Walls without plaster, an entrance without doors, two raised parallel strips 0.3 m or so apart with an opening in the middle and a big container below. That is a toilet for 12-year-old Dilihumar and 400 other students of her school in a village near Taklamakan Desert in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
It is the same for most other people across rural China, where people are still hired to remove the night soil once every one or two months.
The main reason for this sorry state of affairs is lack of water. Let alone water for sanitation, most rural areas do not even have access to safe drinking water. The country's rapid economic development during the past two decades has lifted more than 200 million people out of poverty. But efforts to supply clean water, treat wastewater and provide sanitation are still striving to meet the standards of an advanced society.
About 250 million people in rural areas still do not have access to safe drinking water, deputy chief engineer of the Ministry of Water Resources (MWR) Pang Jinwu says. Official figures show 45 percent of the water used for drinking in rural areas is unsafe and only 24 percent of the population enjoy proper sanitation facilities.
Health issues apart, lack of clean drinking water can also create social problems. For instance, the chance of a man getting a bride depends on the availability of water in some western villages or towns, too, Zhang Dunqiang, senior economist of the department of irrigation, drainage and rural water supply of the MWR, says.
Rural residents' hygiene, lifestyle, behavior, consumption pattern and the development of the local economy all depend on safe water.
A global issue
The problem of water is not confined to China. Across the world, about 2.6 billion people are deprived of proper sanitation facilities, and about 980 million of them are children. This, says the UN, is one of the biggest problems afflicting the world.
According to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's message on World Water Day on Saturday, a child dies every 20 seconds in the world either because of water-borne diseases or lack of safe drinking water.
"But we are nowhere near the pace of development to achieve that goal," Ban said.
Studies show 2.1 billion people will still be deprived of proper sanitation facilities in 2015. The government realizes that quality and supply of water is a big challenge. Pang lists the problems in three categories: underground water in Heilongjiang province contains large amounts of minerals harmful to human health; water is scarce in places like Xinjiang; and despite being abundant in provinces and regions like Sichuan, it is too unevenly distributed throughout the year.
So much for natural problems, what about the hurdles? The country's weak natural resources network and scattered rural settlements make it difficult to set up large water irrigation and supply systems, Pang says.
He adds it is not possible to set up an intensive network to supply clean water to a very large number of people because the rural settlements are too loosely spread.
But the government is optimistic about achieving its Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of people without access to safe water by 2009, and overcoming the problem altogether by 2015.
"The goal is already part of our national five-year plan," Pang says.
Between 2000 and 2007, the government helped 128 million people gain access to safe drinking water, and building more water treatment plants and supply networks in rural areas are still on the government's priority list.
This year, Pang says, the government has allocated 7.1 billion yuan (US$1 billion) to build water treatment plants, and improve and upgrade safe drinking water supply networks in rural areas.
Clean drinking water has been a problem for 16.5 million people in Guangdong province for a long time. But, Guangdong provincial water resources department director Huang Boqing says, all these people will have access to safe drinking water by 2010. The provincial government has set aside 7.34 billion yuan.
Innovative mechanism needed
Advanced and creative management mechanism for supplying safe drinking water to rural areas is in place, Pang says.
"But setting up the system is only the start. You have to ensure that it operated and maintained for as long as possible," he says.
The MWR has helped form more than 30,000 farmer-oriented village-level teams in 23 provincial regions to manage water projects since 2000.
Two days before World Water Day, the MWR joined hands with the UN Development Program (UNDP) and Coca-Cola to launch a project aimed at improving policy mechanisms by demonstrating a series of sound water resources management, including water rights management, water resources allocation and drinking water safety technologies.
The four-year, US$6.79-million project will supply enough water for Dilihumar and other students in the remote areas of Xinjiang and Sichuan to wash their hands after going to the newly installed sanitary toilets in their schools.
Rural areas, especially children living there, are a high priority because they need the most support, UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in China Khalid Malik says.
"We hope we can achieve heightened awareness at national, provincial, country and community levels for using the technologies and practices, and we hope to achieve succinct implementation of waterborne disease control, pollution control and environmental sustainability," he says.
Across much of the developing world, unclean water is a greater threat to human security than violent conflicts.
"With less than seven years left to reach the Millennium Development Goals we must take action now," Malik says.
The government has been encouraging public-private sector partnership to strengthen water supply and sanitation projects in rural communities.
"Water is our most important ingredient and more urgently than ever before, we need to work together - governments, civil society and businesses - to achieve water sustainability," Coca-Cola's Pacific Group vice president Paul Etchells says.
Supplying safe drinking water throughout the country can be achieved only if all the people measure up to their personal social responsibility, "Environmental Champion" of the project and actor Wang Lee-hom says.
Citing his personal habits as an example, he says, "I use only one glass of water to brush my teeth, instead of keeping the tap running. And I take a shower with cold water."
And the project, he says, welcomes any and every other good suggestion to save water and energy.
(China Daily March 24, 2008)