Science 11 Nov 2011, Vol. 334 no. 6057 p. 745
by Jane Qiu
BEIJING—As Li Wenpeng traveled in rural China over the past decade to assess groundwater quality, he encountered a grim reality. In many villages he visited, locals were drawing water from contaminated wells and rivers. “It's often the only water source available,” says Li, chief engineer with the China Institute of Geo-Environmental Monitoring in Beijing. “You have places where the entire village is sick” with diarrhea or cancers of the digestive tract, he says.
The Chinese government is about to throw these villages a lifeline. On 28 October, the State Council unveiled a $5.5 billion initiative over 10 years to prevent and treat groundwater contamination. The plan will bolster monitoring and push development of groundwater cleanup technologies.
The project is long overdue, hydrologists say. Water is scarce in China, which ekes by with only one-quarter of the global average for water per capita. Roughly 70% of Chinese get their drinking water from underground—and the economic boom of the past few decades has tainted much of that supply, says Lin Xueyu, a hydrologist at Jilin University in Changchun. Disasters like the petrochemical plant explosions in 2005 that spilled 100 tons of benzene and other chemicals into the Songhua River near the Russian border have exacerbated China's woes. “The situation is dire,” Lin says.
Fully 90% of China's shallow groundwater is polluted, according to the Ministry of Land and Resources, and an alarming 37% is so foul that it cannot be treated for use as drinking water. Common pollutants include heavy metals, organic solvents, petrochemicals, pesticides, and nitrates. The toll is significant: Every year, an estimated 190 million Chinese fall ill and 60,000 die because of water pollution. According to the World Bank, such illnesses cost the government $23 billion a year, or 1% of China's gross domestic product. And that doesn't factor in the impact on China's ecosystems and food supply.