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.

Read: In China, poor management is the biggest threat to the Communist Party's domestic credibility.

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.

Read: China's local debt problem needs politics, not economic solutions.

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.

Read: China, Taiwan warming to military cooperation in the South China Sea?

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. materialism

    the communist party in china forgot the dream of communism.

    August 11, 2011 at 2:47 pm | Reply
  2. materialism

    example these battery factories or high tech factories are polluting the environment and causing cancerous toxic chemicals in the environment that cause cancer in villages and there is nothing the citizens can do about it because the company is state owned or owned by some company that is can do whatever it wants. all this to make profit.

    August 11, 2011 at 2:53 pm | Reply
  3. materialism

    water wells and rivers polluted by factories emmitting cancerous toxi chemicals and there is nothing the averag joe six pack cand do and protest about. since the factories who pollute the enviroment is owned by the gov't or foreign corporations who aren't liable to environmental damages. or damage to people's health.

    August 11, 2011 at 2:56 pm | Reply
  4. materialism

    this is why capitalism that isn't regulated is 'evil'

    August 11, 2011 at 2:56 pm | Reply
  5. sergentpeppa

    The communists are godless people – they do not believe in an universal creator, the law of karma or the hereafter. They are immoral, full of lie and deceit. China can never be a great nation. Too much greed and oppression will finish it off from within.

    August 11, 2011 at 3:31 pm | Reply
    • AjaxSeaDog9er9er

      Yeah! It appears that the Christians in America are worst. They killed using god's name for their suck-a$$ crime. And the biggest hell bent organization is the Southern Baptist Yahoos (aka KKK, tea-nut huggers, and the republican party).

      August 11, 2011 at 9:45 pm | Reply
  6. notborncynical

    Most of the world is in a financial crisis with governments deep in debt and many countries are facing water problems, not just China. I have heard experts warn that large portions of the US are running shorter on water every day. The whole world is definitely going to hell in a handbasket and I don't think there's any way to escape it.

    August 11, 2011 at 3:36 pm | Reply
  7. notborncynical

    Hey Sergentpeppa, are you describing China or the US? Alot of similarities. Especially the greed part.

    August 11, 2011 at 3:39 pm | Reply
    • sergentpeppa

      Controlled greed is good – it fosters progress. Problem with china's greed is it is uncontrollable fueled with corruption. You are very naive trying to equate a democracy like the United States with china and find a lot of similarities. Looks like there is no rule of law in china – no pollution control, no human rights – nothing and the top communist party officials are all corrupt. They have not only annexed Tibet but have a history of bullying their neighbors. They have the maximum number of border disputes ( border lands they claim as their own ) than any other countries in the world.

      August 11, 2011 at 4:30 pm | Reply
      • Julie in Austin

        Slave labor, rampant pollution, disrespect for the Rule of Law, no human rights - that's either China or what the Republican Party wants to have happen in the US.

        August 12, 2011 at 8:08 am |
  8. Samuel Clemens

    Nuke the little yellow man until that portion of the asian continent drips into the pacific.

    August 11, 2011 at 3:40 pm | Reply
    • FreeTibet

      Those "Yellow" you are refering to also has enough nukes to blow U.S. back to stone age. .

      August 12, 2011 at 11:11 am | Reply
      • Maersk

        You are FreeToBeg those "Yellow" to let you munch on their kwok, but for the time being, focus on munching on your uncle's first since he is paying 50 cents.

        By the way, Richard Gerbil Gere has a gerbil for you if you join his FreeToBeg organization along with Mia FartLow, and Sharon Stoned.

        August 12, 2011 at 11:26 am |
    • Maersk

      What about the Trash that drifted across the Atlantic and is white in color?

      August 12, 2011 at 11:17 am | Reply
  9. Voltairine

    "China's growing water crisis": All of those extra heavy metals left over from making childcare products can really make a mess out of the water system.

    August 11, 2011 at 3:42 pm | Reply
  10. lansaa

    Companies that specialize in water purification and infrastructure in China will be the biggest winners in the coming years. This article proves it. Look at a company like Tritech (TRIT) as an investment, as they will be the primary beneficiary of these problems.

    August 11, 2011 at 3:45 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      I agree! Water purification will make a thriving industry!

      August 12, 2011 at 8:22 am | Reply
  11. fiskenmann

    "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."

    Wow, who else does that sound like?

    August 11, 2011 at 4:19 pm | Reply
  12. Blogson

    Interesting article. Regarding industrial pollution of water supplies China is facing the same sort of problem as the Soviet Union did. It is a product of rapid industrialisation without paying attention to the consequences. It is fascinating that such unitary governments which theoretically have the power to control problems such as those involving water appear to fail to do so.

    August 11, 2011 at 4:27 pm | Reply
  13. ERIC

    Look at all the comments! It proves that literacy is not all good. You people belong to FOX.

    August 11, 2011 at 5:58 pm | Reply
  14. WM

    How about paying off our debt to China by trading some of our water?

    August 11, 2011 at 6:17 pm | Reply
    • FreeTibet

      We folks living in MIchigan can't wait to become the Saudi Arabia of water and sell you suckas fresh lake water for $4 per gallon. Just wait.

      August 12, 2011 at 11:21 am | Reply
  15. BD70

    This is what will happen in the US if certain politicians get their way. When it comes to money corporations don't care about anything but the profit.

    August 11, 2011 at 6:19 pm | Reply
  16. Triana

    And the Chinese have the nerve to lecture us about our financial problems. Shame on you China.

