Wednesday, May 30, 2012

China Environmental Experiences #4: Wifi Without Potable Water

This is the fourth in my series of reports from the field about the environmental experiences of an environmental law professor in China. (For the full background on this series, see February’s introductory post, March’s reflections on China and the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, and April’s account of air quality issues in China.) 

This month, I peek beneath one of the more surprising, seemingly contradictory stones in China’s path toward increasing prosperity and world power.  China is the world’s fastest-growing major economy—the second largest economy of all nations, the largest exporter, and the second-largest importer in the world.  It is a nation with 500 million Internet users, 100 million cars, and the world’s largest standing army.  It is the third nation on earth to independently launch a successful manned space mission, with plans to send astronauts to the moon in the coming years.  At least in urban areas, China is a thoroughly modern, explosively developing place—with department stores selling Prada, goofy reality TV, and wifi at the local tea house... but you still can’t drink the water.

Xinjiang - Tianshan Tianchi 148Visitors to China are carefully warned that the water is not potable and must be boiled thoroughly before consumption.  Every hotel room has a small water boiler for this purpose, and the more expensive ones provide a nightly bottle of safe drinking water by the bedside.  Water quality problems are traditionally associated with the continuing use of “night soil” (human and animal waste) to fertilize crops—an effective and inexpensive alternative with an inexhaustible supply.  Yet the problem continues even as farmers embrace more modern chemical fertilizers (perhaps too heartily, at the alarming expense of soil health), and as other contaminants enter the water supply.  While visiting the old city of Lijiang in Yunnan Province, for example, I rose for an early morning walk to find cooks cleaning the carcasses of recently killed animals, intestines and all, directly into the Venice-like canals from which others draw their drinking water.

Shortly before our arrival, we were warned by a vaccination nurse familiar with the most dangerous waterborne diseases to only sponge-bathe our 3-year-old, rather than risk his inadvertent exposure to waterborne parasites through his open eyes or mouth in a shower.  Once here, we quickly decided that this level of precaution was unnecessary, at least in urban areas where the municipal water supply receives some level of filtration or disinfection before reaching the tap (especially true in Beijing).  Still, we have learned well the rules of life here in China: drink only boiled or bottled water, no ice that can’t be sourced to boiled or bottled water, no fruits or vegetables that haven’t been cooked or peeled, and brush teeth with tap water at your own risk.  (Some friends do; others, including me, don’t.)  You should also ensure that bottled water is truly factory-sealed, as scandals have occasionally revealed empty bottles refilled with tap water being resold as new.

Without a doubt, adapting to life without potable water was the biggest cultural adjustments for us when we arrived last summer.  The first consequence was minor physical dehydration: without easily accessible clean water to drink, we drank less, and soon found ourselves more easily exhausted, ornery, and sick.  (Indeed, nothing confirms the critical nature of this life-sustaining resource more effectively than losing the taken-for-granted tap.)  Every journey away from our apartment involves water planning, as we take careful stock of how many are traveling, what will be needed, and how best to transport it.  I seem to drink more than my Chinese friends, but I still seem to be always thirsty. 

And there were other puzzling features of our new world.  For example, we struggled to understand at exactly what point our dishes were clean enough to eat off after washing them in tap water.  Were the still damp chopsticks safe to use, or the recently-washed cup still bearing that fine sheen?  And when dealing with my son’s inevitable scraped knees and elbows, was it better to wash with soap and water to disinfect, or was the water itself a source of potential harm?  (For the record, we have decided that dishes must be completely dry to be safe, and that cuts should be washed with soap and water until the dirt is out, but subsequently sterilized with disinfectant whenever possible.)

