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China’s Imminent Water Crisis

China’s Imminent Water Crisis

China’s Imminent Water Crisis
Tina Butler,
May 30, 2005

Back in 1999, Wen Jinbao, a Chinese deputy prime minister, warned of the dire water situation in China and of looming water shortages. Since then, Mr. Wen has assumed the post of prime minister and pledged to provide clean water for his people. His administration has guaranteed an additional $240 million this year to achieve this end. However, this amount may not be nearly enough to satisfy China’s massive demand. The country has long suffered from alternating periods of severe flooding and drought. Combined with high pollution levels and a history of heedless and haphazard policies, the country is witnessing a precipitous drop in this most essential supply. High ranking officials and international agencies alike are deeply concerned about the situation and with good reason.

According to hydrologists, government officers and industrial leaders, water and waste pollution is the single most serious issue facing China. Presently, one in three rural inhabitants lacks access to safe drinking water. The urban situation is not any more heartening. More than a hundred large cities are short of water and half are considered to be seriously threatened by the shortage. In the northern region of the country, the water table has dropped more than a meter. Even in the capital city of Beijing, the water supply per individual is only 300 cubic meters (66,000 gallons) per year. The country’s water resources are among the lowest in the world per capita and concentrated in the south, so that the north and the west experience regular droughts.

Due to inadequate investments in supply and treatment infrastructure, even where water is not scarce, it is rarely clean. Close to 600 million people have water supplies that are contaminated by animal and human waste. Pan Yue, the deputy head of the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), China’s environmental watchdog ministry, has called the shortage and its associated problems ‘the bottleneck constraining economic growth.’ China does not have the water resources to sustain the rapid economic growth it aspires to. What is more, the nation’s current policies make future sustainability even less likely.

Pristine environments such as this in the Three Gorges region are becoming scarce in China

Some of the misguided decisions and practices that have nurtured this burgeoning crisis include ill-conceived dams, poorly managed rivers, impractical water-pricing schemes and disastrous and damaging attempts to grow unsuitable crops, requiring irrigation, in the driest parts of the country. The mistakes continue to be made, even as awareness of the gravity of the situation grows. Because of China’s vast, decentralized bureaucracy, directives for conserving or at least better managing water resources must traverse numerous tiers and channels of government and rarely survive the process. SEPA is under-funded and understaffed, with only 300 people responsible for monitoring 20,000 factories and has to struggle for influence with other agencies like the Construction Ministry, which handles water and sewage treatment. Bureaucratic rivalries mean there is no cooperation, no resolution and no improvement. In addition to intra-government conflict and red tape, the absurdly low rates for water usage has compounded the gravity of the situation.

Under-pricing water has been a major source of this growing problem. Chinese water prices do not reflect scarcity: they are 70-80 percent below prices in countries with adequate water per capita. Most consumers of water were not charged for their usage until 1985. Because of this, very few corporations or farms were compelled to invest in treatment and recycling technology or be concerned over wasteful irrigation practices. As a result, there is no infrastructure for conservation or social conditioning to promote careful water consumption. Over the past 20 years, since water has become a commodity, prices have risen very slowly and remain among the world’s lowest. Most Chinese water is purchased at close to 40 percent below cost. City officials in Beijing are wary about going ahead with plans to increase costs to the break-even point of six yuan (72 cents) per cubic meter. Across the country, prices are set at different levels for different types of users, all still woefully under priced, by a mishmash of regional and central bureaucracies, all leery of hindering economic growth. Water for agriculture, which comprises three quarters of the total volume used, is priced at .03 yuan (40 cents) per cubic meter according to the World Bank.

With its present pricing scheme, experts claim China cannot afford to clean up its pollution and specifically, its ever dwindling water supply. In many minds, China is committing a kind of ‘ecological suicide’ by maintaining current prices. John McAlister, co-founder of AquaBioTronic, a water recycling firm, recommends increasing rates to 20-40 yuan per cubic meter. He argues that foreigners should take the lead in arguing for such increases if they hope to continue to benefit from China’s economic boom. McAlister has largely failed to convince foreign firms of the urgency of China’s impending water crisis. He has also had difficulties persuading Chinese firms to invest in his technology, which purports to recycle waste water into reusable industrial water, ‘turning pollution into profits.’

