There’s Something in the Water, Say Beijing Water Experts

January 9, 2013 Updated: January 25, 2013

Zhao Feihung is the chairman of the Safe Drinking Water Committee at the Beijing Health Care Association. Her husband works in the National Development and Reform Commission’s Public Nutrition and Development Center. Together, this Beijing couple has not drunk any of the city’s tap water in over 20 years, reported China’s Southern Weekly. Said the 58-year-old Zhao, “Out of all the households in Beijing, ours probably knows about the drinking water here the best.”

Beijing Water Worsening

“Tests that we ran last week showed that the nitrate levels in our tap water have already reached 9 milligrams per liter,” Zhao said. This comes close to the limit of 10 milligrams per liter mandated by Beijing. “Even in 2011, it was only 4 milligrams per liter.” Excess nitrate levels indicate a higher level of contamination from garbage, organic pollution and fecal matter.

Zhao discovered through years of testing that the quality of Beijing’s tap water has consistently deteriorated. The couple rely on bottled water from mountain springs instead, and have already convinced many of their friends and relatives to stop drinking Beijing’s tap water.

In the 1980s, Miyun Reservoir, one of five main reservoirs that supply water to Beijing, was tested against an extremely strict German water quality standard and found to have the highest possible standard of water quality. “It was so clean that you could drink straight from it,” Zhao said. However, when Zhao visited Miyun again in 2011, she found that its water quality had greatly fallen.

Hard and Polluted

Beijing’s groundwater now faces rising contamination from organic pollutants, which have changed over the years. “In the 1980s, the organic pollutants were larger molecules. They were easily handled using activated carbon filters and ultrafiltration. However, the organic pollutants we now see are smaller molecules, which are much harder to filter out,” said Zhao. 

Chlorine, which is used to disinfect tap water, can combine with these smaller molecules to form by-products which, according to Zhao, “are extremely terrifying.”

Water hardness, or the concentration of calcium in it, has also risen from 230 mg/L to 400 mg/L. “If the water you use is too hard, it will make your hair sticky when you bathe in it because it will react with soap. Kids are also prone to dermatitis and eczema with this type of water,” said Zhao.

Less of It

According to Zhao, Beijing’s ground water level, which was at 12 meters below ground level in the 1930s, has since fallen by 18 meters, and is currently falling at the rate of 500 million cubic meters per year.

“The majority of wells that supplied water to Beijing in the 1980s are gone,” Zhao said. 

The Lingshui Village in Mentougou District, famed for its water since historical times, originally had 72 wells. Now, only 2 wells remain, and the village faces a severe shortage of water.

In just half a century, official statistics show that Beijing’s water resources have fallen to less than 100 cubic meters per capita, far below the global average.

In 2010, Wang Jian, a water resources expert who had worked with Zhao, visited Cetian Reservoir, another reservoir that supplied Beijing. Large dead fish were found floating atop the surface of the reservoir, and upon testing, Wang found the water quality to be extremely poor.

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