nearby Zhailixi village.

Cracks not only appeared on the ground, but also in homes. More than 230 of the 420 houses in the village have cracked walls because the foundations have shifted. Cracks have formed on the ceilings, walls and floor throughout villager Lu Haisu’s house.

“We rebuilt the house twice after it started to crack in 2006, but the cracks kept showing up again after the reconstruction,” the 54-year-old said. “I can hear the wall cracking at night when I’m in bed.”

Water shortages also plague nearby Beijing. The capital’s average annual rainfall of 500 millimeters can only provide water for a population of 12 million people, but in 2011 the city’s population had reached 20 million, according to the municipal water authorities.

“Even after receiving water from the south-north water diversion project, Beijing still partly relies on the exploitation of underground water to meet its needs,” said Xu Xinxuan, head of the Water Sciences Institute at Beijing Normal University.

In southern provinces, the water level is falling in several lakes, including Dongting Lake in Hunan province, and Poyang Lake in Jiangxi province. Experts believe the shortage is spreading from north to south.

Conservation projects

Even without the pressures exerted by industrialization, China’s water situation is cause for concern. The nation’s water resources are just 27 percent of the global average and are unevenly distributed. Floods and droughts are common.

But the country is making efforts to conserve its water resources and fight pollution. Between 2011 and last year, 238 billion yuan ($36 billion) was spent on water-conservation projects in poor areas, according to the ministry.

In April, a detailed action plan aimed at improving the quality of drinking water and promoting water conservation was introduced.

According to the plan, annual pollution checks will be included in performance reviews for provincial officials. Distribution of funds for the campaign will also depend on the results.

From next year, a blacklist will name businesses that exceed their water pollution quotas, with severe violators risking closure.

The plan also stipulates that more than 70 percent of the water in the seven major river valleys, including the Yangtze and Yellow rivers, should be in good condition by 2020. The same target has been set for offshore areas.

Next year will also herald the beginning of 20 major water projects, and 172 key water projects will be pushed forward in the coming five years, according to Chen Lei, minister of water resources.

A multi-tier pricing system has been launched in 321 cities across 29 provinces and regions, allowing the price of water to reflect local conditions.

However, experts point out the system is not strict enough in some cities. In many areas, the price increase is only felt by those with limited incomes and few people feel the need to save water.

Zhu Dangsheng, chief engineer at the ministry’s China Renewable Energy Engineering Institute, said cities and areas that share rivers or lakes must coordinate their actions to resolve the problem.

As one of 13 major grain suppliers in the country, about 70 percent of Hebei’s underground water is used for irrigation, but according to one local official, who preferred not to be named, there are competing claims for resources.

“The central government has invested a huge amount of money to save underground water and protect the ecosystem in Hebei province.

But at the same time, the agriculture department is pushing for higher grain output. With Hebei’s serious water problem, the agricultural department should lower the designated grain output in those cities and counties that suffer most,” he said.