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How China Is Dealing With Its Water Crisis

Recently I traveled to Southeast Yunnan in China to see the spectacular Yuan Yang rice terraces, flooded and ready for spring planting. Rice is a very water-hungry crop and China is the world’s largest producer of rice and grain. Yet China is facing a perilous water crisis.

China becomes drier each year—its freshwater reserves declined 13% between 2000 and 2009. Severe droughts occurred in 2000, 2007 and 2009. Normally the southern regions receive 80% of China’s rainfall and snowmelt, about 79 inches a year, while the north and west get 20%, 8 to 16 inches.

Photo credit: Toby Simkin

This winter, Beijing and the northern and eastern provinces had the worst drought in 60 years. It has left 2.57 million people and 2.79 million heads of livestock short of water, and affected 12.75 million acres of wheat fields, which sent global food prices soaring. South China experienced 50% less rainfall than normal, resulting in the drying up of rivers and reservoirs. While torrential rainfall fell on the south this week, northern regions are still suffering from drought.

China’s per capita availability of water is 1/3 the world’s average, and in the dry north where most of the grain and vegetables are grown, per capita availability is only 1/4 of that in the south. Over 300 million people in rural areas have no access to safe drinking water and 54% of China’s main rivers contain water unfit for human consumption.


Drought in southwest China. Photo credit: Bert van Dijk

The water crisis is due to a number of interlinked factors. Climate change is speeding up the melting of glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau, which is affecting the Yangtze, Mekong and Indus Rivers. Warming temperatures and changing precipitation patterns are causing droughts and increasing desertification. According to World on the Edge by Lester Brown, over the last 50 years, 24,000 villages in north and west China were abandoned because of desertification, and the advancing Gobi Desert is now only 150 miles from Beijing.

Water pollution has increased over the last three decades, penetrating coastal and inland water bodies, and both surface and groundwater. Rivers and lakes polluted by industrial wastewater discharge, untreated sewage, and agricultural runoff force people to draw on groundwater, which results in falling water tables and the drying up of wells, wetlands, and lakes. As groundwater is pumped faster than it can be recharged, wells must be dug deeper, raising the risks for saltwater intrusion and land subsidence. In 2005, 36.3% of north China’s water supply was taken from groundwater, and 90% of urban groundwater was reported to be polluted.

Waste and inefficiency also contribute to the water shortage according to a 2009 World Bank report on China’s water scarcity which found that only 45% of the water withdrawn for agriculture actually gets used by the crops.  In addition, the water recycling rate for industry (which accounts for 24% of China’s water consumption) is only 40%, compared to 75% to 85% in developed countries.

China’s population of 1.3 billion, almost half of which is urban, is expected to reach 1.45 billion by 2020. National water consumption will go from 599 billion cubic meters (158 trillion gallons) to 630 billion cubic meters by 2020. By then, 57% of the population will live in cities, and by 2030, 70% will be urban dwellers—who consume three times as much water and energy as rural residents.

So not only must China deal with a drying climate and the water needs of a fast-growing urban populace, it must also satisfy the increased demands for energy—and energy production requires water. By 2020, electricity generating capacity is expected to double to 1,900 gigawatts, and despite the country’s significant investments in renewable energy, more than one-fourth of the added electricity will still have to come from coal, which today provides 70% of China’s energy.

Coal mine in Inner Mongolia. Photo credit: Wolfiewolf

Coal mining, processing, combustion and coal-to-chemical industries are responsible for 22% of the nation’s total water consumption, second only to agriculture. In the future, China’s new coal-to-liquid fuel plants that make diesel fuel and water-intensive coal-to-chemical plants that produce pharmaceuticals, pesticides, fertilizer, plastics, etc. will only multiply. By 2020, the coal sector will be responsible for 27% of China’s total water consumption, with an estimated 34 billion cubic meters of water per year used by coal-fired power plants alone. The problem is that most of this additional water will be needed in the arid northern and western provinces of Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Shanxi and Ningxia where China’s vast coal reserves lie. But between 2004 and 2009, Inner Mongolia lost 46.8 million cubic meters of fresh water and Xinjiang lost 95.5 million cubic meters.

In an interview with Circle of Blue, a nonprofit that reports on the global water crisis, Ma Jun, Director of the Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs, and author of China’s Water Crisis, warned that if China does not resolve this water-energy dilemma, it could have serious repercussions for the country’s biodiversity, public health, social stability, energy security, and even global relations.

China’s leaders know that water scarcity is a huge problem, and are tackling it on a number of fronts.  One solution is a plan to quadruple the country’s capacity to desalinate seawater over the next decade. Today China can desalinate 600,000 tons of water a day, but it aims to produce 2.5 to 3 million tons of desalinated water a day by 2020, mainly for use in the dry northern areas. However, desalination is expensive and requires energy, which, in turn, involves more water.


