Clearing the way with clean waters

Updated: 2014-09-03 07:48

By Wang Qian(China Daily)

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Hope flows into rural areas

Wang Qian in Tianshui, Gansu

In the first 50 years of his life, Xiao Kecheng carried water in iron buckets for more than five hours every day from the foot of the mountains to his home in one of China's poorest villages in Gansu province.

Things got easier in 2010, when tap water was supplied to Gaoshan village in Tianshui.

"The water brings hope to the village," the 59-year-old villager said, adding that the local water project helped boost farming and livestock breeding.

Gansu authorities promised to provide safe drinking water to all its rural residents, totaling about 21 million people, before the end of 2015. The move was instrumental to the country's ambitious plan for the rural population to have safe drinking water by 2015.

In 2005, China launched a rural safe drinking water program to provide 410 million rural residents and 32 million rural teachers and students with access to safe drinking water. There are still more than 100 million rural people without access to safe drinking water, according to the 2014 government work report.

"The central government is taking great efforts to provide rural areas with safe drinking water, with about 24 billion yuan ($ 3.9 billion) invested in 2014," said Yan Guangyu, deputy director of the rural water resources with the Ministry of Water and Resources.

Local authorities allocated about 12 billion yuan this year in rural water projects, he said. Besides guaranteeing safe drinking water in rural areas, improving rural water quality will be emphasized in the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020), Yan said.

According to the Ministry of Water Resources, the construction of 277 county-level water quality monitoring centers will be built this year.

"At least 20 physical and chemical properties will be tested daily in these centers supplying rural water, which can help avoid diseases caused by natural and untreated water," said Zao Mingming, director of the water quality monitoring center of Zhangjiachuan Hui autonomous county.

Following the Wenzhou government's restoration campaign, the Shanxi reservoir area has since been supporting a renewed ecosystem including birds, fish and aquatic plants.

"As the major source of water for the city, improving the water quality is crucial as it is directly linked to citizens' health," Wang said, adding that the top priority is to provide residents with the cleanest water.

Wenzhou water authorities plan to invest more than 1.6 billion yuan before 2017 to clean up the Shanxi reservoir.

As of June, up to 695 million yuan have been used to protect the reservoir and build nearby wastewater and garbage treatment factories, according to the Wenzhou water resources bureau.

The water quality in the reservoir has also improved from the fifth grade to the second grade - certified for extensive drinking water supplies this year.

As one of the earliest coastal cities to open up in China, Wenzhou is again taking the lead in fighting water pollution.

Other cities like Beijing and Shanghai are joining in the battle against water pollution, following decades of industrial growth.

"Guaranteeing safe drinking water to the urban and rural population has been on top of the agenda of water authorities at all levels," said Zhang Hongxing, an official with the Ministry of Water Resources.

The quality of 90 percent of the nation's reservoirs for drinking water meets the national standard, according to the ministry.

Since 2006, the Ministry of Water Resources released 175 key source water sites, which are under annual examination and assessment. The Shanxi reservoir is on the list.

The country's leadership has repeatedly promised all-out efforts to conserve resources and curb pollution. When President Xi Jinping was governor of Zhejiang from 2002 to 2007, he emphasized important water programs that covered the provision of safe drinking water, effective water conservancy and wastewater treatment.

Feng Qiang, deputy director of the Zhejiang water resources bureau, said that the Zhejiang authorities have vowed to tap technology to provide safe drinking water for its population within seven years.

Premier Li Keqiang has said that China will "declare war" on pollution. The resolve sets out a clear path for improving the environment, with the measures legally enforced, said Meng Wei, head of the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences.

Last year, the government said it will spend 2 trillion yuan to tackle the pollution of scarce water resources.

"These are good signs that the new leaders are paying a lot of attention to environmental issues," said Ma Jun, head of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. Beijing is showing a strong resolve to upgrade the economy and shift the focus away from heavy industry, Ma said.

"The next step is to translate decision into more action," Ma said, adding that Wenzhou's case is a good one to show that water resources can be restored by reducing pollutants.

Local authorities help residents in the reservoir region give up poultry farming to reduce pollutants, release fry into the reservoir to recover its biology and monitor illegal activities such as fishing and waste discharge every day.

But he also admitted that protection of source water sites in other places may be much more complicated than what is being achieved in the Shanxi reservoir area, which has little industrial development with agriculture as the main economic activity.

"China's water resources are numerous and administered by separate bodies. Due to lack of coordination and a 'beggar-thy-neighbor' policy, rivers that cross provinces or regions are hard to protect and manage," Ma said.

As dumping of industrial chemicals, agricultural waste and urban wastewater has contaminated parts of the country's water resources, recovering source water will not be easy for local water authorities.

The environment has been seriously neglected in the past three decades because of the emphasis on generating GDP, Ma said.

"Change cannot be made overnight, and much work still needs to be done," Ma said.

Liu Wenjun, a water safety professor with Tsinghua University, said water pollution must be addressed by cutting the source of pollution.

"Water pollution in one region will affect the whole river," Liu said. Once contaminated, recovering the water source will take dozens of years with lots of investment, Liu said.

Ma pointed to the new Environmental Protection Law as a formidable weapon in the fight against pollution.

The law will take effect on Jan 1, 2015. It will address air, water and soil pollution, providing authorities with more power of enforcement than they previously possessed.

Under the law, authorities will be able to detain regular violators for up to 15 days and impose larger fines on polluters. Legally registered civil society organizations will also be allowed to initiate litigation in the name of public interest and local governments will be required to release information on pollution.

"With the new law and local government's resolve, water pollution will be solved gradually," Ma said.

For Zhao Handa, running a village for tourists amid the beautiful mountains and flowing river of Huangtan feels increasingly rewarding.

"Improving the environment brings clean water and attracts more visitors," he said.

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