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Creating waves with a water project
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Calluses on the shoulder, humps on the back; when drought comes, we search for water from dawn till night; when the rainy season comes, we rely on muddy water. Most of today's city dwellers, even many villagers, may not know this old Chinese song because they can get water simply by turning a tap. But Qu Wenke and his fellow villagers still remember the days when fetching water was backbreaking work.

Fruit growers revel in the opening of an irrigation station for their orchard in Mianyang, Sichuan province, last April. File photo

Qu is a resident of Caomiao village in Tongjiang county of Sichuan province who did not have access to tap water till recently. The 53-year-old and his fellow villagers live at the foothills of a mountain where rainfall is scarce, and had to walk at least 2 km to fetch water from a river. "I used to make three to four trips to the river every day. Carrying water in buckets hung from shoulder poles is tiring work," says Qu. Scarcity made water much more precious than oil, so "the water we used to wash our hands and feet with was collected and given to the pigs to drink".

But despite all this, safe water still eluded them. Qu often found flat and "red worms" in the water. About half of the villagers were diagnosed with tuberculosis or hepatitis, for which they blamed the water they used to drink. Nine of the villagers had swollen knee or finger joints, and so painful was their condition that they could not do any physical labor. Some of Qu's neighbors were reported to have kidney stones, too. "We doubted the quality of the water we drank but we had no option," he says.

Tongjiang was a revolutionary base during the Long March. But till 2004, 40 percent of the county's 295,000 residents did not have access to safe drinking water, according to a survey. The water collected by the villagers had high levels of fluorine, salt and other contaminants, and tasted bitter, says Yang Yongchao, chief of the county's bureau of water resources.

In 2006 came the good news. The Sichuan Rural Water Supply Department started the Sichuan Safe Drinking Water Project for its 31 million rural residents. And by the end of last year, more than 190,000 water stations or taps had been installed with funding from the central and provincial governments, as well as farmers.

Sichuan's water project is part of a program initiated by the Ministry of Water Resources (MWR). It is based on a UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) study and is aimed at providing safe drinking water to about 320 million people living in China's rural areas. In fact, many of these people already have access to clean water.

Safe drinking water means a healthier population. Yan Min, Tongjiang's magistrate, says tap water can save up to about 2.2 million yuan ($313,830) in medical costs in the county alone.

But clean water means more than a healthier population. It has brought about a change in people's lifestyle, too. Take Qu for example. He used to take a shower once a month when water was scarce. But nowadays, he takes a bath once a week. He has bought a twin-tub washing machine, too. The villagers pay 2.9 yuan (40 cents) for every ton of tap water, which Qu believes is "a reasonable price" because it saves people's time and energy.

Many villages have been introduced to self governance because of the availability of clean water. "A large number of the villagers wanted to know how the project was to be carried out," says Yang Shushun, a Caomiao resident. So three meetings were held before the county water supply station was built, and every single detail was made public.

Each household has been issued a "license" to use the village tap for people to be more aware about water conservation. "We'll protect the 20,000-cubic-meter reservoir, our village's central water source, from pollution," says Qu.

Residents of Liushudian village in adjacent Yilong county have set up a self-governing water supply association, which is responsible for supplying water to 403 families. "All matters, including the charges, are posted on the walls for public review," says director Li Wanshu.

One of the goals of the UN Millennium Declaration is to halve the number of people who do not have access to safe drinking water by 2015. The government has increased its spending on rural water supply since and provided an additional 67 million people with safe drinking water by the end of 2005.

year before that, the government shifted its focus to water security, which is determined by four criteria: quality, daily intake, convenience of access and continuity of supply. Moreover, it has promised to supply safe water to an additional 32 million rural residents every year during the 11th Five Year Plan (2006-10), according to Chen Lei, Minister of Water Resources.

Rong Guang, an MWR official, is grateful to UNICEF for playing a key role in making safe water available to rural people. UNICEF started the Children's Environment and Sanitation (CES) Project in Yunnan province in the mid-1980s. It extended to six provinces between 1996 and 2000 and to three more by 2005. Sichuan became a part of the pilot program in 1998.

A major feature of the project is its emphasis on the integration of water, environment and sanitation, says Lei Jun, UNICEF's water and environmental programs officer. In the 1990s, UNICEF funded the installation of 6,598 deep pumps in the provinces, of which 300 pumps were in Pingyang and Mabian counties of Sichuan.

Li Daqun, a farmer in Hongmiao village of Sichuan's Pingchang county, says the pump that UNICEF installed in 1999 still supplies water to her community. Before the 2,000-yuan pump was installed, Li used to fetch water in a bamboo bucket. Things improved so much after the pump was installed that she began raising pigs. Today she has 20 pigs, and her annual income has gone up by 10,000 yuan.

"UNICEF paved the way for the government's emphasis on water supply in rural areas," Rong says. But many problems are yet to be solved. For instance, electricity accounts for about half the cost of water supply, says Zhang Lei, an official of the Sichuan rural water supply department. It has to be reduced by two-thirds, he says, so that more farmers can afford tap water.

Sanitation, says Rong, is another aspect that has received little consideration.

In January, the National Development and Reform Commission and the ministries of Health and Water Resources issued a regulation on monitoring water quality in rural areas. But a lot of money and personnel are needed to carry that out, which few water supply stations can afford.

Sun Hai, head of Yuntai water supply station of Tongjiang, says his station cannot guarantee regular water testing because a comprehensive test is "very expensive".

Fortunately, these problems are not beyond solution. What is needed is a determined effort of the central government and the provincial authorities, and the eagerness of the people to improve their lives.

(China Daily April 29, 2008)

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