Beijing tap water getting worse: expert

Updated: 2013-01-09 08:05

By Zheng Xin (China Daily)

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 Beijing tap water getting worse: expert

Technicians test the water quality at Beijing No 9 Water Factory on Monday. Gan Nan / for China Daily

Old treatment methods not working on smaller unhealthy compounds

To drink or not to drink? That is the question for Beijing residents, according to water quality expert Zhao Feihong.

Her answer: No. She advises anyone who can afford it to switch to bottled water, claiming it is a safer alternative.

"I have not drunk tap water for 20 years," said Zhao, a researcher on drinking water at the Beijing Healthcare Association. "The capital's water has gotten more polluted in recent years."

Many of her friends and relatives also shun tap water because of health concerns, she said.

"In the past we used to drink directly from Miyun Reservoir (on the outskirts of the city), which was built in 1958 and is one of the largest in North China," she said. "The water quality at the reservoir at that time was on a par with Germany, which has strict standards for surface water. But not now."

Beijing Waterworks Group, which is responsible for the water supply, assures residents that tap water is safe and meets the national water quality standard.

"In addition to treatment plants, we have an online monitoring system for real-time quality supervision," Liang Li, the group's spokeswoman, said on Monday.

She said that starting from Jan 15 the capital will release information on drinking water quality to the public online every three months, including concentration levels of nitrate, the degree of hardness and turbidity.

Zhao does not deny that the quality complies with the national standard. Tests she conducted several days ago, as well as those by the waterworks group late last year, show the concentration of nitrite in tap water is more than 9 milligrams per liter, under the national standard of 10 mg/l.

However, it is the significant change that she has seen in quality that worries her.

"The figure was within 2 mg/l six years ago and within 5 mg/l in 2011," she said. "It's an indisputable fact that the city's water quality is getting worse at an alarming rate."

She said that Guanting Reservoir in the capital's northwest Yanqing county, which used to be a source for drinking water, is now a backup water source due to pollution.

Growing problem

Zhao hikes along the rivers and water reservoirs in Beijing most Saturdays to check the water pollution together with many other residents led by NGO Happy Water Journeys.

She said she sees a lot of garbage in the rivers and many sewage drains pouring directly into rivers.

Zhao said the kinds of major pollutants have changed in recent years, from heavy metals, including arsenic and lead, to volatile organic compounds. She said this is because the sources of pollution in the past, steel factories for example, have been gradually moving out of the city.

Zhao said the content of nitrite is mainly from the rubbish, filtrate and excrement.

The pesticide residue, excrement and the landfill leachate have replaced heavy metal as the major pollutants, she said.

In addition, as the pollutants in the water are getting smaller in size, the physical treatments used in the past, that utilized activated carbon and ultra-filtration membranes, hardly work. Waterwork plants have to resort to chemical treatments to further purify the water, Zhao said.

Zhao said the government has raised the price of water in recent years, especially for the major water-consuming enterprises, but this can hardly ease the problems.

"When we open a map of the capital, we can see many streets and areas named after rivers, ditches and wells - Wangfujing (Prince Mansion's Well) and Erligou (Erli Ditch), for example," said Zhao. "Beijing used to have a very close link with water, but no longer.

"To ensure the physical health of myself and my family, we can do nothing but resort to bottled water," she said.

Message in a bottle?

The worsening water quality has given rise to the bottled water and water purifier industry, which Zhao said is a "sunrise industry" with boundless and promising prospects.

According to Bai Yanjun, executive manager of Kangtai Gaoke, a water barrel company in Beijing, sales of barreled water have witnessed a steady increase in the past 10 years.

"More and more of the public are resorting to mineral water for daily drinking, instead of boiled tap water," he said.

In addition to the customers from enterprises and colleagues, Bai said individual households are fuelling an ever-growing demand.

The water purifier has also been gaining more popularity in the market, said an insider.

Liu Dong, a salesperson from a household water purifier and drinking machine producer in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, said the company's sale of water purifiers has increased by 50 percent in the past five years.

"People are attaching as much importance to water as they do to food," he said.

Zhao said she is not calling on all residents to quit tap water and resort to bottled water, because not everyone could afford that. However, if the household can afford it, bottled water is highly recommended.

(China Daily 01/09/2013 page4)