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Lack of safe drinking water is a daily problem in China

ZHONGSHAN, China—This industrial city gets its tap water from a river that flows sudsy and dark. City plants treat the water, but many people boil it and drink it with trepidation.

As China gallops toward the modern era, access to safe and clean drinking water is beyond the reach of hundreds of millions of rural and urban people. Chemical spills, rampant pollution and poor stewardship of the land have tainted much of the nation's water supply, and the ground water under 90 percent of China's cities is contaminated

The World Health Organization says 700 million of China's 1.3 billion people drink water that doesn't meet WHO's minimum standards, primarily due to improper treatment of industrial, human and animal waste. Barely 20 percent of China's sewage is adequately treated.

China's vice minister of water resources, E Jingping, said on Dec. 28 that some 300 million rural residents drink water contaminated by fluorine, arsenic, high levels of salt or other organic or industrial pollutants, and the health effects of China's water and air pollution are becoming increasingly obvious.

At least five major toxic spills and dozens of minor ones have sloshed into rivers in China in the past three months and made it into Chinese news reports. The accidents have been an embarrassment to President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, who've pledged to overturn policies that value economic growth over environmental protection.

Well-off residents of cities can buy bottled water, but impoverished Chinese have no choice but to drink tap or well water. They always boil it, which can kill bacteria and parasites but won't remove chemical contaminants.

It's an acute problem in the area around Zhongshan city in the southern province of Guangdong, perhaps China's most densely populated industrialized region. Most rural residents here are familiar with the "cancer cluster" villages near the city of Shangba, where pollution is severe and tap water corrodes metal teapots.

"There are too many factories," said Li Dequan, a bottled water merchant in Zhongshan. "It is inevitable that the water is polluted."

"Many people, like migrant workers in Guangdong province, can't afford bottled water," said Lai Yun, a safe-water expert for the environmental group Greenpeace.

Those who can afford it are buying it. "The sales of bottled water are increasing by 30 percent a year here," said Li.

"People realize the water problem is severe," said Hao Yongsheng, a market analyst at Compass Research, a consultancy in Beijing. "They know that water from wells or from the tap is not safe to drink."

Even in cities with modern water treatment plants, "the pipes are so old and rusted that it pollutes the water all over again," Hao said.

Bottled water isn't always the answer, though.

"Small bottling companies can put tap water in the bottles and sell it as purified water. It is pretty common," Hao said.

Bigger mineral water companies such as "Happy Kids," "Robust" and "Farmers' Spring Water" brands follow stricter guidelines, he said, and they're growing at double-digit rates.

Hao said that people in northeastern China in particular started to pay more attention to water safety after a Nov. 13 chemical blast spilled 100 tons of toxic benzene into the Songhua River. The river supplies water to Harbin, the region's largest city.

The benzene slick shut down city water in Harbin for five days. Even as authorities provided bottled water to Harbin residents, they blamed the cutoff on routine maintenance. Eventually, the toxic benzene flowed into Russia's Far East.

Subsequent spills of toxic cadmium, diesel fuel and chromium hit rivers in Hunan province in central China, Guangdong province in the south and Shandong province in the east, making front-page headlines.

Less than two weeks ago, 2,000 tons of chlorine and alkaline from a plant in Shaanxi province in western China contaminated the Wuding River, the government-run Xinhua News Agency said.

"The company tried to hide the incident from local environmental protection officials but residents reported the matter to officials on February 5," Xinhua said Tuesday.

Shanghai, the country's financial center, has a "salinity crisis" in its drinking water, with salt content higher than recommended levels, the state Xinhua News Agency reported earlier this month. Salinity, though, isn't a severe health risk, although it can cause diarrhea.

"Usually, the taste of the water is so objectionable that people don't drink enough of it to have health consequences," said Dr. Terrence Thompson, a regional water and sanitation expert with the WHO office in Manila, Philippines.

Chemical and industrial pollution is much harder to taste in water, and that's what threatens public health in much of China.

State Environmental Protection Administration chief Zhou Shengxian announced on Jan. 24 that inspectors had visited some 21,000 riverside chemical plants and found that 100 of the plants pose an imminent danger of contaminating sources of drinking water.

"If an accident happens in a plant, the aftermath will be unimaginable," Zhou said.

The agency this month demanded that factories report toxic spills within an hour or face severe punishment.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CHINA-WATER

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