China may have spent billions to send lead-contaminated drinking water to Beijing

A worker along the Danjiangkou Reservoir.
A worker along the Danjiangkou Reservoir.
Image: Reuters/Stringer
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Going to Beijing? Here’s another reason to not drink the tap water. A reservoir supplying over half the city’s taps was found to contain dangerous levels of lead. Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Australian Rivers Institute reported the findings in a study published by the Journal of Environmental Informatics.

Between 2007 and 2010, the Danjiangkou reservoir contained 200 micrograms of lead per liter of water—20 times higher than levels considered safe by the World Health Organization. The study also found “dramatic increases” of nitrogen, ammonium, and chromium, as well as arsenic.

The researchers did not say whether those levels persist today. In June, Chinese authorities said that over 70% of the time, lead levels in the reservoir remained below 10 micrograms per liter, meeting the national standard of 50 micrograms per liter.

The reservoir supplies water for the central route—the South North Water Transfer—of China’s massive water diversion project. The safety and worth of that system, which began operations last year, have been called into question. The project cost over 500 billion yuan ($80 billion), involved the displacement of almost half a million people, and led to environmental damage to key rivers. Some Chinese cities are rejecting the system’s water because of the high cost of transferring it.

The study is another illustration of China’s ongoing neglect of its scant water resources. By 2020—the end of its 13th five-year plan—the national government expects hydropower dams to reach a capacity of 350 gigawatts, up from 290 currently. According to water conservationists, that will mean many more damaged rivers across southwest, central, and western China.

“By the end of the 13th five-year plan the rivers in southwest China will be basically gone,” Stephanie Jensen-Cormier, spokeswoman for NGO International Rivers, told the Financial Times (paywall) earlier this month.