Water Security in Rural China: The View from a Zhejiang Village

In September 2021, the Minister for Water Resources announced in a press release that under the Thirteenth Five-Year Plan (2016-2020), centralised water supply and tap water coverage in rural areas had risen from 82 percent and 76 percent respectively, to 88 percent and 83 percent in 2020. The long-standing predicament faced by rural residents in accessing safe and stable water supply became a thing of the past. Three years prior to the Minister’s announcement, Zhejiang province had reported that 99 percent of all its villages had access to tap water, thus placing itself as a national leader in the provision of secure drinking water to its rural residents.

However, in Wood-Stone Village (pseudonym), a small hamlet nestled in the mountains of Zhejiang province about 350 km from the capital city of Hangzhou, villagers have had to resort to insufficiently-treated river water due to a shortage of potable tap water fuelled by drought and unusually cold weather between October of 2020 until January 2021. This raises doubts over the government’s centralised approach to providing water to rural residents, and more alarmingly, how villages in China will cope with the grave impact of climate change on the accessibility of drinking water.

Changes in Water Supply in Wood-Stone Village

In Wood-Stone Village, houses are built along the riverbanks, and encircled by rolling, green hills. Before the establishment of several water tanks on nearby hills two decades ago, villagers had relied on two main sources for water: untreated water channeled from the mountain springs and groundwater pumped to their homes directly. One male villager in his late forties still remembers bamboo pipes carrying water from the mountain springs. Another villager in his early sixties, who built the very first concrete house in the village, said that he installed his private pump to draw water from underground over thirty years ago, at the time he built his house.

Wood-Stone villagers’ houses built after the 1980s, and the dry river seen in the winter of 2020

Villagers abandoned the use of river water long ago. For one thing, the river usually dries up between late fall and winter, and secondly, the river is thought to be polluted. One elderly villager told me that in the 1980s, after chemical fertilizers replaced the traditional fertilizer of ‘night soil’ (human excrement) in fields, night soil was directly dumped into the river after undergoing simple treatment. Around five years ago, local government helped to fund a collective septic tank between villagers’ houses and the riverbanks to treat human waste and improve the water environment. Nevertheless, villagers still applied chemical fertilizers to the vegetable gardens dotted along the river’s banks, which entered the river in the form of run-off, harming water quality.

Around the 2000s, the county government partially funded a collective water tank on the hills beside the local school in Wood-Stone Village (I shall refer to this as ‘the old water tank’). Mountain springs, instead of being channeled by bamboo poles, now entered the water tank. After undergoing purification, tank water is piped to each Wood-Stone household through metal pipes. Prior to the establishment of the old water tank, villagers had built smaller sedimentation tanks beside water sources to settle particles such as soil and sand for simple purification under local government guidance. Even so, they always boiled the water before drinking.

The old water tank located beside the village school on the hill in Wood-Stone Village

Following the increase in government and community investment in collective water tanks and improvement in water purification, villagers grew accustomed to the convenience and security tap water. Traditional methods of drawing water fell into disuse. As of the winter of 2020, the old water tank was managed by a construction team which rented the now-vacant school. It still provided water to some villagers.

The water valve beside the water tank which the village committee member turns on and off to save water during drought

About five years ago, the County Bureau of Water Resources covered over 80 percent of the cost of building a new and bigger water tank at a higher location than the old one (this is known as ‘the new water tank’). The government also installed purification equipment to treat the water. Since its completion, the new water tank remains the largest provider of drinking water to the residents of Wood-Stone Village. However, some villagers deemed the water from the new water tank sub-standard due to a lack of regular maintenance and supervision. The tank is cleaned about once a year. And there is only one person, a member of the village committee, who oversees the day to day operation of the water tank. In his words, he needs to check the water tank after each heavy rainfall, and when it runs out of water, he has to turn off the valve so that there is water reserved for evening use.

Extreme Weather and Unstable Tap Water Supply

During the drought of 2020, starting in October, when the mountain springs ran dry, villagers had to resort to what was left of the river’s water for drinking. Their daily activities in winter, ranging from making rice-wine and hand-made noodles, to building houses and watering vegetable gardens, were all affected by this water shortage. Wood-Stone Village was not alone; three-quarters of Zhejiang province, which is the size of South Korea, were reported to have suffered from water shortages. The Provincial Office of Emergency Management identified a lack of engineering projects designed to collect water in mountainous areas, in addition to the abnormal shortage of rainfall that year, as the main causes of the water shortage. Other provinces in southern China also suffered from shortages of potable water, with the result, according to official statistics, that several million people had to take emergency measures of water rationing to guarantee basic domestic water use.

