China’s desire to become a first-world society still faces many challenges - energy, income inequality, housing, inflation among them - but one of the most serious is the shortage of abundant, affordable, and clean water.

Sources of water are compromised by industrial pollution, erosion and agricultural runoff, inadequate sanitary systems, seawater infiltration and aquifer depletion. Flood and drought cycles - and the encroaching desert in the north - waste even more water.

The lack of investment since World War II in modern, high-capacity systems to treat and recycle waste and storm water - equipment and methods we take for granted in the West - has left cities with 21st-century skyscrapers grafted onto 19th-century water distribution infrastructure.

For centuries Chinese governments have labored to bring water to where it was needed - artificial lakes and the Grand Canal in ancient times; the Three Gorges Dam and the South-North Diversion Project in modern days. Cities around the country are selling off municipal water works to private companies in hopes of quick re-building of worn-out pipes and equipment.

Will the investments being made be adequate to provide for all and sustain China’s economic growth? You’ll be an eyewitness...

So what does this all mean for your travels?

  1. Do not trust the tap water, even in the major cities and even in Western hotels

  2. Keep your mouth closed in the shower

  3. Baths are OK (soap kills germs)

  4. Shaving is OK, but use water as hot as you can stand and dry off as soon as possible

  5. Use bottled water for brushing teeth

  6. Use the electric kettle in your hotel room for boiling water to use in cleaning and cooking

  7. For drinking, stick with bottled water

Managing your family’s water supply is important work, and will be a common topic of conversation with your fellow travelers. Every bottle is precious!

Bottled water is very big business

With over 1,500 local brands, local giants like Wahaha and Bright Food Group, and multinationals like Nestle, Coca-Cola, and Danone, the bottled water market in China is the biggest and most contested on the planet. Consulting firm Zenith International estimates consumption of packaged water at 18 liters per person per year in 2010 and growing rapidly - such that in 2015, Euromonitor pegged the per-person usage at over 35 liters!

Prices are very low, as a public necessity - from 5CNY to under 1CNY per bottle - but also as a means to pump volume through distribution networks that also supply fruit juice, soft drinks, and bottled teas. Foreign bottling companies have ceded the low-price market to the local conglomerates and instead are positioning themselves as "premium" brands, with extra filtering and quality steps - priced to match at around 15CNY per bottle (around US$2) and selling quite well despite the outrageous price point.

 Image by  Federico  via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Image by Federico via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

What to look for - and look out for

Hotels typically leave each room two standard-size (500 mL) bottles each day. That’s about enough for toothbrushing, preparing formula, and a bowl of oatmeal. You’ll need to supplement this ration:

  1. If you go on a bus tour during the day, be sure to stash away the bottles they hand out. Make a note of where the extras are and distribute them among your party.

  2. Any trip to a supermarket or convenience store is an occasion to bring home extra water. The bigger the store, the better the price, and the bigger the bottle, the better the price. A 2-liter or 3-liter bottle looks big, but you’ll be amazed at how quickly you’ll go through it. (They’re also easier to haul back to the hotel than the flats of smaller bottles...)

  3. Hotel gift shops charge extortionate amounts for bottled water; only buy from there if you can’t leave the building. 5 CNY for a bottle? That’s practically a whole dollar! (Only crazy Westerners would put up with a price like that - just like the vending machines back home...)

  4. NEVER buy water from carts on the street or in any shop without a door. There are “water counterfeiters” who re-fill brand-name bottles with city tap water and re-seal the caps - but the only distribution they’re able to get is at the bottom of the retail food chain.

  5. Sadly, even "name-brand", store-bought water can be compromised. National inspections of bottling plants don't look for heavy chemicals, and provincial regulators have taken a lax attitude to health protections. In late 2014, Shanghai investigators found 1/4 of bottled water had bacterial contamination. Examine, smell, and taste each bottle you open before committing to drinking it - "when in doubt, throw it out" - and listen to your body if it tells you it didn't like what you drank.

Ice Advice

Cold drinks have not been part of the traditional Chinese menu, as they were thought to disrupt the natural balance of forces within the body. And the ability to manufacture large volumes of ice, distribute it cost-effectively, and store it within the home or business is still nowhere near as well-developed as in the West.

So in most cases the question of “is the ice safe to put in my drink?” is moot since there won’t be any ice in “traditional” restaurants you visit, and there won’t be any at the street vendor stalls you walk by. If you wouldn’t trust the tap water there, you wouldn’t want the ice.

The ice in your soft drink from McDonald’s or KFC is safe, as they’re using purified water - not something from the tap. The Western chains are trying to introduce the concept of iced beverages and it wouldn’t be good for business to be spreading disease...  Fast-food ice is probably the only ice you’ll have in the interior cities and provinces. 

 Photo by  Cathy Stanley-Erickson  via Flickr, CC 2.o license

Photo by Cathy Stanley-Erickson via Flickr, CC 2.o license

Using the boiler in your hotel room

Electric boilers are standard-issue in mainland hotel rooms (no coffeemakers there) and come in very handy for being able to heat a reasonable volume of water in a short amount of time. They’re great for helping you clean utensils and baby bottles, and preparing formula and of course tea/coffee.

To kill microorganisms from the tap water, you only it to reach a boil - it does not have to stay boiling for any length of time; that only wastes energy and evaporates the water. The pots are usually insulated well to keep water hot for an hour or more. Operation is very simple; usually an on-switch or dial - no more complicated than turning on a steam iron (and you won’t need to read Chinese to figure it out.)

Chemical contamination such as heavy metals or benzene won’t be removed with the boiler; if the water smells bad after boiling, dump it and use bottled water instead.

For your supply of drinking water, you’ll want to stick with the bottled product; quality control will be better than what you can achieve with your boiler, and it will certainly be more convenient.

Packing considerations

A durable sippy bottle is always good to have for daytime trips for you and your kids - the bigger the better. When it’s time to fly, the empty bottle is great for stuffing small items into like rolled-up t-shirts.

Alternate ways to cool down

While it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be in any market where a variety of bottled waters is not available, you may be thirsty for alternatives.

Fruit juices are quite possibly an even more popular beverage choice in China and can be found almost everywhere, also at reasonable prices. With so many different kinds of tropical fruits available, you’ll be sure to encounter combinations unheard of in the West. Make sure anything you buy is factory-sealed, and preferably from a store rather than on the street.

Cultural preferences still lean against consuming refrigerated drinks; however, the soft drink manufacturers are experimenting with flavor recipes that make you feel cool even with a room-temperature bottle. “Mint Sprite” is a brilliant example of this.

And of course there’s always the standby of bottled tea - which could easily be an essay on its own, and can quickly confuse even a veteran China traveler with all the different choices. If you need to grab *something*, pick a bottle with a recognizable fruit on it, like a honey lemon tea.