Remember this shocking picture of the man we saw earlier this term?
In fact, aching bones and swelling across the body are only two of many problems Chinese water consumers face because of alarming pollution. According to a recent report of China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, 60% of China’s groundwater is characterized as “bad” or “very bad”. More than half (17 of China’s 31 major freshwater lakes) are characterized as “polluted” (BusinessWeek). In 2009 the World Bank said water problems cost the country over 2% of GDP every year—mostly due to damage to health.
Hygiene and health concerns among China’s rising middle class have stoked demand as more migrate to cities, where water is more polluted and the bottled sort more common. In a country with just 7% of the world’s freshwater supplies but 20% of its population, cheaper bottles of water taken from river basins, lakes and underground, and of purified tap water, are even more popular than expensive mineral waters. In the past five years China’s guzzling of bottled water has almost doubled from 19 billion to 37 billion liters (Euromonitor). In 2013 China overtook the US as the biggest market for bottled water by volume.
However, due to lax regulations, few bottlers in China are likely to be using the sophisticated filtration technology that would rid their water of nasty metals and bugs. Last December, the authorities in Shanghai found that a quarter of bottled water sold locally—including by Hangzhou Wahaha—was contaminated with bacteria. But even national health inspectors are not required to check levels of mercury, silver or acidity though.
Consumers’ growing worries about what they are drinking are making them more prepared to pay high prices for water. Tibet 5100, the first Chinese-owned premium brand of spring water, has sold well since it set up in 2006. And Nongfu Spring this month launched three new pricey bottled waters, at a sleek event in the forest near Changbaishan. The photo pictures the fresh, clean, premium-priced waters of Changbaishan. As incomes rise, pollution worsens, and awareness grows about the risks of contaminated supplies, it is highly likely that Chinese consumers will keep trading up.