Chinese culture adapted long ago to the perils of non-potable water.  Chinese people boil all their water before drinking it, but it doesn’t seem like a burden, because they prefer to drink their water hot.  They range from amused to amazed when foreigners request cold water, which to them is as distasteful as drinking plain hot water is those foreigners.  When I invite my students to ask questions of cultural exchange—anything they want to know about American culture, politics, or lifestyle—the most frequent question is always “Why do Americans like to drink cold water? (Yuck!)”  Perhaps as a result, there is no groundswell of popular sentiment to “do something” about the water situation.  From the perspective of most Chinese, there is no problem with the water.  Everything is as it should be.

Urumqi 246Yet China is suffering from increasingly serious water pollution problems that can’t just be boiled away.  Chemical pollutants entering the water supply from industry and agriculture are getting worse, involving toxins oblivious to disinfectants.  The World Health Organization has identified 2221 different pollutants in waters worldwide, and 765 of them in drinking water—but current drinking water standards test for only 35 indicators, and new criteria that will go into effect on July 1st will regulate only 106 pollutants.  (Source: Dr. Yu Ming, water pollution researcher at Ocean University of China.)  Chinese lawmakers and the Ministry of the Environment are struggling to cope with these problems through the PRC Law to Prevent and Control Water Pollution, but the even greater hurdle for environmental law is that of implementation. 

Even where China’s environmental laws are comprehensive, their goals are imperiled by under-enforcement.  Illegal discharging is reportedly very common, because there simply aren’t enough agency personnel to monitor them.  And even when violations are discovered, they may or may not be prosecuted by the relevant government agency—depending, perhaps, on the economic importance of the violators, or their political influence.  When the government fails to act, it can be hard for citizens and NGOs to take up the slack, because most Chinese courts don’t recognize standing for public-interest citizen suits.  And even if traditional standing were established by a directly injured party, the court may or may not decide to hear the case (for my money, one of the most surprising features of the Chinese legal system).  For these reasons and others, enforcement is usually seen as the major weakness in China’s environmental law regime.  Perhaps China’s new experimentation with a handful of specialty environmental courts will help redress these important problems.

In the meanwhile, water quality problems intersect with and exacerbate other environmental problems.  For example, one unfortunate consequence of unreliable tap water is the resulting prevalence of disposables: single-use bottled water, disposable plates and bowls, even the single-use toothbrushes that hotels at every level routinely provide.  I spent the last year spearheading a university sustainability initiative that sought personal pledges to avoid bottled water and other disposables as much as possible, so it was particularly jarring for me to adjust to this new norm—where we are happy to eat at a restaurant that provides disposable bowls, plates, and chopsticks, because we know they won’t make us sick that evening.  (And I was happy to note that, at least at our favorite local restaurant, the plasticware is marked as biodegradable.)  By contrast, at restaurants that provide the reusables I normally seek out at home, we nervously try to sterilize them with hot tea before using them, because they have likely been rinsed in the too-thoroughly recycled dirty dishwater that compounds the problems already coming out of the tap.

So, after religiously toting my reusable aluminum bottle to my every American class last year, I now carry plastic bottles of water everywhere.  And though I reuse the small bottles as long as possible rather than discarding them after a single use, they are usually filled with water that I get at home from the water-cooler bottle that many Chinese families use.  On any given day, you can spot a handful of strong men riding motor-scooters with an improbably number of these strapped to the back, exchanging filled ones for empties at private homes and businesses.  I’m happy to report that at least these large bottles are faithfully recycled.  But I’m unhappy to say that smaller plastic bottles litter the streets, parks, mountains, landfills, beaches, and accordingly, rivers and oceans.

Urumqi 121Neither is the important relationship between water quality and water quantity lost on China, which has one of the lowest per capita rates of fresh water in the world.  Northern China is arid and especially lacking sufficient water, marked by some of the world’s great deserts, like the Gobi and the Taklimakan.  But it rains plentifully in the south and along much of the coasts.  As a result, China has erected the most massive water-delivery infrastructure in world history to shift enormous quantities from south to north, a project already underway for fifty years and scheduled for completion in another forty.  Linking China’s four main rivers together in a network of diversions, it will eventually move almost 50 billion cubic meters of water annually.  Although the project has already caused its fair share of negative environmental consequences and human displacement, most of the Chinese I have spoken to—even those from regions in which water is taken—are comfortable with the need for extreme inter-basin transfers to support northern population centers like Beijing.  And they are proud of the ingenuity and engineering that underwites this aspect of "man-made China."

