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China’s water scarcity problem

by Tom Pattinson
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Water damn

China’s economic boom has come with significant environmental costs but it is China’s water scarcity that might be the biggest threat to the country, writes Tom Pattinson

When we think of China’s environmental challenges, we often think of smog cloaked cities and poor soil quality. However, according to Charles Parton, former diplomat, fellow at the Royal United Services Institute think tank and trustee of the environmental NGO China Dialogue, it is water degradation that is China’s most pressing threat.

China doesn’t actually lack water, explains Parton during a recent CBBC Premium Members briefing. “It has the same amount as the UK does per person,” but it is located in the wrong place.

China’s lush, rice-growing sub-tropical south has plenty of it. But its dry arid northern plains can go months without any precipitation, which means much of China is actually described as water-scarce. Furthermore, much of China’s water-intense industries such as agriculture, manufacturing and mining are all concentrated in the 12 provinces of China that are classified in this way.

Agriculture accounts for 62 percent of China’s water usage, 22 percent is used in industry and power production, 14 percent is used by people through drinking, waste and domestic use and the remaining two percent used on things such as parks, ski resorts, golf courses and other non-essential uses.

China’s 12 water-scarce provinces, however, account for 38 percent of China’s agriculture, 50 percent of power, 46 percent of industry and 41 percent of the population. This means water usage is much higher in the water-scarce regions. “At its current rate this is unsustainable and there is a big job to do,” says Parton.

“Groundwater levels are falling due to over-exploitation at a rate of between one and three metres per year and lakes are drying up,” he explains. “There were over a hundred rivers connected to the Yangtse 25 years ago but now there are just two. We’ve seen 28,000 rivers disappear in the last 25 years,” he says.

According to the World Bank, 1,500 m3 of water is required per person. 1,000 m3 is regarded as scarcity and 500m3 is classed as acute scarcity. Beijing currently consumes over 1,000 m3 per person, but it only has a capacity of 119 m3 per person. This means that Beijing is sucking up way more than is coming down.

The consequences of this are that reservoirs are drying up, the water table is dropping and parts of Beijing such as Chaoyang district are subsiding at up to 11 centimetres per year – something Parton points out isn’t necessarily very safe when it has such a concentration of high-rise buildings situated on it.

China Water Use

What is being done?

For some time, China has been trying to import water from the wet south to the dry north. But the long distances, some 600 metres of difference in altitude and the 474 cleaning stations needed mean that the water used in generating the energy required to transport the water makes moving vast volumes of water inefficient.

The authorities are trying to crack down on polluters and make it harder for industry to pollute, says Parton, and investment is being made into water-saving, drip-feed irrigation, as well as low water consuming crops. However, Parton says, persuading a rice-eating population to shift to a potato diet will not be easy.

Cities have implemented rules to reuse 20 percent of water by 2020 (30 percent in Beijing), and new buildings must have proper water re-use facilities. There has been a shift away from water intense power generation from coal and nuclear, and efforts to improve high-voltage transmission over long distance.

Authorities are trying to increase recycling of water, improve pipes to allow drinkable tap water (rather than bottled) and fix wasteful leaking pipes.

However, a lack of a centralised water security commission means there is no government body to oversee any policies and ensure they are implemented. Planning, says Parton can be disjointed.

For example, the government has said they want to increase cotton production and create a million new textile jobs by 2023 in the incredibly water-poor region of Xinjiang.  They’ve set a target of 100 new ski resorts in the deserts of Hebei and want to bolster the milk industry in Inner Mongolia’s Gobi Desert.

“The real problem is raising prices,” says Parton. “Farmers pay only about 35 percent of the cost of water, if they pay anything at all,” he says. With 95 percent of farms in China under two hectares in size, there are no economies of scale when using low-water technologies in farming, which makes it irrational to try to have policies to develop other crops.

However, it’s not just agricultural use. The price of water is far too cheap across all sectors. “Household water prices are so low there is no incentive to use less,” he says. And the price of water needs to increase in the industrial sector too. But rises in prices will cut into companies profits and will cause some companies – including state-run companies – to go bankrupt. Something the Chinese authorities could regard as a threat to social stability.

Solutions and opportunities

Parton says that it is essential that high power-consuming industries are moved from the dry north to the water-rich south. Steel, dye, paper and so on can easily be moved south but with many State-Owned Enterprises struggling already, there is little incentive to move them.

Desalination, Parton explains, is only useful for emergency measures. The energy needed to desalinate water – from getting coal out the ground, generating the electricity, getting the water to an urban centre and removing the wastewater – would use far more water than it would desalinate, he says.  

China’s current economic growth is not sustainable without a solution to its water scarcity. “Water should be an added incentive towards the Made In China 2025 campaign, and an added impetus for the service sector,” Parton says. And this will lead to more opportunities in business, academia and science, and research and development to find power – and water-saving technologies, wastewater processing technologies and agricultural developments.

What is clear is that at its current rate, China cannot afford to consume as much water as it does. Finding solutions to the country’s water crisis is no longer an option for the future, but an urgent necessity for today.

Hopefully, more joined-up government thinking, increases in prices, relocation of certain industries, and penalties for improper use will go some way to making China a green and lush land.




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