BEIJING — When chemicals recently contaminated a river in China’s northern Shanxi province, it took authorities five days to report the incident. While the mayor offered an apology and chemical plant officials were dismissed, the spill ended up affecting drinking water in several cities downstream.
It also dealt another blow to public confidence in the government.
Official statistics indicate China has around 1,700 water pollution accidents each year, and up to 40 percent of the country’s rivers are seriously polluted.
Not only are natural water sources polluted, but they are becoming scarce as well.
Beijing is one place where the debate over water quality and quantity is coming to a head.
“Of the more than 100 rivers that there are now in Beijing, only two or three can be used for tap water – and those are the ones that the government in Beijing is protecting," says Zhao Feihong, a water researcher at the Beijing Healthcare Association. "Those are the ones that we can use water from, the rest of the rivers if they have not dried up, then they are polluted by discharge.”
Zhao and her husband, who is also a water researcher, recently became the focus of state-media online outlets after confessing they have not let Beijing’s tap water touch their lips in 20 years.
Their story drew attention just as Beijing’s city government began releasing water quality statistics – long treated as a state secret – for the first time.
According to Zhao, the move is a step in the right direction.
“The fact that it can be disclosed is an improvement for the common people who will better understand the water that they drink," she says. "So this is a relatively good thing, but I think that publicizing this figure is not enough.”
Instead of periodically releasing statistics, Zhao says, the government should let the public know immediately what to do if something affects the drinking water.
Hao Yungang became a part of Beijing’s water debate after publishing photos of gunk gathering in his faucet on China’s Twitter-like Weibo micro-blogging service.
“I did not anticipate that the level of interest would be so high," says Hao. "But these days, people have higher and higher expectations about the quality of life, whether it is water, food safety, pollution or even traffic.”
Like many in Beijing, Hao says he uses tap water to wash dishes and filtered water to cook.
While he believes officials who say Beijing’s water is safe at its source, he knows that what happens between the treatment plant and his home is another matter.