Waterpollution.jpgMore than 2,600 people have fallen ill in Chifeng, a city in north China's Inner Mongolia region, after the tap water supply was contaminated during heavy rainfall.

The downpour caused water from a lake to spill over into a well that provides drinking water for a population of 58,000 in one city district.

Its not the first time of course, but it remains striking that the word's second biggest economy cannot guarantee a service as basic as clean safe drinking water for its population.

The Chinese government admits that more than 200m citizens currently do not have access to safe drinking water.

As long as these incidents remain isolated to remote regions of China rarely visited by western media, and those affected suffer nothing worse than diarrhoea, there is probably little political will to tackle the problem of river and lake pollution in any meaningful way.

Air pollution is more of a “hot button” issue as it is a lot more visible, particularly to western visitors to China's cities. Air pollution is also relatively easy to reduce, at least temporarily, by closing the most blatant sources of pollution or imposing traffic restrictions, as was done during last year's Olympics in Beijing.

But river and lake pollution largely goes unnoticed until an incident occurs like this one. It is also much more difficult to tackle because once the pollution gets into the river or lake, it tends to stay there. In the most blatant cases, Chinese factories do get closed for pouring toxic waste into river. But the damage has already been done and while the local officials may profess satisfaction at seeing the factory boss marched away in chains, they rarely follow through and attempt to clean up the mess.

That's because cleaning up heavily polluted water systems is an expensive, drawn-out process whose benefits will not be apparent for years if not decades in the future. 

In the US, the 1972 Clean Water Act set a target of eliminating the discharge of pollutants from US waterways by 1985. The goal was hopelessly over-ambitious and more than two decades on, thousands of facilities and sites across the country continue to violate water pollution limits.

For example, Lake Michigan provides drinking water for over 10m people but remains heavily polluted. To attempt to address the problem in a concerted way, President Obama's administration has earmarked $475m for a new inter-agency initiative to clean up the Great Lakes. Assuring safe drinking water is one of its goals.

China maybe should take a leaf out of Obama's book.

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