Issue Date: January 4, 2010
In Pursuit Of Clean Water
The villages surrounding the town of Shenqiu, in the northeastern part of China’s Henan province, don’t look any richer, poorer, happier, or sadder than those in other parts of the country. But people living there are cursed with an intractable problem: The contaminated water they have been drinking for the past two decades is making many of them sick and die prematurely.
The quality of drinking water in large swaths of rural China has steadily deteriorated with the country’s rapid industrialization. As the number of villages with unsafe water reaches alarming proportions, new initiatives are getting under way to reverse the damage. Over the past two years, two nongovernmental organizations have launched campaigns to improve the quality of water that Chinese rural residents drink. Using different strategies, the two groups offer complementary approaches to solving the problem of polluted drinking water in many parts of China.
In the province of Henan, in central China, the Huai River Protectors are equipping villages with low-cost filtration systems designed to remove harmful industrial contaminants from their water. And in the southern province of Guangdong, the international group Greenpeace has embarked on an ambitious campaign to convince the Chinese government to keep track of hazardous wastes and to more systematically prevent manufacturers from dumping them into rivers and lakes.
“China knows it has a big problem with its water,” says Jamie Choi, the Hong Kong-based manager of Greenpeace’s campaign against toxic chemicals in China. “It needs help.” About a quarter of China’s population does not have access to safe drinking water, she says, citing Chinese government statistics.
China is the world’s most attractive market for companies in the water treatment business (C&EN, May 11, 2009, page 18). Chinese industry needs large amounts of clean water to feed its power plants, electronics manufacturers, and beverage industries. And major Chinese cities, particularly in the country’s northern region, are increasingly using desalination and recycling to make up for the water shortages they face.
But people in farming communities throughout China are often neglected when it comes to clean water. Villagers have traditionally relied on rivers or shallow wells for drinking water, but pollution is often so bad that both the rivers and the wells dug in their vicinity are unsafe. China’s government is gradually installing pipes to distribute treated water, but the pace is slow given the vastness of the country.
Hopes for a solution to China’s rural drinking water problems were raised last month when India’s Tata Group launched Swach, a low-cost water filter suitable for rural parts of the developing world (C&EN, Dec. 14, 2009, page 9). But the company later explained that Swach is designed to remove bacteria and viruses, not heavy metals and agrochemicals from industrial activity.
It is possible to deliver clean water without addressing the underlying pollution, Greenpeace’s Choi acknowledges, but the environmental group has more ambitious goals for China. “We’re aiming at policy change. We want China to have a plan for its hazardous chemicals,” she says.
Currently, Choi says, China has no official accounting of toxic materials released into the environment. “They cannot say they hope to reduce mercury emissions by 20% because they don’t know how much mercury is being released,” she says.
The Chinese government is aware that water pollution is a serious problem. Companies that pollute in China are fined or forced to treat their emissions. But, Choi argues, the government is not sophisticated in its tracking of pollution. Even though hundreds of compounds can pollute water in multiple ways, China primarily monitors chemical oxygen demand, an indirect test for measuring the quantity of organic pollutants in water.
Greenpeace is best known for dramatic, high-profile actions aimed at drumming up public support for environmental causes. In China, however, the group has adopted a low-key approach. “As in other parts of the world, in China we do research, write reports, and lobby the governments,” Choi says. “But it would not be effective in China to hang large banners from the sides of buildings.”
The group’s water campaign in China focuses on the Pearl River Delta, in the southern province of Guangdong. Encompassing Hong Kong and Macau, the delta is one of the world’s most dynamic industrial zones. Greenpeace reckons that it accounts for 10% of China’s gross domestic product and that the Pearl River itself is the source of drinking water for 47 million people. Guangdong, Choi says, is “more aware than elsewhere of the negative consequences of development and therefore more ready to try out another model.”
In October, Greenpeace issued “Poisoning the Pearl,” a report that describes the toxic substances found in water samples the group took from sites next to some of the large manufacturing facilities operating in the delta. Water analysis was performed at Greenpeace Research Laboratories at the University of Exeter, in England.
The lab found copper, manganese, zinc, beryllium, bisphenol A, phthalates, and chlorinated volatile organic compounds, often at high concentrations. For example, it found that beryllium in one sample exceeded the legal maximum by 25 times. Exposure to beryllium can lead to a debilitating lung disease.
