Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, paraphrased for the title of this blog, was not about trying to get a drink in China, but it may as well have been.

Here in Suzhou, there are bridges over canals every other street and two large freshwater lakes, Jin Ji Lake and Du Shu Lake. (Jin Ji Hu 金鸡湖 and Du Shu Hu 独墅湖, in Chinese.) It also rains a lot. (Though right now we’re in a dry period.) In a word, water is everywhere.

However, the water is (by most standards) not suitable for anything except landscape hydration and road washing, the latter of which actually occurs quite frequently.

The water is not potable. Not in the canals, not in the lakes, not in the faucet or spigot or “spicket” (if you’re from western Pennsylvania). Not in the shower, the bath, or even the decorative fountains. The water is not drinkable. Anywhere.

Sure, you can drink it, but you take a number of serious risks by drinking the water. There may be bacteria, heavy metals, sediment, or other human biome-unfriendly features to this readily available H2O. No one I know drinks the water here, or anywhere in China for that matter. Just Google “water in China” and read the first few links that come up. That should provide sufficient information to scare you from drinking it.

No one should drink the water here, even though it’s readily pumped through pipes and into houses, places of business, and restaurants. Should you wash food with it? Brush your teeth with it? Safely get ice in drinks? Boil pasta in it? Is it even safe after it’s boiled? Is this why the Chinese are always talking about drinking “hot water”? (This last question I don’t think even the Chinese can answer…)

The business of water is quite serious here, so long as you’re not talking about the stuff that runs through the pipes in the walls of your apartment. Water as a utility is cheap. Stupidly cheap. And it’s probably got a lot to do with how little it’s treated (as compared to fluorinated, chlorinated, softened water in the U.S.).

Living here, the water business is easy to see all around: big dispensers are set up in my school, free for faculty and students to use, just like water fountains would be in the U.S., but the school pays for the jugs to be delivered; at the gym, there’s an Ozner reverse osmosis system hooked up for patrons to fill water bottles so we can stay hydrated; and every grocery store has at least a dozen varieties of local and imported water, from Chinese Nongfu Springs to the French Evian and everything in between.

When we first moved here, the water situation was a serious burden because we couldn’t drink the tap and, therefore, had to buy, carry, and store all the water we wanted to drink. That got old quickly.

After we settled in our apartment, we talked about getting a water delivery service like my school has. Lots of people do this. It makes sense. But Andy did some research, and he’s really good at research, and it turns out that this water is okay, but not terrific. It’s still chlorinated and has some issues with being safely bottled reliably. Sigh. No water delivery.

We started buying water in bulk from the grocery stores. We even found cases of Crystal Geyser water at Sam’s Club (this label is unrecognizable to an American in America, but I almost started crying when I saw it in the aisles of Sam’s Club here because my brain saw this as “normal” water and, therefore, safe water.) Carrying all the water gets old quickly too because even if we take a taxi back from the store we have to lug the water back to the apartment. (The inside area of our apartment complex is only walkable or bike-able, not drivable or drop-off able.) Sigh. Carrying between six 1.5L and twenty-four 16oz bottles is HEAVY. And no matter how much I love my giant, blue, tarp-like IKEA bags, they were not cut out for this kind of heavy lifting.

I found our gym about a month ago. Once I joined, I found the Ozner water system that they have set up for members. It’s hooked in directly to the pipes and I was really excited about it. The information on the website looked promising, but Andy said it still tasted not right to him. Sigh. That would have also been an affordable solution, but we were still afraid to trust the stuff coming out of the pipes.

Recently we discovered a grocery delivery service. This has transformed our lives as expats, above anything else in China. I place an order, it is delivered to our apartment door, and we have things in our refrigerator and cupboards that otherwise we would have had to schlep back via bus or taxi. It’s like a miracle every single time. We’ve had our six 1.5L bottles delivered and we also recently discovered a 10L box of water from New Zealand that has a dispenser on the front. We keep it in the refrigerator and always have access to fresh, clean water. This is truly an amazing thing. I’ve been more or less chronically dehydrated since arriving in China in September. Now I don’t have to really worry about whether I’ll use up the last of the water or if we’ll have enough to cook with. It’s just there and we can get more delivered.

This is still not, in my mind, a real solution. It’s only a solution for us because we can afford it.

It’s my western upbringing and privilege talking when I say that I never knew what it was like to struggle to find water or to worry about the quality of the water available to me. Living in a middle-class American house for my entire life hid from me this very real problem. People in some places in the United States can’t get clean water. (Flint, Michigan comes to mind.) People in parts of the world that aren’t China can’t get clean water. There are entire charities dedicated to bringing access to clean water to people. Somewhere in my mind I always knew this was a problem, but it was always somewhere else. It happened to other people. Now that I live someplace where it’s right in front of me, I see what a scary thing it is. Water is life.

Perhaps China was modernized so rapidly that there wasn’t time to make infrastructure improvements. Perhaps there wasn’t time or reason to think about water as anything beyond what you can SEE in the water. Perhaps there was no reason to think about the convenience of “running water” as anything other than a commodity found in all modern countries. I don’t know, but what matters is that it is still a problem for people who can’t afford another option.

This is so often a class issue, which breaks my heart even as I sip my New Zealand water from a box in my refrigerator because I know I am lucky because I can afford to pay to access water that I know is safe without question.

I haven’t definitively decided to commit myself to any volunteer or charity movements dealing with water, but this has been an eye-opening experience. If you can fill a cup at your sink and drink it without serious concern, cherish your water and the privilege you have in sustained access to it.


2 thoughts on “Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink

  1. LOVED. Every. MEGASEXY. Syllable. Students in my classes are often rating and raving about privilege…as if they understand it. America, in particular, is fixated on the notion of “white privilege,” and this is most often what my students confine their understanding of privilege to. Handling it is delicate…because of course, there IS white privilege, and it’s important and meaningful. But I think the real message of privilege and its effects are mostly Western…and not white. Being born in a hospital, for example…mega privilege. Having your children be able to crawl around on floors not covered with fecal bacteria…mega privilege. Access to antibiotics…privilege. The existence of grocery stores…period — big fat privilege. Water…as you so brilliantly articulate in layer after layer, above…privilege. I love all of your posts…but this one, in particular. And it has to be said that I am now a HUGE fan of Andy!


    1. Haha, I’ll let him know!

      Glad you liked the post. I feel strongly about this form of privilege because it’s inseparable from the quality of life. It doesn’t get more basic.


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