Bringing water and health to rural China

Rural landscape in Wuyuan county, Jiangxi province, China ©

China has succeeded in delivering affordable, safe water to half a billion people living in the country’s rural areas. Jiuhui Qu reflects on how this progress has been achieved in even the most remote locations.

Meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of delivering clean and affordable drinking water to all (SDG 6.1) has been a huge challenge for China, with 500 million people living in 670,000 rural villages. One of the difficulties was the huge variation in the quantity, quality, and accessibility of water resources in different regions of China. Major drinking water challenges in rural areas include shortages of water resources, low quality source water, outdated facilities, and a lack of operators. In some western areas, people had to walk dozens of kilometres to fetch water, and collecting water had become routine for many. Water-related diseases occurred in the regions using groundwater contaminated with arsenic or fluoride.

The Chinese government has made great efforts to deliver water to people living in rural areas. Initial efforts mainly focused on the development of water resources, including the construction of water diversion canals and the digging of deep wells. Adsorptive removal technologies have been introduced to remove arsenic and excess fluoride, but many of the initial efforts failed because of the short lifespan of the adsorbents and the need for frequent regeneration.

The first five-year plan to holistically resolve drinking water safety problems in rural areas was issued over the 11th National Five-Year Plan period (2006-2010) by the Ministry of Water Resources. This has been updated every five years, with investment largely coming from central government. But financial support was not distributed evenly, with preference being given to undeveloped regions, particularly those in western areas.

The most effective approach was to extend the urban water supply networks to the rural areas, which is now very popular in the eastern part of China, which has relatively high levels of economic development and population density. This model integrates urban and rural water supply systems, making it easier to achieve China’s ‘Five Unification’ goals:

  • Same source water
  • Same pipeline
  • Same price
  • Same quality
  • Same service

For regions with a relatively low population density, the construction of centralised water supply systems is prioritised. This is called the ‘1000 tons for 10,000 people’ project.

It is now understood that sustainable water supplies can only be realised in rural areas when water supply systems reach such a scale. Small-scale and household water supply systems are only allowed to be constructed in areas with a very low population density.

Because of the difficulty of the construction and maintenance of small-scale systems, standardisation is of great importance, so that small-scale systems can be merged into larger ones when conditions are ripe.

It should be emphasised that collection of water bills is also very important for the development of a sustainable water supply model in rural areas. More than 80% of centralised water supply projects have succeeded in collecting water bills.

“standardisation is of great importance, so that small-scale systems can be merged into larger ones when conditions are ripe”

Transformational technologies

Since 2000, China has implemented a series of grant research projects focusing on drinking water science and technology development.

Disinfection has been a big challenge for small-scale water supply systems. Different types of disinfection equipment, which can generate disinfectants such as chlorine dioxide, chlorine gas, ozone, and ultraviolet light on site, have been developed and applied widely. Chlorine dioxide and chlorine generators are becoming popular because of their ability to keep residual disinfectants in the distribution systems.

For surface water, integrated water purification plants of different scales have been developed to ensure the quality of construction. All parts are manufactured in factories and assembled on site for ease of construction and standardisation.

Ultrafiltration membrane-based water purification plants have also attracted wide attention because of their efficient microbial removal and automation.

In the past, approximately 45 million people in China had to drink groundwater containing relatively high concentrations of iron and manganese. But this problem has now been resolved, with iron removed by contact or chemical oxidation, and manganese removed by contact or biological oxidation.

Arsenic and fluoride have long been the most serious health-related problems with regards to drinking water, not just in China, but across the world. In China, the arsenic and fluoride affected populations were 20 million and 80 million, respectively. Through long-term efforts, technologies for the removal of arsenic and fluoride have been established. Arsenic can be removed through one-step adsorption, precipitation, or reverse osmosis membrane separation. Fluoride can be removed by complexation adsorption, or reverse osmosis membrane separation.

International collaboration

To improve international cooperation, we established an international platform, the Chinese Academy of Sciences-The World Academy of Sciences (CAS-TWAS) Centre of Excellence for Water and Environment (CAS-TWAS CEWE) in 2013, with the aim of incubating talent, building capacity, engaging in joint research, and facilitating the transfer of technology to developing countries.

As a result, 79 PhD and MSc foreign students have obtained degrees through the CAS-TWAS CEWE platform. At the same time, we have established a water and sanitation training programme, which has accepted 242 trainees from 42 countries over the past 11 years.

Our work has resulted in the construction of dozens of decentralised water treatment systems in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Iran, and other developing countries, either through joint research or technology transfer. One example is a chemical-free integrated system for surface water treatment, which was built in a village in Sri Lanka suffering from a lack of water purifying reagents. We also constructed a rainwater harvesting facility in Iran.

“Since 2000, China has implemented a series of grant research projects focusing on drinking water science and technology development”

Looking to the future – affordable water for all

Continuous efforts over the past 18 years have resulted in increased access to tapped water, rising from 36% to 88% by 2022. China has finally achieved its goal of providing affordable water for all. However, small-scale water supply systems are vulnerable to the environmental challenges caused by climate change and natural disasters. To remedy this, continuous efforts are required to further promote urban-rural water service integration, advanced water supply technologies, and standardised drinking water management. •

The four stages of China’s water development history

1949-1980 Quantity assurance:

Construction of dams, canals and wells

1980-2005 Disease prevention:

Disinfection; arsenic and iron removal

2005-2015 System upgrading:

Advanced technology and model innovation

2015-2022 Poverty eradication:

Capacity enhancements and quality improvements

Holistic approaches to delivering safe drinking water in rural areas

  • National plan
  • Investment policy
  • Model optimisation
  • Technology development
  • Enhancement management systems