It could be water, and not air pollution that’s China’s biggest problem. The Chinese government has published some extremely worrying statistics about the water quality in rural areas, showing that over 80% of it is not drinkable due to contamination from industry and farming. Considering the government’s tendency to underestimate pollution levels, it seems safe to say that virtually none of the rural water is safe.

In 2014, China said that 60% of its underground water is polluted, with things apparently going worse and worse every year.

“From my point of view, this shows how water is the biggest environmental issue in China,” said Dabo Guan, a professor at the University of East Anglia in Britain who has been studying water pollution and scarcity in China. “People in the cities, they see air pollution every day, so it creates huge pressure from the public. But in the cities, people don’t see how bad the water pollution is,” Professor Guan said. “They don’t have the same sense.”

For years, Chinese rural communities have raised concerns that water resources are overused by farming and industrial activities, and the government has even acknowledged it. In 2011, the Ministry of Environmental Protection issued a plan to cut the polluting of underground water resources but the practical results have been scarce. The reality is, China’s near-surface water seems to be ubiquitously polluted and unsafe. As Guan points out, despite the upmost urgency of the problem, this issue is ignored by most people.

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Shanghai, like many other Chinese cities, depends on surface water that is heavily polluted. Photo by Jakub Hałun.

“Environmental pollution has become a hot topic in recent years,” Zheng Yuhong, an agricultural resources expert who is a member of China’s national legislature, said last month during the annual meeting of the legislature, according to a report at the time. “But pollution of underground water has virtually been forgotten.”

The situation in cities is quite similar – near-surface water is undrinkable. However, more and more urban areas are digging deeper wells, taking water from areas where pollution hasn’t reached yet. But this is sucking the water faster than the deep aquifers can replenish it, so this is also tasking on natural resources. It’s not clear how or if this problem can be solved. For now, things are looking pretty grim. The national government does not have a single policy document for water supply and sanitation and no one seems to want to take responsibility for such a major rehaul.