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China to Monitor Groundwater Contamination in Country’s Breadbasket

BEIJING, China

The Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection last week announced plans to create a network to monitor groundwater and detect sources of groundwater pollution in the North China Plain by 2015. 

A new survey released at the beginning of the month by the Chinese Ministry of Land and Water Resources revealed that much of the groundwater in the North China Plain is severely polluted. 

According to a report by official news agency Xinhua, the proposal comes from a government work plan on groundwater contamination that was recently approved by the State Council.

The plan calls for controlling groundwater pollution “in phases.” It says a monitoring network will help provide an overview of the problem in this region, considered the country’s breadbasket.

The plan would launch “model projects” on groundwater pollution treatment and recovery by the year 2020, Xinhua reported.  The hope is that efforts in the North China Plain will set an example for the rest of the country.

Du Ying, deputy head of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), said at a press conference last week that "based on the results we've collected so far, the safety of underground water is generally guaranteed, particularly the safety of drinking water from underground."

“But we can't rule out the possibility that the pollution of underground water will worsen," he said, adding that the pollution is a problem for urban and rural areas alike, as well as for shallow and deep aquifers.

Du also said that China’s State Council, together with local authorities, has formed and sent out teams to investigate reports of pollution, which have been numerous the last few months.

In China, water quality is rated on a six-point scale. On the scale, 1 indicates the water is of best quality, while a 6 indicates that the water is of such poor quality that it is unfit even for agricultural use.

Results of the government survey are that 70 percent of the overall groundwater in northern China is classified as a 4 or higher on the quality scale. 

The survey report divided groundwater into two categories, “shallow” and “deep.” It found similar levels of contamination for both, as Du acknowledged.

China faces problems with quantity, as well as quality, of its groundwater. In an editorial published in China Daily this week, water experts Cecilia Tortajada, co-founder and president of the Third World Center for Water Management and former president of the International Water Resources Association, and Asit K. Biswas, distinguished visiting professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore and co-founder of the Third World Center for Water Management, detailed the country’s looming “groundwater crisis.”

“Nearly 70 percent of North China's irrigated areas today depend on groundwater. This increasing exploitation of groundwater cannot continue because it is not sustainable,” they wrote.

“The overexploitation of groundwater is as unwelcome for China as is the increasing deterioration of groundwater quality. It further accentuates the problem of water scarcity.”

Overexploitation of groundwater sources “is lowering water tables in urban as well as rural areas, causing serious subsidence in major cities, forcing lakes and wetlands to run dry, and increasing salinity in and eventually exhausting groundwater reservoirs.

They hailed the formulation of the country’s first National Plan on Groundwater Pollution Control as “a step in the right direction.”

“The need now is to put in place effective legal, regulatory, institutional, administrative and managerial instruments to make the plan successful,” they said.

Groundwater pollution has been a hot-button topic on the Chinese blogosphere and on weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, in recent weeks. (The Chinese government tries to block twitter and prevent citizen access to it.)

Much of this attention came in response to news that the Ministry of Environmental Protection had recently refused to release a detailed study of pollution in China to the public, calling its findings  a “state secret.”

In late February, Beijing-based lawyer Dong Zhengwei requested the findings of a five-year, $160 million USD report on the current state of pollution in China. When the ministry told Dong that it would only release some of the details of the report to him, explaining that the full details of the report’s findings on groundwater pollution were a “state secret,” Dong spoke out about the situation . The story was carried in some Chinese media as well in Hong Kong and then elsewhere.

Dong was quoted in the South China Morning Post, a major Hong Kong newspaper, as saying, “The environmental ministry has been releasing real-time information about air pollution even though the air in Beijing was bad last month. In contrast, soil pollution is a ‘state secret.’ Does this suggest that the land is contaminated much worse than the air?”

In January, although the subject has been discussed outside of China for years, the Chinese government  for the first time publically admitted the existence of “cancer villages,” where chemical pollution is widespread and has caused an observable increase in local cancer rates. 

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