Like nearly everything else in China, its history of mind-boggling human interventions with water began thousands of years ago.  I had the opportunity to explore a classic example last week while visiting the Turpan Depression near Urumqi in Xinjiang.  Turpan is the lowest and hottest place in China, at 150 meters below sea level and in the middle of China’s most arid province.  Xinjiang - Turpan 143And yet there in the desert was a blooming oasis of vineyards, agriculture, and Uighur community.  How was it possible?  It is because 2,000 years earlier, the people who still live there dug 5,272 kilometers of underground canals with 172,367 vertical well shafts to collect and redistribute the groundwater accumulating from melting snow on the nearby mountains.  At its height, the “Turpan Karez” channeled 858 million cubic meters of water into 1,784 lines to distribute it to all parts of the region.  (You can’t even imagine what this looks like—best to see it, so try this aerial photo and this diagram).  Xinjiang - Turpan 179It is a staggering feat of civilization—a celebration of creativity, environmentally sustainable terrascaping, and the human ability to thrive against all odds.

Modern-day Urumqi, the capital city of Xinjiang, relies on similarly creative water technology.  During my visit, I saw acres of recently planted, spindly young trees in the desert outskirts of the city, lined up like toothpicks piercing the mostly barren earth.  I would often ask my hosts, “How will these trees take root?  With what water?”, and I was always told, “Oh, there is enough water here in Urumqi.”  Urumqi 281I knew that the trees had been planted for environmentally sound reasons—to help stabilize the soil, moderate ground temperature, and trap airborne dust—but I still couldn’t understand how they would survive in such arid ground, only occasionally studded with dwarflike sagebrush scrub.  In my broken Chinese, I would persist, “but if there were really enough water to grow trees, wouldn’t there already be trees here?”  And they would quietly insist, “no, no—there will be enough water,” though I could never understand from them why. 

Then on my last day, I visited a popular public park in the middle of the city, where the temperature was ten degrees cooler thanks to the canopy of the many mature trees that ringed its central hill and the banks of the creek flowing around it.  I followed my idle curiosity to the crown of the hill, where I was astonished to find a complex terrascaping system for just this park.  There was a small, swimming-pool like reservoir at the top, supplied by a large pipe snaking up the hill (it wasn’t clear to me from where), and a network of canals extending radially outward down the hill in all directions.  Indeed, the park’s oasis was created in the same manner as the Turpan Karez: decades earlier, the now lush trees had been planted in rings around the hill, and the reservoir fed them a steady supply of water through the canals at their base.  Xinjiang - Tianshan Tianchi 141I was awed by the success of the project, and the clear joy it gave the city residents who collected there en masse to enjoy its peace and beauty.  And I suddenly understood what mechanisms were likely helping those new trees take root in the desert surrounding the city.

With such scarcity at hand, China is trying harder and harder to avoid squandering its precious water resources with regulatory efforts targeting both quantity and quality.  Wherever there are flush-toilets, they are almost always low-flush toilets, with separate levers for the two types of waste they will encounter (one of which needs a stronger flush than the other).  Solar-powered water heaters effectively reduce consumption by limiting hot water to what can be stored on the roof at any given time (although the more expensive ones have a gas or electric backup).  Greater efforts are being made to reduce use and recycle water wherever possible.  Hopefully, China will find a way to enact and enforce more effective water pollution laws to avoid further industrial and agricultural degradation of its water resources. 

But for what it’s worth, I’m told there are no great plans on the horizon to achieve potability from the tap, because potability is just not a cultural priority in China.  So the mantra will continue: boiled or bottled, cooked or peeled, rinse at your own risk…

 January - New Year and Yunnan 639



--Erin Ryan

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