China’s struggle to access water

Think through the past twenty four hours; how much water did you use? Did you use water to cook and wash dishes; do the laundry? How about brushing your teeth?  Now think of what would happen if you weren’t able to access clean, drinkable water by as easily as turning on the faucet. How would that affect your daily life? This is a very real concern for citizens throughout the world. Looking at China in particular, a growing population and massive urban migration movement has created a country-wide water crisis. Recent figures provided by the World Bank place China’s population at 1.351 billion—the largest in the world. China’s population, alone, makes up 20 percent of the world’s population. However, the country is home to only seven percent of the world’s freshwater, which is unevenly distributed throughout the large country—the fourth largest (by area) behind Russia, Canada, and the United States.

China water

(Source: Washington Post, 2012)

A closer look at the problem?

China’s water crisis is a combination of many different components. The first is geography. Water is a critical resource needed to allow farm lands to grow and thrive. Unfortunately, the majority of China’s farmland is found in the north, while most of the freshwater resources (rivers, lakes, tributaries, etc.) are found in the south. Without water, agricultural outputs suffer as crops and livestock are not able to receive the key resources needed to survive. This in turn negatively impacts local food supplies and global food prices.

Another component is urbanization. China’s current urbanization rate is over 50 percent, meaning more citizens are living in cities than in rural areas. This is the result of massive internal migration, a phenomenon expected to continue. A 2013 United Nations Development report estimates that 310 million more Chinese citizens will migrate to urban cities over the next two decades. This puts an unequal burden on larger cities to address the demands of a growing population. For one, Chinese citizens are living longer and eating more water-intensive food like meat and dairy. In order to satisfy the needs of urban residents, water must be diverted from farmers—those largely responsible for growing the food and livestock that is in heavy demand in cities.

Additionally, as China’s major metropolises continue to grow, the demand for other natural resources, like natural gas, also rises. In the recent global unconventional gas boom, China—home to a significant number of shale reserves—has looked to the United States as a model in extracting this inexpensive natural gas resource. However, they are not able to fully exhaust this resource as there is a heavy reliance on water in the extraction process. William Adams and Damiena Ma, authors of the 2013 book In Line Behind a Billion People: How Scarcity will Define China’s Ascent in the Next Decade, argue that this excessive taping of underground water resources, in response to excessive demand, has left China’s coastal region vulnerable to flooding and tidal surges.

Finally, pollution and a lack of education also play a role. Over the last fifty years, China has lost between 27,000 and 28,000 rivers primarily due to misuse by farms and factories, as well as climate change. Further, there have been frequent incidents in which fresh water resources have been polluted to the point of being “undrinkable.” For example,

  • In 2001, the Huai River Valley was contaminated when heavy rains flushed more than 28 billion gallons of highly polluted water downstream. The river water was filled with garbage, topped with yellow foam, and left hundreds of fish dead.
  • In 2012, the Quxi River in an eastern city of Wenzhou ran white after a latex factory spill, and the Qili River in Zhengzhou ran red after heavy rains washed pollutants into the water.

China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection issued a “Fresh Water Environment” report in 2011 which stated that more than half of China’s largest lakes and reservoirs were contaminated at levels that make them unsuitable for human consumption. Further, three-fifths of China’s 4,727 underground water-quality testing stations found beneath 400 cities were rated “relatively bad” or worse.

What can/is China doing to solve the problem?

A number of both short-term and long-term mechanisms have been put in place to address the increasing water shortage, the most notable of which is the South-to-North Water Diversion Project. Upon completion, this $62 billion engineering effort will transfer nearly six trillion gallons of water each year from the Yangtze River and its tributaries in the south to the dry regions of the north. The eastern route of the project is nearly finished and has already started to draw water from the river and transport it to Dezhou, a city in the northeastern province of Shandong. Once it’s finished, this route will have 912 miles of canals and waterways. Completion on both the eastern route and the middle route continue to face a number of roadblocks due to complications with polluted water and over-budgeted construction costs.

Desalination plants, which take fresh saltwater from coastal regions and process them for consumption are also growing in popularity and support. Just this month, a coastal desalination plant planned for eastern Beijing was proposed. This plant could provide drinking water to the capital region, home of more than 22 million people, by as early as 2019. Officials anticipate that the plant will supply one million tons of fresh water accounting for one-third of the daily water consumption in the city.  This plant would be phase two of a larger desalination effort. Phase one resulted in the construction of a plant located about 200 miles east of Beijing, which produces 50,000 tons of water each day.

Despite physical efforts being done to address the demand for water, critics argue additional focus should be placed on governmental policies targeting consumers and the treatment of water. One thought is to reduce the overall consumption and waste of water by making it more expensive. Currently, water in China is relatively cheap; costing about a tenth of the price of water in Europe.

Another suggestion is to establish greater fines and punishment for polluters. Many of China’s freshwater supply is too dirty to drink, some so poisonous that farmers are not able to use it on their crops. Cutting down on water pollution would not only aid in the efforts of other projects aiming to divert water to the north, but it would contribute to greater health standards and agricultural production.

These of course are not the only efforts being made to combat China’s water shortage; any Google search will produce a handful more. As China’s population continues to boom and urban migration numbers rise, the demand for clean, safe water will only increase. Only time will tell if these new efforts like the South-to-North Diversion project and the desalination plants will have the desired effect.