This scene from Dujiangyan illustrates traditional harmony of water in the Chinese landscape. Photo: Joshua Bateman.
Joshua Bateman 25th February 2014
One unintended consequence of China’s spectacular economic growth is a growing water shortage, reports Joshua Bateman. As rivers run dry, aquifers sink, climate harshens and pollution spreads, he asks: can China solve its water crisis?
As more water infrastructure projects are built, hundreds of thousands citizens must relocate every year to accommodate the construction.
In a report by the Chinese News Service, Jiao Yong, Vice Minister of Water Resources, said, “China has more than 400 cities short of water, some 110 of which are facing serious scarcity.”
A study by the China’s Ministry of Water Resources found that approximately 55% of China’s 50,000 rivers that existed in the 1990s have … disappeared.
According to Jiang Liping, senior irrigation specialist at the World Bank in Beijing, China is over-exploiting its groundwater by 22 billion cubic meters a year – yet per capita water consumption is less than one third of the global average.
“China faces a severe water scarcity issue in water resources right now and it’s getting more serious because of rampant economic growth … Right now, the economy takes too much water from the environment so the ecological environment has been degraded.”
According to a 2012 joint UNICEF and WHO study, 593 million Chinese have gained access to improved sanitation since 1990. However, even with the increased access to cleaner water, China still faces a significant supply deficit.
As more people migrate to cities and join the middle class, their water consumption increases. With urbanization, the use of toilets, showers, and washing machines increases as does the consumption of nondurable goods such as meat, alcohol, clothes and electronics, all of which require water for production.
The Water Footprint Network reports that Chinese annual per capita water consumption is 1,071 m3. Data from the Ministry of Water Resources show that in 2008, agriculture accounted for 62% of demand, industry for 24%, domestic for 12%, and replenishment for 2%.
However, industry and domestic will drive future demand. According to McKinsey data, in 2030 agriculture demand will account for 51%, industry 32%, and 16% will go towards municipal and domestic uses.
China’s water efficiency is another problem. Industry in China continues to expand and compared to other countries, is highly inefficient. Liping said, “water use efficiency and water productivity in both industry and agriculture are very low.”
According to Andreas Fruschki, Portfolio Manager of the $268 million Allianz Global Water Mutual Fund, “most emerging markets continue to rely on bottled water in plastic or tap water which is not potable and has to be boiled before consumption, which is expensive and inefficient.”
A catalogue of problems
Another challenge China faces is logistics. More than 60% of China’s water is in the southern part of the country, but most of the usage is in the north and coastlines.
As Debra Tan, Head of China Water Risk, a Hong Kong-based non-profit explains, “45% of China’s GDP is derived from water-scarce provinces. It is not easy to grow your economy with limited water and geographical issues beyond your control.”
See also: The Ecologist: China