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Beijing's Water Issue

How much should we fear what comes out of our taps?

When most people think about Beijing pollution, their minds turn to the thick layer of suspended, noxious particles that can cause coughing, sore throats, and headaches. Air pollution can be seen clearly and even felt. Water pollution, on the other hand, remains mysterious and something we perhaps prefer not to think about. Still, we hear stories from time to time about heavy metals and industrial contaminants—substances that supposedly cannot be boiled away. Unlike the usual microbes that cause immediate stomach pains, the consequences of such pollutants are long term and silent.

Many hope to avoid the issue by drinking bottled water, but we are still exposed. Anyone eating in Beijing restaurants has likely consumed soup and rice made with water that came from a faucet. Other contaminants are absorbed through the skin during showers and inhaled by breathing in the steam. 

And problems with water sources in China are serious. A report by China’s Ministry of Water Resources last year revealed that 80 percent of water from China’s shallow, underground wells is unfit to drink. Water sources are evaluated on a scale of I-V, with grades I and II (sometimes III as well, depending on the type of treatment) considered to meet drinking water standards. In 2014, the Ministry of Environmental Protection found that more than one-third of the country’s surface water failed to meet even grade III standards.

As Beijing residents, we wanted to know what’s coming out of our taps. So we set out to find more about where our water comes from.

 

The Source 

Beijing is an extremely water-scarce region. According to the journal Nature, Beijing’s available water per person is only about three percent of the world’s average. In the past, Beijing mostly relied on groundwater, but that changed at the end of 2014. The middle route of the South-North Water Transfer Project, a massive canal network, now sends water from a Yangtze tributary in Hubei along a 1,432 km journey to Beijing and other dry northern regions. The majority of Beijing’s tap water now comes from this source. 

Before it heads north, the water collects in Danjiangkou Reservoir. The Ministry of Environmental Protection ranks Danjiangkou a grade II water source, indicating good quality. However, in 2015 the Journal of Environmental Informatics published a study by a research team from the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Wuhan Botanical Garden. They found that between 2007 and 2010 levels of lead, nitrogen, and arsenic were so high that the water would not even meet grade V requirements. Levels of lead were 20 times the maximum safe level set by the World Health Organization. The study did not make any claims as to whether or not lead levels have changed in the time since then. This is in sharp contrast to the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s reports from the time, which gave Danjiangkou a grade II rating. 

The Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) has acknowledged issues with Danjiangkou Reservoir. They report levels of nitrogen that reach grade III levels, though according to their classification system, this would not downgrade the entire body of water to grade III.

In years past, the MEP also reported that several rivers leading into the reservoir were heavily polluted, classified as below grade V. However in 2014, after ¥2 billion was spent to clean up pollution and more than 1,000 polluting companies were reportedly closed, the Ministry of Environmental Protection claimed that only 5 percent of the water flowing into the reservoir failed to meet “mandatory standards.”

 

Water Treatment

After the reservoir, soon-to-be tap water travels to one of Beijing’s treatment plants, operated by the state-owned Beijing Waterworks Group. According to China’s Long March to Safe Drinking Water, a joint report released by the nonprofit groups China Water Risk and chinadialogue, waterworks companies in China face big challenges. 

China measures its treated tap water against a standard of 106 indices. Known as the National Drinking Water Standard, it’s one of the strictest standards globally and fully in line with the World Health Organization. This standard can be difficult to reach. However, the Beijing Waterworks site claims to go beyond the national standard by measuring their water against 205 indices. 

One big challenge for waterworks companies is Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) and other toxic organic compounds. Compounds are considered organic if they are carbon based—but that does not mean they are natural. Far from it. Many dangerous organic compounds come from personal care products, pharmaceuticals, soaps, fertilizers, and pesticides that can enter the water supply. We spoke to Waqi Ur Rehman, a PhD student at Tsinghua University who studies advanced treatment techniques for organic compounds. For him, they are some of the most troubling potential contaminants. 

“Right now, there are so many chemicals that have not been identified as pollutants even,” Rehman tells us. He says that many organic compounds used in new products have only recently been shown to have adverse health effects. As a result, some potentially dangerous toxic organic contaminants are still not part of China’s national standard. Those toxic organic contaminants we know about can cause a variety of issues. Many are still not well understood. Rehman tests ways to treat these compounds, as even the most advanced treatment processes currently available may not eliminate all of them from water sources. 


