Water supply problems run deep in rural China

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As Chinese were stocking up on food for the New Year holiday, many people in Jishan County of north China's Shanxi Province were busy hoarding water.

"A full cellar of water lasts 50 days," said Jia Sidan from Jishan's Qinghe Village, which has no tap water.

While this situation inconveniences people like Jia and makes them more susceptible to drought, it has a dire impact on the area's ability to attract business and improve the economy.

With the government facing the pressing task of expanding water supply nationwide, local authorities have just told residents of Qinghe that they will be getting tap water in the Year of the Monkey.

The central government has vowed to bring tap water to 80 percent of the rural population by 2020. Poverty relief, including water supply, will be a hot topic at China's annual "two sessions," the big political meetings bringing together the full assembly of legislators and advisors next month.

China's per capita water resources are just over a quarter of the global average. In rural areas, especially in the west of the country, hundreds of thousands of people are short of potable water.

The 4,000 villagers in Qinghe live one kilometer from their nearest well. Some buy expensive water from four private businessmen who own trucks to transport it in bulk from the well. Others build water cellars in their home.

Households that buy from the water trucks are paying about 70 yuan (US$10.70) a month for the service, according to Jia. This is roughly equivalent to the cost for a year's supply of tap water.

Building a water cellar then costs another 1,000 to 2,000 yuan.

It's not surprising that villagers have learned to use water sparingly. "We wash the children first, before using the water to wash clothes," Jia said. "We do little rinsing, and avoid using washing machines."

Storage is another problem. After a while in the cellar, the water becomes unclean. Villagers add sodium bicarbonate to try to disinfect it.

Among the 116 million Chinese who have gained access to tap water over the past five years is Lin Lin, 38, from Hehua Village of Bijie City in Guizhou Province.

Since June, Hehua villagers have no longer had to walk long distances to fetch water. With no more pressure on Lin and his wife to stick around and help with this toil, the couple became migrant workers, earning more than 6,000 yuan a month.

"With the money, we renovated the house and installed a water heater," he said. "We can now take a shower whenever we want."

From 668 households in Hehua, at least 600 villagers have gone to work in cities, according to village head Lei Yingzhi. "Per capita income has more than doubled," he said.

Jia Sidan is excited about joining the ranks of those supplied with tap water. "We will no longer have to carry water in the freezing winter, our children will be able to take a shower every day in the summer!" he said.

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