China's growing water crisis
China said that more than 24 million people were short of drinking water in 2010 because of a crippling drought, the worst to hit the country in a century. (Getty Images)
August 10th, 2011
03:45 PM ET

China's growing water crisis

Editor's Note: The following is reprinted with the permission of World Politics Review. For more from WPR, sign up for a free trial of their subscription service, get their weekly e-mail, or follow them on Twitter.

By Elizabeth Economy, World Politics Review

What is the biggest challenge that China faces?

Corruption, the gap between the rich and poor, and the rapidly aging population often top the list of answers to this question.

Yet a closer look suggests that the greatest threat may well be lack of access to clean water. From "cancer villages" to violent protests to rising food prices, diminishing water supplies are exerting a profound and harmful effect on the Chinese people as well as on the country's capacity to continue to prosper economically.

While much of the challenge remains within China, spillover effects - such as the rerouting of transnational rivers and a push to acquire arable land abroad - are also being felt well outside the country's borders.

China's leaders have acknowledged the severity of the challenge and have adopted a number of policies to address their growing crisis. However, their efforts have fallen woefully short, as they fail to include the fundamental reforms necessary to turn the situation around. Meanwhile domestic pressures, as well as international concerns, continue to mount.

Development Run Amok

China's water story begins with a challenging reality: The country's per capita water resources just exceeded more than one-quarter that of the world average, and the distribution of those resources throughout the country is highly uneven.

Northern China is home to approximately 40 percent of the country's total population and almost half its agricultural land, and produces more than 50 percent of GDP. But it receives only 12 percent of total precipitation. Southern China, in contrast, receives 80 percent of China's total precipitation, yet skyrocketing levels of water pollution dramatically reduce the south's natural advantage.

The spectacular economic growth that has made China the envy of the world has only exacerbated the challenge. Resources, particularly water, are consumed without consideration for future demand. Industry and agriculture are notoriously profligate water consumers: Industry, which accounts for about one-quarter of China's total water consumption, uses anywhere from four to 10 times more water per unit of GDP as other competitive economies.

Water used for energy is a singularly important drain on China's scarce resources. By far, the largest portion of China's industrial water use is devoted to energy: The process of mining, processing and consuming coal alone accounts for almost 20 percent of all water consumed nationally.

Hydropower raises the bar even further. Already the largest producer of hydropower in the world, China plans to triple hydropower capacity by 2020. According to Ma Jun, the director of the Chinese NGO Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, many Chinese rivers simply won't be running in 2020 if China meets its hydropower capacity goals.

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Agriculture, which accounts for 62 percent of China's total water consumption, also takes a serious toll on China's water supply. Almost two-thirds of China's arable land lies in the perennially dry north, and irrigation practices in China continue to be inefficient, with less than half of the water used for irrigation actually reaching crops.

Even municipalities suffer from serious water wastage: About 20 percent of urban water consumption is lost through leaky pipes. China's goal of urbanizing 400 million people by 2030 means that the water challenge will likely only increase. Urban, middle class residents - with water-consuming appliances, homes with lawns to water and a fondness for golf courses - use 300 percent more water than their rural counterparts.

China's widespread pollution adds another dimension to the country's water crisis. More than 90 percent of southern China's water withdrawal comes from surface water, but in the first half of 2010, almost a quarter of China's surface water was so polluted that it was not even usable for industry, and less than half of the total supplies of water were found to be drinkable. For decades, factories and municipalities have dumped untreated waste directly into streams, rivers and coastal waters.

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The Shifting Landscape

China's economic growth, inefficiencies and wastage in water usage are transforming the geography and resource base of the country. First, the sheer amount of available water is declining. During the period from 2000 to 2009, the amount of accessible water in China decreased by 13 percent. By 2030, the Ministry of Water Resources anticipates that per capita water resources will decline below the World Bank's scarcity levels. Northern China reports some of the highest rates of water loss in the world.

