Tea Leaf Nation

Water, Water, Everywhere

A local Chinese contamination scare triggers an international blame game.

Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Residents of Lanzhou, the smoggy capital of China’s northwestern Gansu province, scrambled to buy bottled water after authorities announced on April 11 that the city’s water contained 20 times the national safety limit of benzene, a cancer-causing chemical. The worst of the scare may have passed — full water service resumed in the city following an interruption in some districts — but the finger-pointing has just begun.

The contamination reportedly resulted from a leaky oil pipe belonging to China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC), a massive state-owned oil company (the company denied culpability). Although Lanzhou Veolia Water, the Sino-French firm that supplies the city’s water — and is majority owned by the city government — discovered the elevated benzene level on April 10, it did not announce its findings until the next day. According to an April 14 statement by Lanzhou Veolia’s deputy general manager, the benzene contamination had likely begun on April 2, meaning that Lanzhou residents had consumed contaminated water for eight full days. (The Beijing office of Veolia Water hung up when contacted by phone for comment.)

While it’s unknown who is really responsible, some Lanzhou residents have sought justice for the contamination. Five of them filed a lawsuit on April 14 seeking civil damages from Lanzhou Veolia and a public apology for the contamination, but a court in Lanzhou rejected the suit. Now, six law students from Northwest University for Nationalities in Lanzhou have filed another lawsuit to the same court, demanding that Veolia provide medical testing and monetary compensation for affected Lanzhou residents, as well as release all water quality information from February 24 to the present. (The court has not yet responded to this latest effort.) Meanwhile, Justice for All (JFA), a non-profit based in the southern city of Nanjing that promotes civil society education and food safety, has called for an independent third party investigation, claiming that Lanzhou authorities’ disclosures have not met the level of detail that current national regulations require.

Opacity about the quality of drinking water is not a new problem. The Beijing newspaper Legal Daily reported on April 14 that Lanzhou authorities have upon multiple occasions refused requests for disclosure of public information about municipal water quality. In 2012, JFA requested Veolia Water to publically disclose information related to the quality of its water — but it never received a reply. In 2013, the non-profit sought water quality information from two different Lanzhou municipal departments, but their requests were returned in the mail.

As early as March 6, some noticed that city water had begun to emit a pungent odor. (Tap water throughout China is unfit to drink when it comes out of the tap, but residents often consume it after boiling it.) On March 8 Lanzhou University student Wei Shuhao posted on Weibo, China’s Twitter, "Today Lanzhou’s water still tastes really bad, still smells really bad." He asked, "Do you people at Veolia and the environmental protection department not drink water?" On March 11, Wei sent a request to the city’s environmental protection department to make public water test results announced on March 8 that claimed the tap water was safe to drink — even though it continued to reek. All he received was a phone call from someone at the department (not named in the report) who said there "were no statistics."  

After releasing the test results, city officials announced on March 10 that they had investigated "rumor-mongers" in a move to "guide correct public opinion." The contrast with April’s headlines is jarring. In a widely forwarded April 12 post, Xu Xin, a well-known legal scholar with close to 7.5 million followers on China’s Twitter Weibo, juxtaposed articles about the "rumor-monger" investigation with the benzene water contamination, along with a brief commentary by other users insinuating that the local officials responsible should resign. An artist who goes by the online moniker Si Ling Ben posted a screen shot of the March 8 edition of the Lanzhou Morning Post, a popular local newspaper, carrying the headline "Lanzhou Municipal Water Passes Inspection." His post included a "demand for accountability."

Local officials remained a target as late as April 12, when Global Times, an outlet known for its defense of the party line, wrote that "the government could have raised the alarm and beefed up its water security measures" earlier. But by April 14, Chinese media response seems to have turned its collective gaze away from government officials and CNPC and toward Veolia. On April 15 state radio announced that Veolia would be subject to a government probe, and an April 16 an article by Xinhua, China’s official news agency, blamed Veolia for the contamination, listing every infraction the company has incurred in China since 2007 and emphasizing the foreign origins of the business.

It’s certainly possible that Chinese state media will shift tone once again. But the current focus on Veolia, rather than its government partner, benefits local officials by sparing them from further scrutiny. Lanzhou’s water is supposedly back to normal, but some citizens remain skeptical. "How many days did we all drink benzene-laced water?" asked one Lanzhou-based Weibo user. "And how will we be compensated for the damage?"

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy. @BethanyAllenEbr

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