Construction of the SNWDP. Photo credit: Bert van Dijk

To meet the water and energy demands of urban centers, industry, and agriculture in the northern and western provinces, China is building the $62 billion South-to-North Water Diversion Project (SNWDP), the largest such project ever attempted. When completed in 2050, it will link the Yangtze, Yellow, Huaihe and Haihe rivers, and divert 44.8 billion cubic meters of water yearly from southern rivers to the arid north. The SNWDP will consist of three routes. The eastern route, begun in December 2002, will transfer 14.8 billion cubic meters of water yearly from the lower Yangtze, via the ancient 1800-kilometer Hangzhou to Beijing canal, to Jiangsu, Anhui, Shandong and Hebei provinces and the city of Tianjin. It is expected to be completed in 2013.  The central route, begun in December 2003, will operate on gravity alone and divert 13 billion cubic meters of water each year from the Danjiangkou Reservoir on the Han River (a Yangtze tributary) to Beijing, Tianjin and other cities. It’s scheduled for completion in 2014. The ambitious and controversial western route will transfer water from three Yangtze tributaries across the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau through the Bayankala Mountains into northwest China. Designed to replenish the flows of the Yellow River for irrigation, it has not yet been given the official go-ahead.

Economists, environmentalists, academics and other critics have raised concerns about the SNWDP, fearing that water from the lower Yangtze for the eastern route will remain too polluted to use even after passing through numerous water treatment plants that are planned, and that further industrialization along the routes could pollute diverted water.  Because the south of China is also becoming drier, some worry that the southern provinces just do not have enough water to spare. And there are also concerns about the displacement of people, and the destruction of pasture and antiquities.

Of the SNWDP, Ma Jun said, “this extra volume will only delay the coming of the crisis a little bit. It will not really resolve the whole problem…it cannot fill out even the current, existing gap, let alone that much bigger gap in the future, unless we do something very, very different in our water governance.”

The Chinese leadership is trying not only to increase water supply, but also to curb demand through conservation and efficiency measures, and it’s committed to spending $612.23 billion on water conservation over the next 10 years. Since 1998, China has taken 21 million acres of farmland out of production, and required farmers to use more water conserving irrigation practices, reducing the water consumption of agriculture from 83% in 1990 to 60% in 2010.


Plastic sheeting on fields. Photo credit: Renee Cho

In a pilot program I saw in action throughout southwest China, farmers place plastic sheeting around crops, which collects rainwater that flows into the land and minimizes water loss.

Industry is conserving water through a progressive new system of water rights transfers in arid Inner Mongolia and Ningxia: The coal industry pays farmers for irrigation upgrades that save water which it can then use. State-of-the-art coal plants are producing more electricity and using less water, while coal mines in Inner Mongolia and Shanxi Province are consolidating in order to use water more efficiently. Proposed industrial plants have to prove there is enough water available for them to operate before construction begins, and once approved, must recycle their water. New buildings in big cities like Beijing are outfitted with plumbing systems that recycle water for washing clothes and flushing toilets.

China is also investing heavily in water-saving renewables such as wind, solar, and seawater-cooled nuclear power, and expects that their generating capacity will go from 53 gigawatts in 2010 to 230 gigawatts in 2020. New solar, wind and nuclear plants will replace 100 coal plants, conserving 3.5 billion cubic meters of water per year.

On March 14, 2011, China released its 12th Five-year Plan. “With the 12th Five-Year Plan, China is adopting its most stringent water resource policies to date,” said Wang Hao, director of the Water Resources Department at the China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research. The plan calls for a 30% reduction in water use for every dollar of industrial output, aims to reduce water pollution by 8% by 2015, and puts a limit on total water use in the Yellow River Basin.

Will these commitments and long-range plans be enough to solve China’s water crisis?  The World Bank report stressed that China also needs to strengthen law enforcement, streamline and coordinate water management institutions, and establish clear water rights and penalties. It recommended the use of water trading rights and water pricing to manage demand, and suggested making more information available to the public to increase public involvement.

Despite the daunting challenges, the World Bank expressed confidence in China’s ability to meet them. “The Chinese, who have demonstrated immense innovative capacity in their successful program of economic reform, can and should take another bold move in reforming the institutional and policy framework to make it become a world leader in water resource management.”

Columbia Water Center demonstrates research-based solutions to global freshwater scarcity.  Follow Columbia Water Center on Facebook and Twitter

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10 years ago

Excellent article. Will other countries follow China? Also Israel’s judicious utilisation of water resources is remarkable.
Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

Ephrem Whingwiri
7 years ago

What is the potential of recycling gray and black water using earthworms in vermifiltration

6 years ago

it didn’t provide any info on HOW it was saving water

sarah lavinski
6 years ago

Conservation water for irrigation practices to reduce water consumption is a good step but I guess it’s still not enough.

4 years ago

yes this is pretty good but i want to know what chinas doing about it in the PRESENT not what there thinking about doing in the FUTURE i want to know how there coping and their strategies.

1 year ago

How do they save the water?

Jagdish dhall
Jagdish dhall
1 year ago

From the plan, the sources of water flow are in central highlands. The water management should add retention of water as high as feasible even if it marginally reduces the Hydroelectric power.
There is always some water vapour in atmosphere and it can be recovered , though on a small scale.

9 months ago

It didn’t tell me how to stop industry in chinas water scarcity