May 10, 2012 07:16 PM

Closer Look: The Truth about Drinking Water

Two months ago, I set out to take up the long-overdue task of answering hard questions on drinking water quality.

We encountered numerous obstacles while reporting on this subject. Currently, there are no official statistics that tell us how much drinking water is polluted and how much is considered safe.

During interviews, we found that nearly all experts believe that drinking water in China is not safe and that local governments are aware of this.

This situation contradicts information provided by water treatment companies, local officials and others.

In attempting to prove that a company failed to meet quality standards, I was nearly taken to court by the company. I didn't have sufficient evidence, so the company and city officials would have defeated me with false evidence and statistics.

After interviews with many experts and industry insiders, we've found that nearly half of tap water sources are contaminated with heavy metals and only 3 percent of over 4,000 urban plants have adequate treatment processes for pollution.

Many departments, including the National Development and Reform Commission, Ministry of Health and Ministry of Environmental Protection, jointly said in 2007 that 83.4 percent of water treatment facilities meet national requirements. In the 2006 sample survey conducted by the Ministry of Health, 85 percent of water treatment facilities were said to meet national standards.

What's worse is the fact that water treatment facilities are permitted to issue figures without independent verification.

A 2009 government survey of more than 4,000 urban water treatment plants found "more than 25 percent" failed to meet national standards, said Song Lanhe, chief scientist of the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development's quality monitoring center.

"More than 25 percent" is a vague figure, but pressed further, Song refused to specify the findings of the report. Other industry insiders say the figure is higher than 50 percent, but this remains unconfirmed.

In one full month of work, I failed to obtain the detailed information I needed to provide a comprehensive picture of the quality of China's drinking water. Experts attempted to console us with the fact that they didn't have the full picture on about China's drinking water quality either.

Instead, I've written what I can on the topic, but it's clearly only the tip of the iceberg.

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