U.S.-China Ecopartnership for Environmental Sustainability - USCEES

Purdue Scholars Promoting Sustainable Water Resource Management in Qinghai Province, China

June 24 - June 28 @ - Qinghai, China

China is undergoing dramatic economic development and rapid land use change that relies on vast quantities of fresh water reserves. In addition to providing enough water for industry and agriculture, China faces the challenge of managing drinking water and wastewater in its rapidly expanding cities and many isolated rural areas. Fortunately, Chinese leaders and scholars have identified environmental sustainability, broadly, and water resources management, specifically, as key goals for supporting long-term development. 

The Province of Qinghai, one of the largest (721,120 km2) provinces in China, is a land rich in natural resources related to water, minerals, and terrestrial ecosystem services. Qinghai, with its vast mountain ranges, numerous glaciers, and broad meadows and plains, is also a land of natural extremes in precipitation, elevation, and temperature. The headwaters for three major rivers in China: the Yellow River, the Yangtze River and the Mekong River, originate in this province. These rivers ultimately provide water to hundreds of millions of people downstream, making Qinghai known as the “water tower” or “water reservoir” of China, and elevating water quality and water availability in Qinghai from a regional issue to one of national concern. Factors affecting these critical water resources include shrinking glaciers, degradation of wetlands and grasslands, a warming climate, and plant species loss.

With a population of approximately 5.5 million, Qinghai is a melting pot of cultural diversity, where nearly half the population lives in the capital city of Xining, but also where a large percentage of people live in small rural villages scattered over Qinghai, in regions with great diversity in climate and geography. Despite the abundance of natural resources, Qinghai maintains one of the smallest economies among Chinese Provinces.  Although the future promises significant economic growth in the province, changes in climate and land use will impact the population in rural communities and the capital city in significantly different ways, requiring a broad portfolio of potential solutions adhering to sustainability principles.

Fostered by the collaboration between the Utah-Qinghai Ecopartnership (UQEP)and the Purdue University-led Ecopartnership for Environmental Sustainability(USCEES), a scientific team has been assembled to address critical challenges related to water resources in Qinghai Province.  The team, which includes faculty from Purdue University, Qinghai Normal University (QHNU), and Qinghai University (QHU), launched their collaboration in the summer of 2014 with three specific projects: water management in Xining city, agricultural and grazing intensity impacts on water and soil quality, and application of inexpensive drinking water treatment technology in small rural communities. Details describing the inexpensive drinking water treatment  project are as follows.

Inexpensive drinking water treatment technology for small rural communities

In many rural villages in Qinghai Province, the only source of fresh water is that which is collected from rainfall on roofs and stored in underground cisterns installed at each home for subsequent use. This water is susceptible to particle-born contaminants and pathogens and poses a significant health risk to people in these communities. Purdue professors Chad Jafvert (Lyles School of Civil Engineering) and John Howarter (School of Mechanical Engineering) have re-engineering an ancient technology for clarifying the water: slow sand filtration (SSF). The re-engineered SSF system consist of inexpensive five-gallon plastic buckets, sieved sand, plastic tubing and a specialized porous plate all designed for use in rural communities with limited financial resources. The SSF systems improve water quality through microbial driven processes that break down dissolved and colloidal organics, reducing the turbidity of the water to drinking water standards. 

In July 2014, Dr. Jafvert, funded by the USCEES Visiting Scholars Travel Grant, traveled to Qinghai with a team from Purdue to oversee the installation of SSF systems in two villages currently relying on rainwater collection for home water use. After initial training and installation of the filters, Dr. Jafvert worked with collaborators from QHNU to formalize a monitoring system for water quality analysis, and also held lectures on water chemistry for QHNU professors and students.

Overall, this water purification project already has positively impacted the lives of six families. Within just a few days of SSF installation, the homeowners could visibly see improvement in their household water. Even more,the villagers informed the team that their SSF systems were a topic of discussion among the community, as many other villagers wanted to install the filtration systems in their homes. More SSF systems are planned for construction and installation in the next years of this multi-year project, with further sponsorship from the Provincial Government anticipated.


This project was sponsored by Purdue’s Discovery Park USCEES, Purdue Center for the Environment, and the Purdue Water Community.



Fan Wang, PhD, Purdue Project Coordinator, USCEES  wang457@purdue.edu                                             

Timothy Filley, PhD, U.S. Director, USCEES  filley@purdue.edu                                           

Taylor Smurthwaite, UQEP Innovation and IP Coordinator  alan.smurthwaite@purdue.edu    

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Qinghai Water Projects

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