Moreover, according to China's Minister of Water Resources Chen Lei, two-thirds of Chinese cities face increased scarcity of water, and overall the country confronts a water shortage of 40 billion cubic meters annually. In rural China, 320 million people - one-quarter of China's total population - don't have access to safe drinking water.

Second, the country is sinking. The extensive contamination of surface water has forced the Chinese to increase their exploitation of groundwater, leading to groundwater depletion and a dramatic drop in the ground water tables: 100 to 300 meters in Beijing, and up to 90 meters in other parts of China.

In Beijing, land subsidence resulting from this groundwater depletion has destroyed factories, buildings and underground pipelines. Saltwater intrusion as well as pollution is further compromising the diminishing groundwater supplies: Of the 182 cities with monitored groundwater in 2010, more than half registered "poor" to "extremely poor" in water quality. Even China's Ministry of Environmental Protection was forced to acknowledge, "It is not easy to be optimistic about the quality" of the groundwater.

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Finally, desertification is advancing. While the south is often faced with catastrophic floods, desertification of the north has become widespread: One Chinese official estimated that it would take 300 years to reverse the desertification of lands that has already taken place - the majority in areas bordering the North's Gobi Desert - due to overexploitation of environmental resources. Even as local officials fight to reverse the trend, the desert continues to expand at a rate of more than 1,060 square miles per year.

The Hidden Costs

What really concerns China's leaders, however, are the social, economic and political impacts of this growing scarcity. As China's Minister for the Environment Zhou Shengxian suggested on his agency's website, "The depletion, deterioration and exhaustion of resources and the worsening ecological environment have become bottlenecks and grave impediments to the nation's economic and social development."

For the Chinese people, the failure of local officials and factory managers to enforce environmental regulations translates into serious public health concerns, crop loss, poisoned fish and livestock, and a lack of water to run factories. For Chinese officials, the failure to protect the environment and provide adequate and safe water to their people is one of the chief causes of social unrest in the country and perhaps their greatest policy concern.

Read more at World Politics Review.

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Topics: China • Water

soundoff (193 Responses)
  1. Tony

    As human growth begins to increase at a phenomenal rate with people living carefree lives, food and water will be getting scarce all around the world. Only the strong will survive as they say. We have too many problems just to be sitting there partying, surfing the net, having fun, giving money to charities or watching TV (I'm guilty myself). We're going to be hit from all directions when it comes to food/water shortages, incurable diseases, chaos/conflicts, environment issues, major debts, and the likes. The great human apocalypse will be in our history books. Where once a great spiritual civilization emerged and was gone like the wind were all souls return to their master. If you haven't made a list of what you wanted to do before you die. Now is the time. 🙂

    August 12, 2011 at 11:51 pm | Reply
  2. Ed Elefante

    Health is the greatest gift, contentment the greatest wealth, faithfulness the best relationship. Buddha

    August 13, 2011 at 12:44 am | Reply
    • Bill Rich

      Since Chinese can make money by contaminating their food and water, you can't argue against money.

      August 13, 2011 at 11:08 am | Reply
  3. daliya robson

    Please stop having children -the workld is over populated.,

    August 13, 2011 at 1:57 am | Reply
    • Bill Rich

      It is not over populated where I am. Total fertility rate is about 1.5 (You need 2.1 to replace current population). We are exporting food all over the world, and we have water. Clean potable water everywhere. Trees, lawn are green. There's too many apples on my tree this year. Wonderful....

      August 13, 2011 at 11:06 am | Reply
  4. Zeek

    we live in Rio de Janeiro, the land of sun & happiness, friendly people, wonderful landscapes but many foreigners are buying Brazilian water companies, the price is getting too expensive...doesn't ring any bell? Are they doing the same in Africa or other countries?

    August 13, 2011 at 2:16 am | Reply
  5. Kyle H Davis

    It all comes down to mismanagement through the Oligarchy's series of Five Year Plans. – Development should be more natural than that. – Instead of focusing on development for the sake of development, the government has such an inferiority complex that its aim is to try to develop as fast as it can, so that it can surpass that of the current developed world.

    I see the results here every day. It is a complete and utter mess.

