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Dirty water plagues Chinese

January 4, 2006 By David Cyranoski This article courtesy of Nature News.

Government reveals that a third of rural residents suffer pollution.

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The disastrous state of China's drinking water has fallen under the spotlight after recent chemical spills and a government assessment of its cleanliness.

According to a 30 December report from Xinhua, China's state news source, 300 million rural residents are drinking water polluted with high levels of fluorine, arsenic, snail fever (a parasitic liver disease), or other toxins1. That's one-third of China's total rural population.

The news, which was posted on the Ministry of Water Resources website, follows hot on the heels of two disasters late last year. In those events, huge amounts of contaminants were poured into two rivers, cutting off millions of people from safe drinking water.

On 13 November, 100 tonnes of benzene, which can cause cancer, poured into the Songhua River following a blast at a chemical plant in the northeastern city of Jilin (see ' Chinese cities face toxic spills'). A month later, a state-owned smelting plant in Shaoguan City dumped a huge quantity of cadmium into a river that provides drinking water for residents of southern Guangdong province.

Safety restored

Officials say in both cases that the disasters are under control and access to drinking water has been restored. Reports say a combination of dams and carbon filtering have ensured that future supplies of drinking water in northern China are within safety standards. In Guangdong, provincial officials poured hundreds of tonnes of aluminium polymers into upstream waters, hoping make the cadmium settle out of the water.

But foreign experts have not been able to sample the water, making them sceptical of safety claims. Concerning the benzene, which has now flowed past Harbin and the Russian city of Khabarovsk, one China-based foreign official close to the situation told "We don't know what chemicals are there, whether they're seeping into the soil, or how much is left behind." The official asked not to be identified.

With the Songhua River freezing, there is concern that benzene will be trapped in ice and released again in the spring, he says. "The problem won't go away."

And the water was not clean to begin with, points out's source. The statement on China's water ministry website adds that the groundwater in half of China's cities is polluted.

According to the vice-minister of water resources, E Jingping, China plans to increase its annual water supply capacity by 40 billion cubic metres by 2010, although he does not go into details about how this will be done. E hopes this will provide safe drinking water for an additional 100 million rural residents.


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