A pump collecting water from a part of the river that still has some water to supplement the spring water in the old water tank

In Wood-Stone, as rainfall grew scarcer and the mountain springs dried up, water from the polluted and nearly dry river was pumped into the collective water tanks, old and new, as supplement to the spring water. However, because this was an emergency measure, river water entered the new water tank without being integrated into the regular purification process. This ‘emergency measure’ lasted several months, but no effort was made during that time to improve the purification procedures. In the old water tank, the treatment of river water was limited to disinfection through the application of bleaching powder; the effects, either on the potability of the water or the health of those who consumed it, were largely unknown.

In addition to drought, extreme weather brought on by climate change added further challenges to villagers’ access to water from the water tanks. Between the end of 2020 and early January 2021, due to an increased number of days with temperatures below zero during a nationwide cold snap, many households’ water pipes froze, and some even burst.

One villager in his early sixties recalled that while it had been cold in the past, he had never experienced freezing temperatures over such a long period. Frozen pipes were such a widespread problem that the county water supply plant even displayed tips on how to prevent pipes from freezing on the screen of county bus. It was also common sight to find villagers busy undertaking repairs of damaged pipes. Under such conditions, villagers often sought water from neighbouring households whose pipes were fortunately enough to remain intact. Some villagers were also forced to turn to the unsafe river water or seek out untreated mountain spring water.

Villagers fixed the broken water pipes exposed by the road along the river in a neighboring village

To address the water shortage at Wood-Stone, the County Bureau of Water Resources and the village committee have been seeking an alternative site for an even larger water tank with plans to upgrade the village’s water treatment facilities. They are also planning to build treatment facilities for river water so that it can function as a regular source of drinking water when the flows allow. But as of March 2022, nothing has been put in place yet.

A three-year action plan issued by the Zhejiang provincial government in 2018 stated that the province would invest 13.6 billion yuan between 2018 and 2021 to upgrade potable water in its rural hinterlands. It planned to establish mega water-supply facilities to serve surrounding villages as opposed to each village relying on its own water sources. The plan also emphasised the need for good management and maintenance as opposed to simply building more water infrastructure.

Centralised water supply and upgraded treatment facilities through piped tap water are core to the national goal of ensuring that rural residents enjoy water of the same quality as their urban counterparts. However, it is doubtful that a more robust tap water system alone, even if upgraded, can guarantee the stable supply of safe water in the face of uncertain and unusual weather fuelled by climate change.

Flexibility in Need

The experience of drought is not new for Wood-Stone Village. Villagers acknowledge the unpredictability of precipitation and have lived all their lives with uncertain water supply. But the village water environment has been dramatically reshaped over the years by the evolving water management practices carried out by both local and central government as well as alterations in climate. Older villagers recall suffering rainfall shortages especially during summer, when rice paddies were in great need of water. In Chinese folklore and myths, dragons are associated with rainfall. The oldest among them still have memories of ‘catching the dragon’: climbing mountains to seek the blessing of rainfall by catching ‘dragons’ (snakes). Villagers now joke about such practices as past ‘superstition’. These days, they pay close attention to weather forecasts and news about cloud seeding on TV. To alleviate the drought, the Bureau of Meteorology at county level conducted three cloud seeding operations between November 2020 and mid-January of 2021.

With easier access to scientific information as well as technology, villagers have learnt to cope better with the uncertain weather. Nevertheless, as Wood-Stone’s experience of tap water dysfunction due to drought and cold snap shows, when governmental efforts in ensuring water safety only work through the centralised treatment of tap water, villagers will still be forced to turn to unsafe water sources during times of shortage. The centralised approach also rules out alternative methods of water supply which can take into account the varied, local effects of climate change and the need for emergency measures. Greater flexibility in types of water supply and treatment is needed to make the predicament faced by rural residents in accessing safe and stable water supply a thing of the past.

This photo essay is based on the author’s most recent ethnographic fieldwork in several rural communities in Zhejiang province between October 2020 and April 2021. References containing details of the villages have been removed to preserve their anonymity .