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China’s Water Challenges

Haibing Ma | 19 March 2013

The approaches and measures China chooses to address its water challenges could add to future problems.

Water has become one of the most challenging problems in China. Many aspects of these problems can be attributed to economic development. However, the path toward sustainable development under the nation’s current policies would, ironically, not only be unable to solve existing problems, but could create even more problems in the future.

Chinese civilization originated from river regions. The two longest rivers, the Changjiang and Yellow River, helped cultivate one of the world’s great ancient civilizations. Chinese people often refer to them as Mother Rivers. Sadly, the rivers don’t currently seem to be leading the happy life that children should be providing to their aging mothers:  the Yellow River has been experiencing a prolonged dry season since the early 1970s, while the usually water-rich Changjiang River region has also encountered a rare drought, covering most downstream provinces. The shrinking water volume of China’s two most famous rivers has made their residents’ daily life more difficult in recent years.

In fact, water shortage has become a life-threatening issue to most Chinese people. Although the nation’s total water resources, including rainfall and runoff of all its rivers, ranks sixth in the world, its per capita volume only amounts to one fourth of the world average due to its population of 1.3 billion. Of China’s current 34 provincial regions, the water resources in 16 are below the severe shortage level and 6 are under the extremely shortage level.  Besides the scarcity problem, China’s water resources are distributed extremely unevenly, both spatially and temporarily. The northern part of China covers more than 60% of the country’s territory but has less than 20 percent of the nation’s total water resources. For most parts of China, rainfall is concentrated in several consecutive months, which has been causing frequent drought-flood problems. 

And this is what the Chinese government’s domestic management of water resources intends to address. A massive South-to-North Water Diversion Project has been planned since the 1950s and has recently been officially launched with the hope of alleviating part of the water shortage and uneven distribution problem. But questions remain whether this project could effectively and efficiently achieve its intended effect while the whole country is still experiencing high-speed industrial growth. The increased water demand from further industrialization and urbanization could easily overshadow the diverted water resources. 

In addition to the natural limits on water resources, pollution has made China’s water crisis more daunting. According to data from the Ministry of Environmental Protection, more than 70 percent of the country’s inland lakes and water reserves are considered heavily polluted and one-quarter of underground aquifers are deemed polluted, with more than half of urban aquifers heavily polluted.  

There is an old saying in China: it’s better for the doer to undo what he has done. Since most of China’s water problems can be attributed to economic development, which has been focusing on industrialization and urbanization, it seems that the solution could lie in a shift to a smarter growth pattern. The Chinese government has indeed put emphasis on sustainable development in recent years. However, it is still questionable whether China’s current layout of sustainable measures, where the water-energy nexus is at the core, could in practice help solve current water problems. Building an economy based on renewable energies would still consume huge amounts of water resources. For instance, the manufacturing of solar photovoltaic panels is quite water-intensive and, if not managed well, can cause severe water pollution. Sadly, that is already the case in China. 

Moreover, China has set extremely ambitious goals to further explore its hydropower potential, especially from its southwestern region where several major rivers flowing through to other Southeastern Asian countries originate.  This has raised China’s domestic water management issue to the international level, which has already created political tension between China and its neighbors. 

These challenges will not disappear without being properly addressed. Furthermore, the approaches and measures China chooses to address its water challenges could add to future problems. It is good that the Chinese government is aware of all these challenges. We just hope that its future water management policies will be both comprehensive and sustainable in practice.   

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