Groundwater pollution

Both the literature on groundwater and our survey report a number of other problems that are not directly related to groundwater overdraft. For example, it has been widely reported in the press and in academic journals (e.g. Kendy et al., 2003) that pollution from municipal sewage has contaminated the groundwater of many villages in China. Part of the problem is created when farmers pump from effluent canals, using sewage-laced water on their fields. The recharge from irrigation with such water can affect the entire aquifer. Even when villages do not use the water for irrigation purposes, recharge from streams and riverbeds can contribute to groundwater pollution. According to the Ministry of Water Resources and Nanjing Water Resources Institute (2004), the groundwater resources of more than 60% of the 118 largest cities in China have contaminated groundwater.

Drawing on our survey (in which we asked leaders about their perception of pollution), we find that the scope of the problem is somewhat less and the main source of pollution is different than those reported in other sources; interviews with leaders in communities suffering from contaminated groundwater demonstrate that pollution is still a serious problem. According to our sample communities, the groundwater is polluted in 5.40% of the villages. However, unlike the villages around cities, which are mainly being affected by municipal sewage waste, respondents identified industrial pollution and runoff from mining operations as the most common source of pollution. In fact, of all the villages that reported contaminated groundwater, 95% (5.15% of the total number of villages) said that the main source of pollution was from industrial and mining waste water. Only 0.25% of all villages (or less than 5% of villages that report contamination) said that their groundwater was polluted by agricultural chemicals; none said it was due to urban sewage.

While the extent of the perception of rural groundwater pollution problem appears to be less serious than the urban/suburban problem, it is still serious. Extrapolating our results to all of northern China, we can estimate that more than 20 million rural residents living in 20,000 rural villages are using groundwater that has been contaminated by industrial runoff. Moreover, unlike their urban and suburban counterparts, most villages in China lack any type of drinking water processing facilities. In most cases, the pollution causing the problems in one rural community was created by the actions of industrial and mining facilities that belonged to some other community or economic agent. There is no clear advocate to force upstream communities either to stop polluting or to compensate downstream communities for the damage. Moreover, there is little funding for rural groundwater pollution abatement. In short, there is no incentive or means to address and/or curtail the activities that are polluting the groundwater of millions of rural communities.

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