Who is responsible for China’s water?

Unclear responsibilities and standards mean China's water sources are not sufficiently protected, says Liu Hongqiao of China Water Risk
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 around the clock, supplying water to 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.
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 mobilise 58 billion yuan 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.
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 centralised 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’?
China has never issued a specific ‘Drinking Water Source Quality Standard’.
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 real meaningful 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, ammonia, mercury, lead, cyanide, volatile phenol, petroleum and other more stringent toxicological indicators mean better water quality. As a centralised water source, surface water quality needs to meet the requirements of 80 toxicological indicators.
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”.
“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 soup
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.
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.
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.
Different standards
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.
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 34.66 billion yuan in the prevention of groundwater pollution and to remedy environmental safety issues related to using groundwater as drinking water. Two other plans also 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.
“China’s Long March to Safe Drinking Water” is a joint report published by China Water Risk and chinadialogue. You can download the report here in Chinese and English.