Photo: Adam, Flickr.

Evolution of Drinking Water in China

China’s economic development has occurred at a pace unparalleled in world history. Progress over the course of just a few decades has lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese residents from poverty and a mass migration from rural to urban areas has given rise to a new Chinese middle class.

This transformation, the result of reform since 1978, has not come without costs. China’s air and water have taken the brunt of industrialization, and infrastructure has failed to keep up with urbanization.

Municipal water around the country is undrinkable, and residents have no choice but to find a source of potable water independently.

Drinking Water in China: Boiled, Bottled and Treated

Just as development has affected China’s water sources, it also bears huge influence on the ways in which Chinese residents have sought clean water. As the Chinese population becomes increasingly affluent and aware, the preferred solutions to their water problems change.

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Boiling Water

Traditionally, Chinese have preferred to make water potable through boiling it. Born largely out of a lack of choice, it has now become a deep-rooted Chinese habit. An interesting Chinese cultural aspect is the Chinese preference for drinking warm or hot water, believing it’s better for health.

The tangible nature of boiling water means many Chinese consumers continue to place their trust in this method to make their water drinkable. The process is simple, and is one that has accompanied Chinese people of previous generations throughout their whole life.

However, many Chinese consumers are oblivious as to the severity of water pollution in the country and unaware as to the insufficiency of boiling this water to make it potable. Boiling, unable to remove heavy metals, is simply not a suitable solution when faced with China’s largely metal-based pollution.

Boiling remains a widespread and popular option. Increasingly, however, other options have emerged and challenged its dominant position.

Bottled Water

Bottled water promises an easy source of good quality water, and has become increasingly popular in recent years. In 2014, China overtook the United States as the world’s largest bottled water market. In addition, 5-litre bottles for use with a dispenser are extremely widespread in homes and commercial settings. Despite this, growth is forecast to slow between 2014 and 2019.

Even bottled water has become increasingly scrutinized in recent years following a number of negative stories. Last year, leading bottled-water brand Nongfu Spring was discovered to be using water quality standards lower even than those for Chinese municipal water. There have even been claims of Chinese bottled-water companies using poor quality, polluting plastics.

Residential Water Treatment in China

In China, those most educated and aware are those that are also in the financial position to purchase a comprehensive solution. This solution has come in the form of residential water treatments that provide the consumer with the convenience and safety of clean water straight from the tap.

As Chinese urban residents in particular become increasingly affluent and aware, they are driving the adoption of residential water treatment. According to Xylem Inc. 96% of city-dwelling Chinese residents categorize the country’s water pollution as “serious”, and the new middle class in these areas is highly educated.

Not only is the disposable income of this group rising rapidly, but also the same survey found that 88% of urban residents were willing to pay more money in order to be able to drink water from their tap.

The adoption of residential water treatment is still in its infancy, but is largely driven by this consumer segment. Faced with ingrained cultural habits and a selection of other options, penetration rates for residential water treatment technologies remain low.

However, penetration is increasing rapidly. Annual growth rates are forecast to average 24% between 2013 and 2018, and the residential water market is likely to surpass $20 billion by 2019.

Economic development has lead to an increasing number of affluent and highly aware consumers to whom residential water treatment is becoming the preferred option. This group looks set to be the early adopters of an emerging population.

Duco van Breemen

Duco van Breemen

Duco is project & marketing manager at Launch Factory 88. He has lived in China since 2008 and has worked with both state-owned and private Chinese and foreign enterprises.
Duco van Breemen