Improving Water Quality in Qinghai Province

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Written by Taylor Smurthwaite and Fan Wang, Guest Contributors

China’s rapid economic development in the past decades has been a consistent focus for global economists, especially during the global financial crisis. The country’s ability to sustain high levels of economic growth, ranging from 7 to 12 percent, has long baffled economists, who have drawn two major distinctions in China’s ability to sustain high growth.

First, the national government has focused on export-intensive market mechanisms, while historically limiting foreign imports into its domestic markets. Second, the People’s Republic has focused its development strategy in large coastal cities. Economists and scholars have classified these large cities along China’s coast as Special Economic Zones (SEZs). In addition to SEZs, cities like Chongqing, Shanghai, and Tianjin embody the height of China’s economic development. Yet, rapid growth has not been experienced evenly. Economic development in inland provinces, like Qinghai Province, has not occurred at similar rates compared to coastal cities and SEZ’s experience, which have been a primary focus in attracting foreign direct investment.

Qinghai Province is one of the largest provinces in China (721,120 sq km) with many natural resources, such as hydropower, mineral deposits, and vast grasslands. Even more, Qinghai is culturally distinct from the rest of China. Dating back thousands of years, the lands have historically been inhabited by people of Tibetan ancestry with cultural practices, food, history, and religion radically different from the Han Chinese majority. Though this province has one of the smallest populations (5.03 million), it currently faces many environmental concerns: decreasing ice valleys, grassland degradation, increasing temperatures, species loss, salinization of lakes, and loss of wetlands. Distant provinces like Qinghai are slow to alleviate these environmental ills in part because coastal cities are often the primary focus of economic reform.

Water is not only the indispensable ingredient for life, but it is a driving force shaping China’s economic growth, environmental health, and national security. In particular, water resource management in Qinghai is of concern. The headwaters for three of China’s major rivers—Yellow River, Yangtze River, Mekong River—all originate in Qinghai. Clean water is so vital that it has become the subject of a joint collaborative initiative between the United States and Chinese national governments. Desires to strengthen economic ties, particularly in the areas of clean technology and environmental sustainability, forged the U.S.-China EcoPartnership framework. Since the EcoPartner’s founding in 2008, the national framework has relied upon sub-national partnerships to promote mutually-beneficial green development. In fact, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke at the annual EcoPartnerships Signing Ceremony on July 10, 2014 where he expressed the significant role EcoPartnerships maintains in national policy by combating environmental pollution while simultaneously providing economic growth.

The Utah-Qinghai Eco-Partnership (UQEP), established on May 11, 2011, is built upon similarities between the State of Utah and China’s Qinghai Province. Both are located in the western regions of their countries, have abundant natural resources, and contain salt lakes. These commonalities led then-Governor of Qinghai Province Luo Huining and Utah Governor Gary Herbert to forge a partnership to explore energy efficiency and environmental sustainability through joint-innovation initiatives. Since UQEP’s founding, the partnership has engaged in a number of projects utilizing Utah technology in Qinghai.

In two small villages located nearly two hours from the provincial capital, Xining, Purdue University scientists, supported by the Purdue-led U.S.-China Eco-Partnership for Environmental Sustainability (USCEES) and UQEP, began a water quality project benefitting villagers who rely on drinking water directly from rainwater collection. There, Purdue University scientists led a collaborative team to address some of the major water-resource related challenges in Qinghai Province. On June 25, 2014, Purdue University, Qinghai University, Qinghai Normal University, USCEES, and UQEP held their opening ceremony to celebrate the launch of a joint-innovation project between the U.S. and China to improve water in Qinghai Province.

Provided Purdue’s extensive research in environmental engineering and understanding of the collaborative process, the university was a perfect match to alleviate Qinghai’s water needs. Dr. Jafvert is a professor of environmental engineering at Purdue’s Lyles School of Civil Engineering, and Division of Environmental and Ecological Engineering. Through his studies, Dr. Jafvert has been able to take a commonly known water purification process, slow sand filtration, and tailor it for rural and less developed communities in three continents. The technology is complexly simple. The slow sand filters rely on readily available resources and natural microbial driven processes to improve water quality to drinkable standards by breaking down dissolved and colloidal organics that cause water turbidity. Ordinarily water turbidity is not a problem in larger, more industrialized municipalities because developed cities have complex water treatment facilities with massive sand filtration systems. However, many rural mountainous villages are beyond the reach of water treatment facilities and instead rely upon rainwater that is collected in underground cisterns. This water is consumed directly without filtering debris.

Qinghai’s current environmental problems require solutions that balance practical environmental protection with economic growth in China, which must be widely applicable from small rural communities to major urban centers and regional and provincial watersheds. Dr. Jafvert considered economic sensitivity in his design and has even tested them across Africa and South America. Dr. Jafvert first implemented the filters in Colombia with financial assistance from Kimberly Clark. In Colombia the filters were given to local schoolteachers in a number of villages. The slow sand filters provided enough clean drinking water for the school children and their families. Then, Dr. Jafvert took the sand filters to Kenya and Tanzania. He implemented the filters at the Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology in Arusha, Tanzania, and in Nairobi, Kenya at the UN Habitat as part of the United Nations Offices in Nairobi. Accordingly, Dr. Jafvert’s technology utilizes readily available items, five gallon plastic buckets, sand, plastic tubing, and porous plates that he has designed, so that rural villages can easily implement the filters.

As part of the joint Eco-Partnership agreement in Qinghai Province, six slow sand filters were introduced into two villages in Dongshan Township in Huzhu County. Dr. Jafvert met with Qinghai Normal University officials to build the filters and then deliver them to six families. After installing the filters, Dr. Jafvert worked with homeowners and university professors to collect water samples for analysis back at the university lab. Also as part of the cooperative agreement between the U.S. and China, Dr. Jafvert held lectures on water chemistry for university professors and students. Both the U.S. and Chinese counterparts hope see the intellectual exchange of professors and students as further strengthening the success of the slow sand filtration projects in Qinghai Province.

Overall, the water demonstration project was a significant success in the lives of six families. Within the few days the slow sand filters were in use the homeowners could visibly see improvement in the water consumed. Qinghai Normal University officials will continue to monitor the progress of the installation sites, while USCEES and UQEP are already preparing to launch phase two of the project: the Utah-Qinghai-Purdue Sustainable Water Resources Management System and Cooperative Lab.

Taylor Smurthwaite is UQEP Innovation & IP Coordinator at the University of Utah. Fan Wang, PhD. is Project Coordinator of Purdue University’s U.S.-China EcoPartnership for Environmental Sustainability.

This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier’s November/December 2014 print edition.