The Chinese government fears that dramatic, albeit badly needed raises in water prices may cause social instability. But what is unrest over higher rates compared to people fighting each other to just to get water at all? Ma Jun, author of “China’s Water Crisis,” believes most people could afford water at a realistic price, and they would use the resource more prudently and efficiently if it came at a higher cost. Due to scarcity, water prices in China will inevitably and necessarily rise between 500-5000 percent over the next ten years, when and if water is actually still available.

The Yellow River, the second longest river in China, rises in the Kunlun Mountains of western China and flows generally eastward for 3000 miles (4830 km) before emptying into the Gulf of Bohai (left center, bottom center of the image). The Gulf of Bohai is an arm of the Yellow Sea. In this south-looking view the sediment plume from the Yellow River, considered to be one of the most silt-laden rivers in the world, can be seen entering the gulf. Each year, the Yellow River discharges over one billion tons of sediment into the gulf. The delta is being extended steadily at a rate of one mile (1.6 km) a year adding roughly 14 sq. miles (40 sq. km) of land in the process. Large-scale construction of dams and reservoir systems for flood control and power production was begun along the middle and lower courses of the river in 1955. Midway between the center and right center of the image is China’s second largest oilfield, the Shengli Oilfield
Photo from NASA’s Earth Observatory

In terms of the economy and China’s anticipated explosion of growth, this outcome may be seriously influenced and hindered by the scarcity of the resource. In northern China, a region that produces 45 percent of the country’s economic output and is home to 40 percent of its population, the annual renewable per capita water supply falls 50 percent below the United Nations-defined danger threshold for minimum social and economic stability. China uses about 7-15 times more water to produce a unit of GDP than developed economies, with one ton of water producing only $2-3 of GDP, compared with the United States, where one ton nets about $28-30 worth of GDP. This highly inefficient water usage is taking a major toll on China’s industries.

The reduction of flows on China’s largest rivers from water shortages have forced hydroelectric power plants to shrink desperately needed power output. Additionally, many of the country’s smelters, paper mills and petrochemical plants can no longer expect the huge amounts of water they require for operation. Experts predict that water supply interruptions may occur in six industries that account for approximately two thirds of all industrial water demand: electric power, iron and steel, petroleum production and refining, chemicals, paper making and textile dyeing. In conjunction with water supply interruptions, electric power is likely to be limited, as water is essential for both the cleaning of dirty coal to minimize air pollution and to operate boilers to generate power. This will surely have a far-reaching economic impact as investment projects almost anywhere in China will risk brownouts and interruptions during 2005.

Another significant source of problems compounding the water crisis is drought. Increasing in both frequency and duration, China has been hit hard in the past decade. Droughts once relegated almost exclusively to northern China are now becoming more common in the once lush south. In the traditionally prosperous southern Guangdong province for example, which is home to 110 million people, there was a 40 percent drop in rainfall this year. 2000 proved to be one of the worst years in decades in terms of drought. Beijing was hit be 11 sandstorms in that year, a telling and sobering sign of encroaching and increasing desertification. In Guangdong, 74 reservoirs have dried up and rivers have been reduced to trickles. There was more than a 10 percent decline in that year’s grain yield because of the droughts.

Wang Sucheng, the Minister of Water Resources, warns that China is headed for its seventh consecutive year of drought in the North China Plain, making this the longest period of drought on record since the founding of the People’s Republic. With dearth of water, already scarce availability is going to decline further due to an expected rainfall of only about 15 inches in 2005, an amount similar to the past six years. This precipitation level is almost 50 percent below the average for the previous decades of 21-31 inches annually. And unfortunately, this much needed rain will likely fall in a brief, intense period between June and September, resulting in flooding and only adding more hardship to a water-strapped and struggling region.

