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Untapped resource: Safe drinking tap water still elusive in Beijing despite new standards

By Zhang Zihan Source:Global Times Published: 2012-7-22 21:05:03

Beijing adopted new tap water standards on July 1, but contamination remains rife due to the city's aged pipes. Photo: CFP
Beijing adopted new tap water standards on July 1, but contamination remains rife due to the city's aged pipes. Photo: CFP

Beijing's municipal government last month unveiled its ambitious plan to build two world-class water treatment plants as part of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project, which aims to divert water from the Yangtze River valley to the reaches of Yellow River, Huaihe River and Haihe River to ensure the water supply for farming, industry and life in northern China. The scheme, which took effect on July 1, aims to provide drinkable tap water in Beijing from the Changjiang River.

Unlike many Western countries, drinkable tap water isn't a luxury widely available in China. The Ministry of Health has conceded new standards for drinkable tap water won't actually take effect nationwide until 2015, a deadline that even those optimistic are still skeptical about. Among these standards is increasing the number of tap water quality indicators in Beijing to 106 from 35, putting the city on par with many developed countries.

Thirsting for quality

Beijing's water authorities say current standards for drinking water have been in place since 2007. "All tap water in Beijing meets quality standards," said Cheng Jing, head of the Beijing Water Authority. In April, Cheng conceded the capital is expected to face a water shortage of 1.3 billion cubic meters this year, accounting for one-third of the city's annual water usage.

"The new standards for drinking water are based on the current standards set by the World Health Organization, the European Union, the US and Japan," Zhang Lan, a researcher at the Institute of Environmental Health and Related Product Safety under the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention, was quoted as saying by the People's Daily newspaper on June 4.

Statistics from the Beijing Waterworks Group show the capital's standards are stricter than those elsewhere in the country. This, however, doesn't necessarily mean it's safe to drink tap water.

Liu Panyue, a 27-year-old animator and resident of Tiantongyuan in Changping district, told Metro Beijing he has "never been satisfied" with the capital's tap water. "After I boil water, I always find a white layer of residue," said Liu, referring to the dissolved limestone and silica prominent in the city's tap water. "When even boiled water shows these signs, I'm really doubtful of claims tap water can be drunk directly."

Li Cong, a 32-year-old bank employee who lives in Xiadiancun, Chaoyang district, shares similar doubts, recalling how he once turned on his taps to see a suspicious liquid gushing out. "One morning I was surprised to find yellow water running from my taps. It tasted of rust, which I suppose was because it had be channeled through old pipes," Li told Metro Beijing.

Cleaning the pipes

Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs and a prominent environmentalist, said the water deemed "safe" to drink by waterworks authorities isn't necessarily the same water that comes out of your tap at home. "Secondary pollution must be taken into consideration," noted Ma. "Even though water is treated at plants, it can become contaminated before it comes out of taps."

Ma pinpointed a major cause of this "secondary pollution" as coming from Beijing's aged underground pipe network, which was laid in the 1990s. "A large proportion of pipes in Beijing are made of iron or steel, meaning they are susceptible to rust which in turn affects the quality of water running through them," said Ma. "Leaks are another common problem plaguing Beijing's pipes. When the pipe network leaks, contamination is the result."

Beijing's weathered pipe network spans more than 1,900 kilometers citywide. Though its operator, the Beijing Waterworks Group, has been working on a project to renovate the pipes, changes won't come into effect for at least another three years.

Secondary water supply is another cause of water contamination. Many residential compounds have their own water storage facilities. However, the cleanliness and capacity of these facilities to store water meant to be safe to drink is often lax.

This isn't the responsibility of waterworks management, which insists the duty of care lies with residences' management. "Secondary water supply facilities and pipes inside residential compounds are beyond our responsibility," an officer from the Beijing Water Authority, who declined to give his name, told Metro Beijing.

Purified isn't perfect

Since drinking tap water is deemed risky by some and boiling water is cumbersome, many people in Beijing opt to drink bottled purified water. Many residential compounds have purified water machines that allow people to refill  their water cooler bottles.

But Zhao Feihong, a researcher and deputy director of the Beijing Institute of Public Health and Drinking Water, argues purified water machines are an "unwise" source for drinking water.

"These machines usually filter out germs and impurities people are concerned about, such as calcium and magnesium," explained Zhao. "But calcium and magnesium are necessary elements that the human body needs. The content of calcium and magnesium in tap water is hardly hazardous and, in any case, boiling usually makes water safe to drink. Drinking purified water without calcium and magnesium long-term, on the other hand, will definitely harm your health."

Another reason Zhao doesn't support purified water dispensers is the severe wastage of water they incur.

"From what I have seen, the input to output ratio of purified water machines is around 3:1. This means purifying one liter of water wastes two liters of unpurified water," noted Zhao.

"Most of these machines drain wasted water into the sewer. It's such a waste, especially in Beijing - a city that could use this water better."

The government has taken action on this problem by passing a series of new regulations that took effect on June 1 and specifically punish purified water machine operators who waste water. Leftover water is required to be recycled or reused, otherwise companies can be fined as much as 100,000 yuan ($15,690).
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