Where Is All The Water?

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Behind the headlines about China’s phenomenal industrialization and economic growth lie some worrying environmental issues. At the top of the list for 1.3 billion thirsty consumers is water. Or lack of it. So forget “malicious” foreign investment – according to Professor He Shaoling, from the China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research, (via Xinhua), it is China’s water shortage that is “a threat to national security”.

As China faces its worst drought in 50 years, a report by David Stanway of Interfax (h/t to China Review), some of the things everyone should be worrying about are:

    • Per capita water supply is 2,200 cubic meters, one quarter of the world average
    • Useable per capita water supply is just 900 cubic meters
    • In Beijing the per capita supply figure is just 300 cubic meters – a danger level
    • 110 cities face “serious” water shortages
    • Another 500 cities face pollution and depletion of water resources
    • 70 percent of China’ rivers are polluted
    • 300 million people do not have safe drinking water

Directly related health problems include some really shocking figures:

    • Dysentery – 660,000 cases a year
    • Schistosome worm – 870,000 cases
    • Ascariasis intestinal worm – 500 million cases
    • Diarrhoea – 836 million cases

So China has a natural water problem – but that has been exacerbated by rampant industrialization, pollution, deforestation, the development of major hydro-electric projects, and re-routing of water to needy areas. As a result:

    • The Yellow River “routinely fails to reach the eastern coast”.
    • The Yangtze River has slowed (due to the Three Gorges dam) and in some places “almost the entire surface is covered in layers of garbage”. Deforestation has also led to soil erosion and silt build-up.

Competition for water is developing into a major regional and national issue that will pit agriculture against industry, and province against province. One initiative, on a uniquely Chinese scale, is the South-North Water Diversion Project. This RMB500 billion (US$62,5 billion), 50-year project has been on the cards for years, and is meant to even out water supply. However, Stanway suggests that it might just “spread shortages to the south”.

The problems do not stop with water supply. China Daily reports that inefficiency, pollution and lack of treatment facilities are making the problems worse, and that government plans are not having the desired impact.

    “The government has admitted missing two targets in the country’s 10th Five-Year Plan (2001-2005) period: energy costs and pollution curbs. By the end of last year, 278 of China’s 661 cities had no sewage treatment plants….An official report shows Chinese factories use five to ten times more water than the average in developed countries for an equivalent amount of industrial output. In other words, China has relatively little water but wastes what it has.“

As with other state controlled commodities a lack of rational pricing, or effective enforcement of pollution regulations, means that there is little incentive for businesses to invest in more efficient water use and waste disposal. However, it seems that there are plans to raise water prices, and China daily quotes an official as saying:

    “China will raise water prices step by step. ..sewage treatment costs would be included in water prices for all urban homes by the end of the year, leading to a 0.8 yuan rise for a ton of water….Compared with five dollars per ton in the United States and 2.5 euros in France, China’s tap water is very cheap”

The article also notes plans to invest over RMB330 billion (US$41.3 billion) in urban sewage treatment facilities between 2006 and 2010, and I have noted before that there are some good business opportunities for international environmental companies that are fast moving into China.

China sees the need for reform, and is seeking to learn from international experience, and the influential Chinese Vice-Premier, Zeng Peiyan, will be honorary president at the World Water Congress and Exhibition (which will be held in Beijing from September 10 to 14 this year – see more here). Hopefully he will also be able to drive home the need for reform, and to make local governments see that protecting their long-term interests may mean enduring some short-term pain. Ma Jun, the author of a book on China’s water crisis, is quoted on this point by Monsters and Critics:

    “Local officials should be judged not just by how fast their local economies grow but also by how well they protect the environment…Water is the lifeline of a country’s economy…It is time for the government to cope with the realities of declining water stocks and their implications for the whole society.”

China’s economy has already entered a new phase of managed growth and international integration. It is now time for some of the proceeds of that economic growth to be spent on the environment that helped make it all happen. Let’s hope it is not a case of too little, too late.

See news sources

    Not a Drop to Drink
    China Review
    Issue 36

    China to invest 330b yuan in sewage treatment by 2010
    China Daily – China
    BEIJING — China plans to invest more than 330 billion yuan (US$41.3 billion) in sewage treatment facilities in urban areas from 2006 to 2010, a senior …

    Beijing to hold World Water Congress and Exhibition
    BEIJING, Aug. 22 (Xinhua) — The World Water Congress and Exhibition will be held in Beijing from Sept. 10 to 14, focusing on worldwide water issues, a Ministry of Construction senior official announced Tuesday.

    Alarm bells sound as China goes dry
    Monsters and Critics.com, UK – 23 hours ago
    … Ma Jun, the author of a book on China’s water crisis, said government officials must … economies grow but also by how well they protect the environment,’ he said …

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