Living in, moving to or traveling to China and want to know if you can drink the tap water China?
Access to safe and clean water is essential to human health. Therefore it’s no surprise that public concern over drinking water safety has risen sharply in recent years following a number of water pollution incidents.
As with many countries the answer for China depends on where you are and what you consider clean water. In this article we will explore it and where you can drink the tap water, where it comes from, how it’s treated water filters for China and bottled water.
Where does the tap water in China come
Historically most populated of areas in China have had an abundance of access to fresh water in the shape of lakes, rivers and groundwater. This has changed over the past 50 years due to the industrial revolution and farming fertiliser and pesticides.
As China’s economy grows and the population expands, natural waterbodies have been badly affected by environmental pollution. New pollutants, such as organic matters and heavy metals, are more complex and more difficult to treat.
Across China 85% of the water in the city’s major rivers was undrinkable in 2015, according to official standards, and 56.4% was unfit for any purpose. In Tianjin, northern China’s principal port city and home to 15 million people, a mere 4.9% of water is usable as a drinking water source.
But there are positive sides to technology as well. Big cities like Guangzhou, Shanghai and Shenzhen are equipped with new water purification technologies to remove these pollutants that couldn’t be effectively removed by conventional water purification techniques (e.g., biological pre-treatment, ozone-activated carbon filtration). Unfortunately this is a race to the bottom as water gets worse and it becomes virtually impossible to filter out everything.
What do the Chinese say about tap water?
The government officials in the large cities generally claim that the tap water is drinkable / potable according to international standards (e.g EPA and WHO). However if you ask most mid to high income families they will say they don’t trust the tap water and it’s not worth the risk.
Why do people boil the tap water?
The main reason why Chinese do not drink unboiled water is that parasites infection( Schistosoma, Leptospirosis etc) used to be a severe problem in southern China. Hence, the government took great effect to propagate the idea, ' Never Drink Unboiled Water'. As a result, it is engraved in people's mind.
Who monitors the tap water in China
Tap water quality is closely monitored following the Chinese Standards for Drinking Water Quality (GB5749-2006) since 1 July 2012.
But not all cities are compliant. January 2015, Oriental Outlook published a report on the public information about tap water quality in 29 Chinese cities. According to the report, more than 70% have enforced relevant water management regulations and requirements about information disclosure requirements. However, there are large differences in the publication cycle.
- Daily: Ningbo, Shaoyang and Suzhou
- Weekly: Jinan, Qingdao, Hefei and Wuxi
- Monthly: Xi’an, Nanjing, Shenzhen, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Urumqi, Hangzhoux, Chongqing and 8 other cities
- Quarterly: Beijing
But monitoring and reporting doesn’t necessarily mean that the tap water is safe long term.
So can you drink the tap water in China?
Yes. If your city discloses the water quality results at least on a monthly basis and those results show contaminants below regulations then its most likely safe to drink in the short to mid term. Unlike India the main issue is not pathogens (bacteria and viruses) but heavy metals and other pollutants. The exception is older buildings where bacteria contamination from water tanks and leaking pipes is still a possibility. This is why you’ll see most Chinese families boiling the water.
Long term exposure to tap water is a different issue. Even at the regulated levels exposure to lead, mercury, chromium, nitrate, arsenic, pesticides, PFAS and chlorine bi-products there is evidence that it may have adverse health affects such as cancer, kidney failure and even brain damage. In addition to this there’s Microplastics with unknown health impact.
For infants and children this is a lot worse as there is no safe level of e.g. lead. Children should not consume unfiltered tap water unless you’ve had it tested and e.g. heavy metals are undetected.
Note that boiling the water will only kill pathogens and not remove any heavy metals or other contaminants.
Let’s look at some example cities to see if the tap water is currently safe:
Tap water in Beijing
'Officially, Beijing tap water has been declared safe to drink under China’s new national drinking water standards for 106 contaminants, but complaints in parts of the city indicate that local sources of contamination still affect quality, particularly the old distribution system that was put in place 50 to 60 years ago (China Daily 2007p).' (cited from 'China and Water')
Note that all tests were conducted at water treatment plants, and not at the tap. When the water moves through the city, old rusting pipes cause a metallic taste and unpleasant smell to come from the tap. It’s highly advisable to use a water filter in Beijing.
Tap water in Shanghai
No, 20% of the water pipes in Shanghai were installed before 1968. Just like Beijing the poor quality of these pipes is one of the primary contributors to unsafe water. Tests have shown that the water contains too high amount of heavy metals due to pollution a rotten pipes. Also watch out for bacteria in the summer in particular due to warm water which provides a breeding ground for pathogens. Use a water filter in Shanghai.
Tap water in Shenzhen
Yes, the tap water in Shenzhen is drinkable thanks to advanced water treatment and modern infrastructure. Check the local water treatment report frequently to be on the safe side.
What is the best water filter for China?
We will look at two scenarios to chose the best water filter for China.
1.You live in a modern building in a city such as Shenzhen where the tap water is considered safe
A high quality faucet filter such as TAPP 2 with activated carbon will remove or reduce all common contaminants to safe levels. Faucet filters are affordable, easy to install and only require the cartridges to be changed every couple of months. As a bonus TAPP 2 cartridges are biodegradable and leave zero plastic residue.
As an extra precaution you can boil the water but it really shouldn’t be necessary.
2. You live in a city with old infrastructure, and old building or where the tap water is not considered safe
To be on the safe side use a multi-stage filter including activated carbon, ion exchange and reverse osmosis or UV light. These filters will ensure that common contaminants as well as pathogens are reduced to safe levels. The negative aspect of these filters is that they require continuous maintenance. Without the filtered water may be worse than the unfiltered.
Bottled water in China
There is no scientific evidence that bottled water is cleaner or healthier than tap water or filtered tap water. As a matter of fact most bottles water is simply filtered tap water. A big global study in 2018 by Orb Media also showed that 94% bottled water contains Microplastics. Considering the environmental impact and cost there is therefore really no excuse to consume bottled water. A water filter will save you hundreds of dollars per year and is better in almost every way.
- The tap water is drinkable when it leaves the water treatment plant in most cities but due to old infrastructure it may not be safe at the tap
- Boiling the water is generally not sufficient to make it safe as it only kills pathogens
- To be on the safe side for you and your family use a water filter in China. Read above to find out if TAPP 2 is the best filter for your circumstances
- Avoid bottled water if you can as there is no evidence it’s healthier than tap water and it’s bad for the environment
Enjoy China and stay safe!