CHINA: half the population consumes contaminated water

Over half of the population of China consume water that fails to meet minimum quality standards, and China has several times the rate of liver and gastric cancers as India, according to a new study by the World Resources Institute.

In the last 40 years China has transformed itself from a rural economy to an industrial giant with a significant presence in the world economy. This rapid transformation has fuelled economic growth that easily outpaces that of most developing countries. China’s GDP growth averaged 9.3 percent per annum between 1980 and 1995.

China’s rapid economic development has exerted a significant toll on its natural resource base, particularly water resources. Inadequate investments in basic water supply and treatment infrastructure have resulted in widespread water pollution. In China today approximately 700 million people–over half the population–consume drinking water contaminated with levels of animal and human waste that do not meet minimum drinking water quality standards.

More than half of Chinese cities are experiencing severe water supply shortages. Official government statistics also record a steady increase in the total volume of wastewater produced. Growing from 29 billion tons in 1981 to 37 billion tons in 1995. By the year 2000, the volume of wastewater produced could double from 1990 levels to almost 78 billion tons.

The full health impact of this industrialisation and modernisation process, and the associated water pollution, however, has yet to manifest itself. The health consequences that result from changes in environmental conditions only begin to appear in health and epidemiological records after a decade or two, says WRI.

Although much of the evidence assembled is dated, anecdotal, and of limited scope, taken as a whole it points to several possible consequences for public health. First, morbidity and mortality associated with infectious and parasitic diseases may not continue to decline. In fact, the evidence assembled points to the potential for actual increases in infectious diseases. Water supply shortages are expected to worsen.
At the same time a more affluent and growing population, more intensive use of agro-chemicals, and continued industrial expansion will increase the amount of human, animal and industrial waste entering surface and ground water streams. These trends do not bode well for protection of drinking water supplies, says WRI.
Second, the intense and combined exposures to both traditional and modern risks may be driving increases in non-communicable disease. For example, deaths from liver and gastric cancers in China, account for approximately 40 percent of all deaths from malignant neoplasms. This is far higher than that for comparable developing countries (e.g., accounting for about 11 percent of all cancer deaths in India) or established market economies (where they account for 10 percent of all deaths).

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