Beijing’s air pollution woes have been getting all the press lately but let’s not forget the stink over that other most essential of resources: water.
Early this month a husband-and-wife team of water quality researchers at the Beijing Healthcare Association raised eyebrows when they were quoted in Southern Weekly as saying that their family and many of their friends had not "drunk tap water for 20 years" due to increasing pollution in the city’s water supply.
In the days that followed the usual official denials were issued and the Beijing Water Group insisted that the city’s water is "safe to use":
The Beijing Water Group released a statement on Monday, saying the capital’s tap water is up to the 106 national standards and is safe to use.
It says a three-tier quality control program is used to monitor the water condition. Water running at the production line is checked every half an hour.
Li Aiwu, the Director of Water Quality Control Center of the Beijing Waterworks, says as a large percent of tap water comes from underground, the standard set for nitrate monitoring in Beijing is even higher than the national standard.
"Since 40 percent of the tap water in Beijing is pumped from underground, there is nitrate in the water. According to national standard, each liter of water is allowed to contain 10 milligram of nitrate. And for underground water, the standard is 20 milligram. But we are still using the 10 milligram criteria. "
High nitrate levels in water may cause diseases to infants below six months.
This in turn spawned even more criticism from netizens on various blogs and Weibo et al. and in somewhat of a misplaced "shoot-the-messenger" red herring kind of way, one newspaper even went so far as to criticize the researchers’ family for being "too privileged" because they could afford bottled water while others could not.
Then, in a seeming about-face, the husband was quoted by the China News Service a few days later proclaiming that "Beijing tap water is safe" – but it was unclear why he had the change of opinion.
Since then the spotlight on this controversy has been overshadowed by the air pollution problem, but questions over Beijing’s municipal water supply linger. As with the air pollution authorities appear to have adapted more transparency in order to reassure the public that the water is indeed safe to use – as of today the Beijing Waterworks Group has begun to post water quality information on its official website.
The information is presented in Chinese only, so from what I can make of it (with a little help from Google Translate), the indicators include tests for "Chlorine and Free Chlorine" (which displayed a range of .10-.40 at the time of writing), "Ozone" (which came up as "Unused" – whatever that means). "Turbidity" (.14 to .93") and "Total Coliforms" ("not detected").
Assuming these results are accurately presented it would be most helpful if the bureau could help average citizens understand what this criteria means in layman’s terms.
Or, might we suggest a special display to build public awareness at the Beijing Tap Water Museum? We imagine that would be an exhibition actually worth seeing.