March 23, 2005

360 Million Chinese Without Safe Drinking Water

BEIJING (AFP) -- More than 360 million rural Chinese lack safe drinking water and cities are facing chronic shortages, raising serious health concerns, senior officials warned.

Zhai Haohui, vice minister of water resources, urged the government to devote more money to tackling the issue, the China Daily reported.

"Priorities of government investment should be given to the construction of more projects capable of supplying clean drinking water for all people throughout China, particularly the millions of rural people plagued by unclean drinking water," he said.

At a symposium in Beijing, he estimated that 360 million people were without safe drinking water.

"Hundreds of thousands of Chinese are afflicted with various diseases from drinking water that contains too much fluorine, arsenic, sodium sulfate or bitter salt," said Wang Shucheng, minister of water resources.

Drinking water with high arsenic levels can lead to cancer.

A plan approved in principle Wednesday by the State Council or cabinet pledged to provide safe drinking water to 20 million people in rural areas by the end of 2006, Xinhua news agency reported.

The plan emphasized strict monitoring of usage of chemical fertilisers and pesticide and a ban on factory construction near water sources.

Part of the problem lies in China's unchecked economic growth, which has led to severe water pollution and imbalances in the ecosystem.

Data collected from 345 sections of 175 mainstream rivers by the ministry in January showed only about 47 percent of the water was drinkable, the China Daily reported.

A survey of water quality of 52 lakes across the country conducted at the same time showed water in half of them was heavily polluted and 35 percent of ground water was undrinkable due to pollution.

Groundwater is also a major source of drinking water for many cities but a 2003 survey by the State Environmental Protection Administration showed that of 44 cities monitored, 95 percent suffered polluted ground water.

Urban areas are suffering major shortfalls in supplies with more than 100 cities affected, half of them seriously, said Vice Minister of Construction Qiu Baoxing.

Zhai, the vice-minister of water resources, said the plan was to provide safe drinking water for all rural people by 2020.