Waqi Ur Rehman at Tsinghua University

Toxic organic compounds are not unique to China. In fact, they are such a problem the world over that 181 countries are party to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, an international treaty designed to reduce or eliminate harmful POPs in member countries. China is one of them. Yet China faces tougher challenges than developed countries when it comes to pollution. Take fertilizers, for example. China consumes around one-third of global fertilizers. A 2010 report by Greenpeace and Renmin University of China claimed that China’s farmers, especially in the north, used 40-percent more fertilizers than necessary. This resulted in about 10 million tons of fertilizer being discharged into rivers and lakes every year.

Treatment facilities in other parts of the world do not face these types of challenges. As mentioned in China’s Long March to Safe Drinking Water, New York City is often cited as a model of effective water treatment, using a conventional process known as sedimentation, filtration, and disinfection. The basic components of this treatment have existed for over a century, and it works well to filter out microorganisms and other simple contaminants. It cannot, however, defend against heavy metals and organic compounds. 

Advanced treatments are required for that. These include ozone, membrane treatment, and ultraviolet disinfection. These methods are cutting edge and extremely expensive. In New York, water sources are relatively clean so it’s less necessary. But in China, where the need is greater, very few waterworks companies can afford to make such an investment. 

To find out more about Beijing water treatment, we spoke to the author of China’s Long March to Safe Drinking Water, Liu Hongqiao. She is a consultant for China Water Risk and chinadialogue. Prior to that, Liu was an award-winning environmental journalist for Caixin media. 

When asked what to make of Beijing’s water, Liu surprised us with a largely positive response. Luckily for Beijing residents, she tells us, the capital is one place in China that does invest in advanced treatment technology. This is because unlike elsewhere, Beijing has more resources to spend. “In Beijing, because it’s the capital, because it’s [one of] the biggest cities in China, because the government has strong political will to secure water safety in the city—so we have the most resources to secure the safety. To make sure that it’s the best,” says Liu. 

Beijing Waterworks Group releases regular reports on their website comparing their treated water against the 106 indices of the national standard. According to the numbers, Beijing meets the standard. Asked how much she trusts these figures Liu says, “Before I looked into the issue I had no sense of that. But after I talked to those people, especially in Beijing, I would say I trust it. But not many people have the opportunity like me to talk and to investigate into this stuff, and considering the tradition of faking data in China, I understand people don’t trust it. But, the thing is, we have seen some other results—studies published by civil society. In all those reports I read, Beijing is qualified.” By qualified, she means that it meets the national standard. Liu also clarifies that there are some districts in the city, especially in the outer reaches, that are not connected to the city’s centralized water service and may not have qualified water. 

In terms of confirming studies, in China’s Long March to Safe Drinking Water she mentions tests by China Water Safety Foundation, a civil society organization. They tested tap water in 89 locations in large and medium-sized cities for 20 National Drinking Water Standard indicators. While almost half the cities did not pass, Beijing was one that did. 

Liu expresses confidence in Beijing’s tap water quality. At the same time, she advocates strongly in many of her reports against drinking bottled water, largely for environmental reasons. In her article, Bottled Water in China—Boom or Bust? she cites studies which show that it takes three liters of water and a quarter-liter of oil to produce just one liter of bottled water. Liu also argues that the bottled water industry is less well-regulated than tap water. Unlike tap water, bottled water companies are not required to disclose details about the sources of their water or to publish the results of quality tests.

 

Pipe Dreams

No matter how clean the water is as it leaves the treatment plant, the water still has to travel through long stretches of pipe to reach people’s homes. Most experts agree that in Chinese cities the pipe network is where the majority of contaminants come from. Liu Wenjun, the director of the Safe Drinking Water Institute of Tsinghua University, notes in China’s Long March to Safe Drinking Water that bacteria, chlorine, and turbidity (discoloration of the water) are the main causes of failed quality tests in China. He says these failures are related to the pipe network. 