    August 11, 2011 at 6:20 pm | Reply
    • Maersk

      And you have the nerve to lecture your parents how to make love. Do you realize you could have been flushed down the toilet?

      August 11, 2011 at 10:29 pm | Reply
  17. Not Our Bill And Not Our Problem

    Yet, they can drastically expand their military and provide for all those soldiers. They cast their support where they saw things important, deal with the consequences. Just let them make counterfeit water and poison themselves back to where they belong. We got our own problems to deal with in America and they conveniently put the dental floss over their eyes to that unless they are picking military targets. Good luck China disposing of the corpses with unstable sinking ground turning into a desert of pure sand.

    August 11, 2011 at 6:21 pm | Reply
    • Bill Rich

      Not when you live in countries fed by rivers originated in China. May be that's good enough reason to take control of the river head waters and watershed.

      August 13, 2011 at 1:26 pm | Reply
  18. Guysa

    If you watch CCTV, the Chinese have you believe that China is so wonderful. Ok CCTV lets see how you colour this story or if you even report it.

    August 11, 2011 at 6:23 pm | Reply
    • Bill Rich

      The formula Chinese media will use for this kind of story is to focus on how great the CPC and Chinese government are in dealing with the issues, blame it on the US, focus on similar or other problems in other countries, and bury the story on page 95 or in a 3 second blip 2/3 way into a broadcast with a headlining segment of Hu visiting some country or receiving a mayor from Ethiopia. The concluding remark will be "China has made great advances and will be much better than anyone else on earth."

      August 13, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Reply
  19. ralph

    So wait... you mean that because of their total disregard for their ecology they now face a crisis... but that can't be because in America we are told its stupid to pollute less... I guess maybe higher gas mileage, and less pollution might be a good idea for America. Otherwise...

    August 11, 2011 at 8:26 pm | Reply
    • Bob

      The Chinese are about 100 years behind the US in dealing with pollution issues, and unfortunately they have more people and a communist government that cares much less for their people than anything the US could conceive on the right or left.

      August 12, 2011 at 11:41 am | Reply
  20. R

    Have anyone said something about those technological pirates?

    August 11, 2011 at 8:45 pm | Reply
  21. RGeneration

    Here is a country that is waiting with one single purpose. To take over the rank of superpower when the US collapses both on the military and economic front. I cannot believe that the US thinks it should fight everybody else's war. China on the other hand although militarily powerful will stand aside and watch the US waste away billions, knowing full well that their time of leadership is coming. Its a pity.

    August 11, 2011 at 8:59 pm | Reply
  22. breed

    Please, before we start sending aid to China for water, consider the severe drought our own states are experiencing throughout the midwest and south and west. Nobody is sending us any aid. Or even good wishes, for that matter. However,please remember this is the "breadbasket" of America.

    August 11, 2011 at 9:19 pm | Reply
  23. Bangs_Hot_Chicks

    This will be coming to the united states shortly because the voters keep buying into the republican propaganda "let business thrive."

    We all want business to thrive, but the republicans idea of THRIVE means we need to reduce all environmental regulations, all tax regulations, and anything else the average citizen depends on for survival.

    Just look at the recent oil spills in the rivers. You think that stuff just goes away because the news media stops reporting on it?

    August 11, 2011 at 9:38 pm | Reply
    • Geoffrey Hamilton

      Oil spills really have nothing to do with our water supply, take a look into natural gas drilling, in partcular fracking...

      August 12, 2011 at 10:20 am | Reply
  24. cpc65

    They got billions of gallons behind that damn dam.

    August 11, 2011 at 10:24 pm | Reply
  25. DesuDesu

    DESU DESU When are you clowns in China going to throw off the chains of Communism? Evem the Soviets were smart enough to realize that COMMUNISM DOES NOT WORK! DESU DESU

    August 11, 2011 at 11:14 pm | Reply
  26. SkyKing

    All it takes is money.
    In China.
    In the US.
    That means taxes or fees.
    Think you're Taxed Enough Already?
    Try dying of thirst and starvation instead.
    Take your pick.

    August 11, 2011 at 11:45 pm | Reply
  27. RM

    Instead of trashing China, let us focus on our own problems and try to improve ourselves. China has come a long way in its development and the world should look at it as a model. In the history of this planet, no country has achieved what China has in a very short period. So lets not kid ourselves.

    August 12, 2011 at 5:38 am | Reply
    • Barry G.

      Indeed the entire world is facing a problem with limited and increasingly diminishing amounts of freshwater. This is truly a world problem, and the entire world needs to recognize this and begin taking measures to conserve this vital resource.

      August 12, 2011 at 9:54 am | Reply
  28. Barry G.

    In July, 2000, Harper’s Magazine published an article by Jacques Leslie, "Running Dry: Water Scarcity", which discussed the limited and diminishing amount of freshwater in the world.

    The article was disturbing, but was quite good.

    I suggest that China and the rest of the world take time to read this article.

    August 12, 2011 at 9:50 am | Reply
  29. Barry G.

    To: Maersk, MichaelNC, AjaxSeaDog9er9er:

    I’m confused. Are you saying that you approve of the brutal repression and murder of the thousands of innocent people who died in Tiananmen Square?

    August 12, 2011 at 9:59 am | Reply
    • Maersk

      Of course you are confused because you overdosed on expired viagraa. You can't even decide whether you should open your legs or bend over.

      August 12, 2011 at 10:35 am | Reply
  30. Geoffrey Hamilton

    Environmental responsibility and sustainability are generally a lot cheaper on the front end than as a game of catch-up.

    August 12, 2011 at 10:19 am | Reply
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