The right to drink water

South Wind View
December 1, 2007

The cover story of this week's South Wind View is an "exclusive" report on drinking water that examines China's water situation through a number of case studies.

A look at a village in Hubei sheds light on the problems faced by China's more sparsely-populated rural areas as they attempt to build and maintain water purification plants and distribution networks. Many areas are short of funds, and the cancellation of the compulsory and voluntary labor system means that there is a shortage of manpower for construction projects. Electricity costs can add up quickly, too. And with many rural residents moving to the cities to find work as migrant laborers, it may be seen as impractical and uneconomical to provide tap-water for village that is half-empty most of the year.

Another article looks at a project in Shaanxi jointly sponsored by the World Bank and DFID. Although the test locations seem to have shown favorable results, the process has been a bureaucratic morass. For example:

According to the project plan, a four- or five-member household that raised pigs or cattle could build a biogas reclamation pit shared by the kitchen, hogpen, and toilet. The cost would be between 2,000 and 3,000 yuan, largely due to labor costs. The project provided a subsidy of 750 yuan per household. If a rural household did not raise pigs or cattle, it could construct a double-walled funnel-style toilet at a greatly reduced cost.

"On the toilet question alone we argued with the World Bank for half a year," said Zhang Lifeng [of the Shaanxi Foreign Loan Office Project Department]. "Domestic projects to construct biogas reclamation toilets provide a subsidy of 1,200 yuan. We submitted this amount to DFID, but they did not agree. Their reasoning was first, regardless of which toilet you build, you get the same subsidy. And there must be a limit that allows a limited amount of capital to cover as large an area as possible. Second, they only support the very poorest of rural households. They believed that households that could build a biogas reclamation toilet—households with pigs and cattle—were rich. We corrected them many times, saying that the rich people in the countryside were the ones without any sort of domestic animals. But they didn't believe us. Both sides stuck to their rigid positions, and the DFID official said that they'd pull out and not donate the money. Later, the National Development and Reform Commission broached the subject in person with the World Bank and DFID, but it was no use. Ultimately we had to design things according to their wishes."

A third article addresses pollution problems in Jiaxing, Zhejiang Province, a city that does not lack for water.

In his introduction to the feature, SWV reporter Guo Kai remarks on how important the watter issue is to China's future:

If we list all the different responsibilities of the government in order of importance, then for all governments, conducting massive engineering projects and chasing after big economic numbers should rank far below the responsibility to provide the public with safe drinking water. In particular, when protecting the fundamental right to drinking water comes into conflict with the GDP or other construction targets, then the priority of these responsibilities should be very clear.

In the international world of the 21st Century, resource scarcity will cause competition between countries to center around human resources and the mental and physical fitness of a country's citizens. At present, if China lets the health of its citizens come under threat by not placing safe drinking water atop all other areas of development, then it is essentially removing itself from international competition in the 21st Century.

Other articles in this issue:

  • Since 1982, China has overhauled the makeup of its government agencies five times, most severely in 1998 when it slashed its work force in half. Restructuring every five years is too frequent for stable, efficient governance, say some, but the current situation is still less than ideal.
  • Four years after the "color revolutions," how are the countries getting on?
  • SWV reporter Xiong Peiyun talks with Huang Wansheng of the Harvard-Yenching Institute. The conversation, which took place in October at the China-Europe Forum, addresses revolution, modernity, and social changes in 18th Century France and modern China. Huang is the author of Revolution is not Original Sin (革命不是原罪), a book that grew out of an introduction he wrote for a Chinese translation of Furet's Interpreting the French Revolution. Update: The full text of the interview can be found at Xiong Peiyun's blog.
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