Photo: Water Researcher Zhao Feihong
Source: The Beijing News
By EO Editorial Board
Issue 603, Jan 14, 2013
Translated by Chen Min
Original article: [Chinese]
There has been a crisis of confidence in the quality of Beijing's tap water in recent weeks. The issue arose after a couple of scientists who have been studying water quality for decades revealed that they hadn\'t drunk the capital\'s tap water for two decades. How could a revelation like this fail to cause panic among the public?
The couple later made it clear that their decision not to drink the tap water was more about allowing them to be "more healthy" rather than implying the city's water is unsafe. Despite this, the controversy had already taken off and this explanation did little to ease people's fears.
The Beijing Waterworks Group (北京市自来水集团) was quick to respond to the concerns, explaining that water quality data showed that the water is safe. At the same time they also announced that in the future they would publish water quality data on their website every three months.
Thanks to the sudden panic about water quality raised by these recent reports, Beijing residents will for the first time have access to data about the quality of the tap water that they drink.
Let's set aside the problem of whether the drinking water in Beijing meets the standards or not and let's assume that the water quality data provided by the Beijing Waterworks Group provides is genuine. Still, they were too late in opening up the data to the public.
This kind of response gives the impression that they are trying to cover something up and is unlikely to effectively deal with the concerns of the people let alone once again win their trust.
The quality of the drinking water is closely related to people's health and residents have every right to know about it.
It should be accepted practice for the Beijing Waterworks Group, both in its role as a company responsible for providing drinking water to the city and also as a regulator, to publish water quality data, instead of it being seen as some kind of emergency countermeasure.
There are many departments involved in providing public services who do not communicate with the public on a regular basis and need a crisis of public opinion to occur before they're pressed to hold a press conference in order to "lift the siege".
The recent "water controversy" is similar to last year's "PM 2.5 dispute".
The Department of Environmental Protection continued to hold back air quality data until it was pressed by public opinion following the release of similar data on Weibo that had been supplied by the American Embassy as well as other civilian monitoring groups.
This delay helped lead to a lack of public credibility in the department to such an extent that even though the statistics they provide might be genuine, the public still doesn't buy it.
A similar thing happened in Beijing and other regions in 2003 with the outbreak of SARS. Local governments only revealed the number of infections after coming under the unrelenting pressure of public opinion. At that time, the government was cheered for its efforts to admit its mistakes and make amends. But governments and departments that handle public services can't always simply take a page from this "righting wrongs" playbook. They need to learn from their mistakes instead of making the same ones over and over again.
Our hope is that the government treats this as a turning point and presses ahead with an over-arching reform aimed at promoting transparency, effectively guaranteeing the public's right to know. By doing this they can help to restore the public's trust in government.
In addition to opening up the information to the public, we also need to answer the related questions of who will be responsible for providing the information and who will supervise the process to make sure the data is genuine.
Take water quality data for instance. Will it be reliable if the same company that supplies the water is providing information about water quality without any form of third party oversight?
It becomes extremely important to have a third party in charge of supervision. This is because we need to be able to rely on a comprehensive and rational system of guarantees instead of relying on the "goodness" of government or companies.
We can draw on the experiences of water quality oversight and control in Macao. They separate water supply from water quality supervision. A water company is responsibile for supply and a special office under the Macao city government takes care of monitoring the water quality. The latter takes water for examination by random on a daily basis, so does the former. If they get the same result, they will post it on their official websites; if not, they will re-examine the samples. In addition they will make public the results, whatever they may be.
The public don't expect that environmental problems will disappear forever - it can never be like that. Their sense of safety comes from knowing that thay they can rely on information being revealed at a regular set time. They hope the environment will mostly be fine, and they will be informed when it's not.
Let's take Macao as an example again. During the transition between winter and spring in 2006; the salt content of the water was a little higher than usual. Though it posed no direct danger to people's health, the group still decided to hold a press conference with the General Civil Administration in Macao and the Bureau of Health. They informed the public of the situation and suggested that people with heart problems, the old and children either drink bottled water or boil the tap water before drinking.
The recent public debate about water quality in Beijing is a reflection of a larger problem - it's a result of companies being run as monopolies for a long period and of not being fully reformed.
Beijing Waterworks Group is the only water supplier in Beijing and the surrounding suburban areas, there is no competition and no worries. If we look at it from this perspective, we need to do more than simply be more transparent. We also need to carry out market reforms of state-owned water companies.
Establishing a mechanism for sharing information publicly and breaking monopolies go hand in hand. They complement each other and strengthen each other. They will also influence efforts to refrom water pricing.
If attempts to institute greater transparency and break monoplies fail, then attempts to reform the way water is priced is unlikely to win public support.
This is the case with many reform measures in China. They are interconnected with one another and there's no one solution that will work on its own.