    August 13, 2011 at 2:42 am | Reply
  6. Ken Spud

    So many of the comments on this article (near 100%) either blindly attack the Chinese, or blindly attack others who are just as "bad" as China, but wholly (near 100%) fail to address the problem. Lu Xun, the most revered writer and philosopher of the late 1800's and the early 1900's was then already addressing the "loss" of the Yellow River, the cradle of Chinese Civilization. He knew than the the life blood of a nation was being abused and wasted.

    All of the Chinnese I know here in China (quire a few) know of this crisis. In truth, the world (news media) knows fully well the extent of the economic crisis (and a few hundred other crisis') but they would quickly pale into insignificance when compared to the crisis of pollution and scaricity of water resources in the world. if the news media would be more respnsible to there readers than they are to their advertisers.

    I empathize with those in China who belatedly accuse the exploiters from the West for their pollution because the West has taken advantage of the failure of China's leaders to make even a token effort to balance growth with environmental degradation, but that is a little 先见之明 (hindsight).

    This is a world problem. Assuming arguendo that the statistics in this article are true, I can assure you that 500,000,000 Chinese will not sit back idylly and die of thirst. The countries surrounding China need toi face this reality, and the countries surrounding the countries which surround China will have to wake up too. As a token start i make the following suggestion. Close the 60 golf courses in Beijing until they can get enough water from the heavens to irrigate them. That will give the 15 to 20 million peoples living (a liberal definition) there and extra 24,000 tons of water every day.

    I am not joking, yet I realize that with the plans to take the water from the upper reaches of the Yangtze, which feeds the Three Georges, and ship it to the Yellow River; and the plan to take the fresh water from the Hanjiang River which feeds the middle reaches of the Yangtze and ship it to Beijing; and the plan to take the water from the lower reaches of the Yangtze and ship it to Tianjin, that the net result will not be water conservation, but just more golf courses.

    I would suggest that we drink more Coke or 王老吉, but those products require water too, don't thay?

    August 13, 2011 at 3:25 am | Reply
  7. Zoosphere

    This is something we need to think about.

    August 13, 2011 at 8:23 am | Reply
  8. Bill Rich

    China is strong. China is the best. China will overtake US even in water supply and water management. US people don't even have water to drink in most places, while Chinese have as much to drink as they want. Whether you believe that or not, I believe. It is a miracle.

    August 13, 2011 at 11:03 am | Reply
  9. Rodrigo L.

    I thought this could happen.

    August 13, 2011 at 4:56 pm | Reply
  10. history99

    (China's growing water crisis)

    There are lots of data are incorrect and exaggerated in this article. The north and south conception and data on geography for China is also quite wrong

    Indeed, between March and June of 2011 that is the droughtiest time for Mainland China in 60 years, but now is OK.

    However, many dams could be constructed; and many lakes could be improved in Mainland China. Now Singapore has best technology on converting seawater to freshwater; currently 10% using water for Singapore is from the seawater. Today China is also researching this technology.

    August 14, 2011 at 9:46 am | Reply
  11. history99

    The primary prosperous places of China's are at southeast coastal cities; the drought has not serious influence on this area.

    The corrupt US government spends too much, thus the US is approaching to bankrupt, it is a serious crisis; but China's finance is firm.

    Per person green house emission that the US citizen is three times than Mainland Chinese; the US should improve the pollution.

    China's trade and finance both have surpassed the US. China's GDP, military and technology will surpass the US in near future. China could cope water question certainly.

    August 14, 2011 at 9:51 am | Reply

    It's China...let the Chinese feel free to destroy it. Population control. 🙂

    August 14, 2011 at 10:59 am | Reply
  13. Korath

    Unlikely that China will run into a trap like this. These figures are an indication that they are already researching. They have proved beyond that they have a more robust system than the rest of the world. In comparison to democracies with similar per capita income, China is certainly better off. It is also in the interest of US that they come out successful.. otherwise.. who is going to donate so much of money to the world's largest debtor?

    August 15, 2011 at 4:10 am | Reply
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