Greenpeace collected the samples because “no one does it,” Choi says. “In terms of enforcement, they need help,” she says of government officials in Guangdong province. “It’s a huge challenge for China to identify who the polluters are.” The samples are also a way for Greenpeace to stress how little China knows about what manufacturing facilities are releasing into its rivers and lakes.
If China adopted a policy similar to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory program, the impact would be profound, Choi believes. “If Chinese citizens knew what the factories in their backyard produce and how, it would have a huge effect on pollution in China,” she says. Instead, large quantities of chemicals are unaccounted for. “People live next door to those factories; they grow their vegetables there,” she says. “It’s really dangerous.”
Over the longer term, Choi says, China will have to switch to more environmentally friendly production methods. For this purpose, Greenpeace is lobbying the Chinese Ministry of Health, the State Environmental Protection Agency, provincial and municipal environmental agencies, local courts, and other officials, she says. It will be several years before the campaign shows results, she expects.
In Henan province, environmental and social activist Huo Daishan is tired of waiting. He believes it would take so long to fix industrial contamination in his area that it is better to devise new ways to deliver safe drinking water—and fix the pollution later.
Huo, founder of the Huai River Protectors, lives in a part of China where water pollution has had catastrophic consequences. The hamlets surrounding his town, Shenqiu, are notorious “cancer villages”—places where the incidence of cancers is abnormally high (C&EN, Oct. 29, 2007, page 18). Various initiatives to clean the Huai River over the years have ended in failure. And Huai tributaries in the region are in even worse shape.
When he first became concerned with pollution, Huo, a former journalist, focused on documenting environmental damage in the Huai and its tributaries. He took hundreds of photos of the river system and the peasants who became sick from drinking the water, and he pressed local officials to take action. His initiatives bore little fruit, although he claims some success with the Lianhua Group, a producer of monosodium glutamate that, until recently, was one of the Huai’s worst polluters, Huo reckons. Over the past two years, Lianhua has done much to clean up its act, he says.
Yet reducing the emissions of one polluter is not sufficient to make village water safe. So with technical assistance from Jin Shengzhe, a Chinese businessman and philanthropist living in Japan, Huo started in the summer of 2008 to install slow-sand water filtration systems in about a dozen villages around Shenqiu. He has collected enough money from grants and environmental prizes to build 15 more.
Slow-sand filtration is an old but proven method of water treatment used in many locations around the world, including London, Jin tells C&EN. It’s well suited to the needs of Chinese villages because of its simplicity and low cost, he says. “Everyone thinks that supplying water is expensive, but they’re wrong,” he says.
The slow-sand filtration systems being set up in rural Henan consist of three vats through which water flows, one after the other. One is half-filled with gravel and one is half-filled with sand. The third stores water treated in the first two. Most of the installation work is performed by Huo’s son, Huo Meijie, who builds the systems on the properties of villagers who agree to share the water with their neighbors.
Although they are cheap, the water filtration systems installed by Huo Daishan’s group are not free. The concrete vats must be paid for, as must the pump that extracts water from a shallow well to feed into the system. Huo says he finances the endeavor mostly from grants. A few systems were paid for with funding from the World Bank.
C&EN could not determine with certainty that Huo’s systems actually make water safe for drinking, but Huo reports that the health of villagers improves soon after they start drinking the water provided. Water that used to be turbid and malodorous becomes clear and tasteless after going through the filtration vats. Moreover, Huo points to tests performed by an independent lab. Huo provided C&EN a copy of the lab report, which concluded that the water meets China’s national standards.
But Wu Zucheng, a professor of environmental science and engineering at Zhejiang University, one of China’s top schools, is skeptical. One needs to know what is wrong with the water to design an effective filtration system, he says. The lab tests, he points out, did not check for microorganisms and bacteria. The laboratory also did not test for all possible contaminants, a list that can be quite long.
Wu has seen Huo’s water purification systems and says they are too primitive to work effectively. “I would not drink the water that comes out of there,” he says. During a visit to one of the villages where a system is installed, Wu urged villagers to boil the water coming out. He promises to advise Huo on how to improve the design of the systems.
A World Bank spokeswoman in Beijing says the bank has not independently assessed Huo’s water filtration systems but has simply accepted his conclusion that they are “proven effective.”
At Greenpeace, Choi expresses much respect for Huo’s frontline work. “It’s activists like Huo who really enable us to do our work in China,” she says. “We have a lot to learn from him.” One lesson is that in parts of China, villagers have been waiting so long for clean water that they are willing to take matters into their own hands.
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