Not a drop to drink

By Xuyang Jingjing Source:Global Times Published: 2012-8-15 22:25:03

Students at Changtian primary school in Jianshui township, Yunnan, carry bottles of water from a nearby spring. The teaching staff and students have to fetch water three times a day to get enough water for the school's needs. Photos: CFP
Students at Changtian primary school in Jianshui township, Yunnan, carry bottles of water from a nearby spring. The teaching staff and students have to fetch water three times a day to get enough water for the school's needs. Photos: CFP

At an altitude of 2,500 meters above sea level, the school is hidden deep in the mountains.

It is a bumpy, hour-long drive from the city of Qujing, Yunnan Province. Cars weave their way along the dirt road, throwing yellow dust up into the air, spreading it over the fields of tobacco and corn.

Like most areas of the southwestern province, Shaba primary school has been experiencing a severe drought for the last three years, straining the already scarce water resources. Now some charities are attempting to solve the problem by bringing the money and knowledge necessary to build water facilities in these areas.

The disappearing water

Third-grader Liu Hongli spends half an hour walking to school every day. She said that when the weather was really dry, teachers had to drive a truck long distances to collect water. At home there was no tap water either, so villagers had to get water from a well.

"The water we drink isn't very clean, there's lot of dirt in it," said Liu, 10, adding that she only showers once every two weeks.

The Shaba primary school has over 400 students and 16 staff members. About 270 of the children live in school dormitories, where there are no showers or baths. 

Its students come from seven villages, some of which are nearly 10 kilometers away. It has one faucet in front of each building.

In September 2009 the old water source - a spring four kilometers away - dried up, and hasn't had water since.

By March 2010, the school was fetching water from a pond in a village five kilometers away. By the autumn semester of 2011, the water sources in the neighboring villages had all dried up.

Pupils like Liu, who live at home, were asked to bring a bottle of water for their classmates who lived in dormitories, as the school only had enough water to cook meals.

Students couldn't wash their hair or clothes. The school pumped water from nearby ditches and kept it in a tank for students to brush their teeth, and wash their faces and dishes.

No choice but contamination

The problem isn't simply a lack of water. When there is water, it is often unsafe to drink.

"Our teachers told us not to, but we do it anyway," said Liu with a shy smile. "I sometimes get tummy aches or diarrhea from drinking too much tap water."

"The water tasted like the pipes," said Zhao Wei, 11, a fourth-grader.

Li Na, a 24-year-old teacher who teaches first grade Chinese in Chala primary school in Shizong county, Qujing, said kidney and gallbladder stones are common afflictions among the villagers there.

"Kids fight over access to a tap after playing sports," said Li. She said there was often moss and small bugs floating in the water.

Li remembers one boy from her class who gets sick so often from drinking too much tap water that he sometimes throws up in class.

"We teachers always boil the water before we drink it, but we need to scrub the pot at least twice a week because of the thick crust," she said.

Nationwide, there are still hundreds of millions of people living in rural areas who do not have safe or secure drinking water.

A survey on drinking water and environmental health in rural areas in 2008 showed that nearly half of the rural population in China was drinking water that did not meet sanitation and health standards. Many water supply facilities did not have sterilization devices.

Statistics from the World Health Organizations indicate that access to safe drinking water is a major threat to health, particularly children's health, in developing countries.

Official numbers show that nearly 300 million people and 114,000 schools in rural China still don't have safe drinking water. The government has vowed to invest 175 billion yuan ($27.5 billion) between 2011 and 2015 to solve the problem.

Hope for the future

Over 10 years ago, the China Women's Development Foundation launched a "Water Cellar for Mothers" project to help build cellars or wells in western China. By the end of 2011, the project had built water cellars and similar facilities for over 1.8 million people in western regions.

Now the foundation plans to expand the project to improve the safety of drinking water in rural areas, especially schools, said Qin Guoying, general secretary of the foundation.

With donations and government funding, the project plans to help build water supplies and sanitization facilities, and convert the traditional rural dry toilets to flush toilets. It would also include waste water treatment facilities.

The project also aims to teach students about health and sanitation as well as the protection of water sources, which hopefully will influence their families as well, said Qin.

The project has spent over 6 million yuan in 48 schools, and plans to assist 31 more schools in areas such as Hunan, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia.

Cleaner water on the horizon

Chala primary school, with over 400 students and teachers, was included in the safe drinking water project late last year. Washing and shower rooms were built. Each classroom now has two devices that filter drinking water.

Qin admits they still have to wait and see how the projects pan out. "We will need to check how the money was used, and how the projects will be managed in the future," she added.

Change is also coming to Shaba school. With a 200,000 yuan donation from Malaysian company Perfect Co, and 164,000 yuan from the local government, the school was able to find a new water source and install water pipes and water-sanitization devices as part of the "Water Cellar for Mothers" project.

A set of solar panels were also installed to provide filtered water. Shower rooms were built. The project will also build flush toilets to replace the dry toilets that are common in rural areas.

Now Liu and her classmates no longer need to fight over water. "The water tastes kind of sweet," she said.

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