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Where Is All The Water?

Behind the headlines about China’s phenomenal industrialization and economic growth lie some worrying environmental issues [1]. At the top of the list for 1.3 billion thirsty consumers is water. Or lack of it. So forget “malicious” foreign investment [2] – 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 [3] (h/t to China Review [4]), some of the things everyone should be worrying about are:

Directly related health problems include some really shocking figures:

So China has a natural water problem – but that has been exacerbated by rampant industrialization, pollution [5], deforestation, the development of major hydro-electric projects, and re-routing of water to needy areas. As a result:

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.

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:

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 [6]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 [7]). 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 [8]:

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.

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