Some of the 312 water quality testing sites along Beijing’s pipe network (Beijing Waterworks Museum)

The 12th Five Year Plan (2011-2015) dedicated ¥410 billion to improve water quality nationwide, with ¥184.3 billion spent replacing old pipes. But Liu Hongqiao says it’s a step-by-step process with complex ownership and liability issues in city districts that make replacement difficult. Yet in Beijing, 2,000km of pipe was renovated from 2010 to 2016, according to the Beijing Waterworks Group website. Additionally, the Beijing City Thirteenth Five Year Plan —Water Affairs Development Plan calls for 2,376km of pipe network to be renovated before 2020.

Another stumbling block for China’s cities is the secondary water supply. According to China’s Long March to Safe Drinking Water, tall buildings in China often pump water up to rooftop tanks where it is stored to maintain water pressure. This water storage creates a prime opportunity for secondary pollution. Liu wrote in an article in for Caixin’s Century Weekly that although the Ministry of Health should theoretically oversee these secondary water sources, in reality there is little oversight. Microorganisms, moss, and even cockroaches can live in them. 

Yet, Gu Junnong, the Chief Engineer at the Quality Monitoring Center of Beijing Waterworks Group said in a 2013 forum hosted by People’s Daily Online that, “The water coming out of every treatment plant and the water in the pipe network completely meet the country’s National Drinking Water Standard, and can be drank directly [without boiling].” Beijing residents boil their water, he said, because that is the custom. However, he did say that there was still cause for worry when it came to the quality of building pipes, and suggested that concerned residents contact their building’s property management company. On their website, Beijing Waterworks Group claims they monitor water quality at 312 points along the pipe network, and that it meets the standard.

As for Liu, she says she drinks her tap water, despite living in an old building with questionable water storage practices. Most of the above-mentioned contaminants to the secondary water supply, while unappealing, are fairly easy to disinfect. “If anything goes wrong there will only be bacteria which, if you boil it, it will be okay,” she says. According to her, any heavy metals would enter at the water source and can be removed during treatment. 

Liu does use a Brita filter, mainly to treat hardness. Water is considered hard when there is a high mineral content, especially calcium and magnesium—both metals that our body needs to remain healthy. Most of us have likely experienced Beijing’s hard water: It can make laundry stiff, prevent soap from lathering, create mineral build-up on glasses or shower heads, deposit floating white flakes, and create a bad taste. Yet, according to the World Health Organization, studies show that for otherwise healthy people, consuming these extra minerals has little effect on our health one way or another.

 

Safety on Tap

We decided to go ahead and do our own tap water test, albeit in a decidedly unscientific way. We purchased a “H2O OK Plus, Complete Water Analysis Kit” from Lowe’s, a home improvement store in the U.S. (Unfortunately, we could not find any comparable kits on Taobao or JD.com). The kit tests for 29 different indicators including lead, coliform bacteria, chlorine, hardness, iron, pH, nitrates, and nitrites.

 

For almost all of these indicators, the test found no contaminants in the water, or traces so low that they are harmless. The only questionable item was hardness, which was slightly above the normal range (0-100 mg/L). Afterwards, we took our water samples to the Tsinghua School of Environment where students Rehman and Miaoling Yau Gonzalez helped us test for fluoride and arsenic. The fluoride level was below the standard limit and no arsenic was detected.

One way to ensure that the water coming out of your tap is free from contaminants, even after traveling through your building’s pipes, is to get a filter for your faucet. There are a few main technologies used in filters, often in combination with one another. Many of these technologies can filter things like organic compounds and heavy metals. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit in the United States that tests products and provides consumer reports, the main filter technologies include (activated) carbon, ceramic, ion exchange, and reverse osmosis. 

On the EWG site (www.ewg.org) you can read about these different types of technologies and what they can or cannot filter. There is even a database in which you can search products by the different filtration technologies, and by the contaminants you’re worried about. Many of these products are available on Taobao and JD.com. Just make sure that whatever product you choose to buy is certified by NSF International (formerly the National Sanitation Foundation) to treat the specific contaminants the manufacturer claims. Most products say in the fine print on their packaging which contaminants they are NSF qualified to treat. 

Despite her positive attitude toward Beijing’s tap water, Liu Hongqiao acknowledges that there are still risks. “In the best scenario, we all want very clean water, we don’t want anything bad. But it’s impossible. So we have to take some risks.” Buying a faucet filter is one way to mitigate those risks.

By Roma Eisenstark

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