More Than 80 Percent of China’s Groundwater Polluted

April 21, 2016Updated: April 22, 2016

The Ministry of Water Resources (MWR) in mainland China recently released an investigation report claiming that more than 80 percent of the mainland’s shallow groundwater has been polluted, and some areas are contaminated with heavy metals and toxic organic compounds.

Water resource experts have described China’s water pollution situation as being out of control. Hong Kong is only a river away from the mainland.

Every day Hong Kong people drink Dongjiang River water and eat fruits and vegetables from the mainland. Hong Kong Legislative Council (LegCo) members have expressed concern over the pollution.

China has a long history of water system management, and it has been widely acknowledged that China’s 5,000-year-old civilization originated from the Yellow River and the Yangtze River. Now that history has turned the page to the 21st century, China’s water pollution woes are getting alarming and directly threatening the health of hundreds of millions of people.

Recently the MWR published the January 2016 issue of the “Monthly Groundwater Dynamic Report” in regards to 2,103 government-monitored groundwater wells. The data shows that more than 80 percent of groundwater is unfit for drinking or daily use because of heavy contamination from surface water discharged by industrial plants and farming units.

These groundwater wells are scattered in the densely populated plains, including Songliao Plain, North China Plain, the Shanxi and Northwest basins and plains, and Jianghan Plain. The monitored sites are mainly of shallow groundwater.

The Chinese government officially classifies groundwater into five grades. Only the first three are suitable for human consumption and exposure. The results showed that Grade 4 accounted for 32.9 percent, while Grade 5 accounted for 47.3 percent, totalling as high as 80.2 percent.

Grade 4 water is mainly fit for general industrial use and recreational water use for non-direct human contact. Grade 5 is even worse. The data indicated that up to 80 percent of groundwater is heavily polluted.

In addition to high water hardness, manganese, iron, and fluoride, the Triazoles pollution is very high, with heavy metals and toxic organic compounds found in some areas.

Deep Groundwater Also Unfit

The released data immediately triggered panic in mainland China. MWR explained that the monitored data is mainly for shallow groundwater, while most of the cities’ drinking water comes from deep groundwater.

Mainland media reported earlier that in some areas farmers are still using shallow groundwater.

According to a report from the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences, 73 percent of the deep groundwater in North China Plain is Grade 4 or 5 and unfit for drinking. How much deep groundwater is unsuitable for use across the country is unknown to the outside world.

Due to the shortage of water resources in China, the groundwater plays a key role in providing drinking water for China’s huge population. 70 percent of China’s population of 1.3 billion drink groundwater. Out of 660 cities in China, more than 400 cities source their drinking water from groundwater.

The pollution of shallow groundwater and surface water have an interaction relationship, and water pollution can imply crop contamination.

Wang Weiluo, a well-known Germany-based expert on water resources and environmental ecology, said the shallow groundwater pollution is mainly from industrial pollution. In China, however, after the deep groundwater was extracted excessively, the heavily polluted surface water was re-injected into the deep groundwater layer to avoid land subsidence, which then resulted in the contamination of middle and deep groundwater.

Wang stated, “China’s water pollution is a human-created disaster. I think there is only one contamination source; that is the social system.”

Vegetables From Mainland

Nearly 90 percent Hong Kong vegetables are from the mainland. Wong Pik-wan, a member of the LegCo Panel on Food Safety Commission, expressed concern over the MWR report.

“If the soil and irrigation water are contaminated, heavy metals in vegetables will exceed the healthy standard. This will affect the health of both mainland and Hong Kong people, especially children,” Wong said.

She said that currently vegetables supplied to Hong Kong must be provided by registered vegetable farms in the mainland. Except for illegal smuggled vegetables, relevant Hong Kong departments regularly inspect the water and soil conditions of those farms, but she questioned the frequency of the inspections.

“Are there enough personnel? How often do they go? Is there a random sample selection process to determine which farm to test?” Wong said. “It seems the inspections are not often enough. And also which farm to go to has to be approved by top officials; that is, the other side decides and arranges which farm to inspect.”

No Public Notification

Wong believes that only random spot checks can help tell the true situation. She has already asked Hong Kong authorities to arrange LegCo members to go to the mainland to inspect, but this could not be implemented after a two-year wait.

“I do not know if the AQSIQ [General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine] would not allow our LegCo members to see, or if the FHB [Food and Health Bureau] is not competent enough and did not pass our inspection request to them. Anyway, we do not have the opportunity to inspect,” Wong said.

She added that if those mainland registered farms have problems, they are required to notify Hong Kong authorities. At the moment, the mainland has a large scale water pollution problem, but the Hong Kong counterpart did not receive any relevant briefing. Hong Kong people can only rely on Hong Kong authorities’ sampling and testing results.

Wong said the water pollution has health implications for both mainland and Hong Kong people. She appealed to the mainland authorities to attend to the protection of soil and water sources.

“If not, there will not be enough drinkable water for the country,” she said.

Dongjiang River

Currently, 80 percent of the water supply in Hong Kong is from the mainland Chinese Dongjiang River.