Since China’s mineral resources and arable land are concentrated where water is scarce, it seems difficult to find a compromise between conserving water and producing an adequate amount of agriculture. More than 60 percent of all China’s water goes to agriculture and as much as 75 percent of northern China’s crop production is reportedly based on irrigation. Farmers in the chronically dry northern and western regions of China, including Ningxia, Gansu and Inner Mongolia, are drawing far more than their fair share of water from the Yellow River for climatically inappropriate and thirsty crops. Practical schemes have been proposed to alleviate the water demand including growing timber instead of grain near the upper reaches of the river. Participating farmers in one such scheme were compensated with cash and a supply of grain while the trees developed over the first five years, but local authorities opposed the plan after having to shoulder some of the financial burden of compensation.

Pollution is another huge problem contributing to the larger crisis at hand. Over half of China’s population, about 700 million people and 11 percent of the world’s, only have access to drinking water of a quality below World Health Organization standards (WHO). The water is contaminated by a combination of industrial pollution and human and animal waste. The lack of clean water for animals creates the threat of disease as livestock take in all types of pollutants and microbes. Disease is likely to pass from poultry to pigs to humans, and ultimately, the threat of Avian Bird Flu and similar diseases becomes very grave. WHO warns of the high risk of a global pandemic that is not a question of if but of when.

In late July of 2004, a mysterious black and brown plume of toxic matter over 80 miles long swept along the Huai River, one of China’s seven major rivers, and killed millions of fish and devastated wildlife. There were differing explanations for the disaster, the two leading reasons being that either too much water had been taken from the river system and the Huai River had lost its ability to clean itself, or that numerous factories had dumped untreated waste directly into the water and the levels of toxicity had accumulated to an critical point. According to SEPA, more than 70 percent of China’s lakes and five of China’s seven largest river systems are polluted enough to be unsuitable for human contact.

In Shangba, located in northern Guangdong, pollution in the local water supply is so bad that the small towns in the region are known as ‘cancer villages’ by locals. A large mineral mine owned by the provincial government and several other small mines have been spewing toxic waste into local rivers and raising lead levels to 44 times permitted rates. Water in area streams is rust-colored and water drawn from local sources has been known to corrode the metal of teapots. Poisons from the mines are also destroying local crops, which require clean water for irrigation. Rice yields in this region are one third that of the national average and no one wants to buy the crop. The solution to nearly all of Shangba’s problems would be a reservoir, but that idea was abandoned after various tiers of government bickered over the 8.4 million yuan cost.

Human waste is its own serious form of pollution and economic liability for the country. China has a daily sewage creation rate of close to 3.7 billion tons. The country would need 10,000 waste water treatment plants at a cost of $48 billion to achieve even a 50 percent treatment rate, according to Frost and Sullivan, a water consulting firm. With increasing urban populations, the problem of handling household waste is becoming more severe. Of the 168 million tons of solid waste that China produces annually, only 20 percent is properly disposed of.

The commonality between all water-saving initiatives is the significant amount of money required to implement any of them. Severe pollution contaminates the potable water supply, but treatment equipment is expensive. Likewise, traditional irrigation methods can be adjusted and improved to increase efficiency, but the best equipment still needs to be imported. The costs should not be ignored however, because the cost of not taking action and not putting conservation measures into place will be significantly higher down the road. The World Bank has concluded that pollution is costing the country 8-12 percent of its 1.4 billion GDP in direct damage annually and the water issue is a large part of this.

The Chinese Academy of Engineering predicts that the amount of water available per person per year will drop to 1760 cubic meters by 2030. With a swelling population and economy requiring more and more water, China’s water needs will soon likely hit the limits of what is available. How the country’s government officials and citizens alike will respond is unknown. Many argue that rational pricing of water and recycling for reuse can help avert catastrophe. People are aware of what needs to be done, but whether it gets done remains an unanswerable question.

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