In 2013, Hong Kong media tested water samples from the Dongguan Taiyuan Pumping Station, Hong Kong Plover Cove Reservoir, and the Hong Kong Lam Tin housing area. They found that the iron content of the Dongjiang’s raw water sample exceeded the standard limit by 60 percent, and the turbidity of the Dongjiang and Plover Cove Reservoir samples exceeded the drinking water standard of the World Health Organization.

Last December, Hong Kong Greenpeace announced that ten sample tests had been conducted on Hong Kong’s five highest use drinking water reservoirs: Plover Cove, High Island Reservoir, Shek Pik Reservoir, Tai Lam Chung Reservoir, and Shing Mun Reservoir.

Harmful per fluorinated compounds (PFCs) were found in all ten freshwater samples. However, information on the level of PFCs in raw water and potable water is not available from the Hong Kong Water Supplies Department (WSD).

Wong said the Dongjiang River is also faced with a pollution threat. Although mainland authorities have begun to move a number of polluting industries out of the Pearl River Delta, some of the water sources have already been contaminated, she said.

Now mainland authorities have detected that 80 percent of drinking water has been contaminated. Long-term drinking of the water will have carcinogenic effects or impose negative impacts on health, Wong said.

“If mainland water is contaminated, it will be catastrophic to Hong Kong,” she said.

‘Out of Control’

Now in China, two-thirds of the groundwater is not suitable for human contact, fish cannot survive in 75 percent of the major rivers, 280 million residents use unsafe drinking water, 100 million people drink water contaminated with arsenic and fluoride, 68 types of antibiotics are found in surface water…..

Wang Weiluo, the Chinese expert on water resources and environmental ecology said the CCP’s rapid industrial development comes with the price of environmental pollution.

“Meanwhile, the CCP builds dams over each river, and the river surface water has lost its self-purification capability.” Wang said: “China’s water pollution is already out of control.”

Ancient Civilization

China has been nourished by thousands of rivers, and these vast moving bodies of water have nurtured thousands of years of civilization.

Ancestors’ pious worship of seas and rivers, myths and legends, the Pre-Qin scholars’ philosophical insights generated from water, and the essence of traditional Chinese culture are all closely linked with water.

This ancient piece of land is fostered by Yangtze River, Yellow River, and Pearl River. Five major freshwater lakes—Poyang Lake, Dongting Lake, Lake Tai, Hongze Lake, and Chao Lake—are located in the Yangtze River Basin.

“Live next to the water, no ploughing and sowing,” states the ancient Taoist book “Liezi” in the chapter “The Questions of Tang.” This indicates that human beings live next to the water, and water can produce rich natural resources.

Historically, the “land of plenty” refers to the Yangtze River Basin and the Pearl River Delta Plain.

The Shocking Situation of China’s Water Pollution

Two-thirds of groundwater not suitable for human contact—In June 2015, the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) referred to the “2014 China’s Environmental Condition Bulletin,” stating that nearly two-thirds of groundwater and one-third of surface water were not fit for direct human contact.

Fish cannot survive in 75 percent of major rivers—A few years ago, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health published a report stating that fish could not survive in more than 75 percent of China’s 50,000 km of rivers.

280 million residents use unsafe drinking water—In March 2014, the MEP released data showing that 250 million residential areas were close to main roads or companies discharging pollution, and 280 million people used unsafe drinking water. In early 2015, publicly funded water safety tests were conducted in China on water samples from 29 large to medium cities. Nearly half failed on one or more indicators.

100 million people drink water contaminated with arsenic and fluoride—The magazine Oriental Outlook Weekly, managed by the state-run Xinhua News Agency, published the following statistics: Due to years of consuming water contaminated with arsenic, fluoride, and iodine, 21 million Chinese people already have severe symptoms, and 87 million people are at risk. Among them, more than 600,000 people across the country are exposed to arsenic contamination, which causes skin diseases and various cancers. More than 30 million people have severe thyroid problems because of an excessive amount of fluoride in drinking water. The article stated that the pollution is out of control.

68 types of antibiotics found in surface water—In 2014, Tsinghua University published a research report warning that China’s surface water contains 68 types of antibiotics and 90 types of non-antibiotic pharmaceutical ingredients, much higher than that of the national level in Europe and America. The detection frequency of some antibiotics in the Pearl River, Huangpu River, and other places is as high as 100 percent. Last year Zhong Nanshan, an academician from the Chinese Academy of Engineering, criticized the mainland aquaculture industry for antibiotic abuse. In some Guangzhou rivers, the antibiotic residue is ten times higher than the limit set in the code. Drinking water is the same as taking medicine.

1,700 pollution incidents every year—Statistics from the Ministry of Supervision indicate that over the past few years, China has had more than 1,700 water pollution incidents every year. To list a few, in January 2012, the Longjiang River in Hechi City in the Guangxi region suffered heavy metal pollution. On Feb 3 the same year, Zhenjiang City in Jiangsu Province was contaminated by a phenol leak in the Yangtze River. In February 2013, a water plant was contaminated in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province. In April 2014, drinking water was polluted in the city of Lanzhou in Gansu Province.

Translated by Susan Wang. Edited by Sally Appert.